MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Auburn Tigers have flipped the team’s normal dynamic. A defense that may be the program’s best in the past decade has helped the Tigers overcome an inconsistent offense and return to the national rankings.
It’s a role reversal from No. 23 Auburn’s standard formula since Gus Malzahn’s arrival first as offensive coordinator and then head coach, but it’s working well lately.
Defense has kept the Tigers in every game this season even before a current three-game winning streak. No shootouts needed, either.
“There’s no doubt it changes the way you prepare,” Malzahn said. “Each game’s kind of different within its own self but it’s really great to have a defense that can do what they’ve done so far.”
Auburn (4-2, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) has rebounded from losses to No. 3 Clemson and No. 6 Texas A&M thanks to a defense led by linemen Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson and cornerback Carlton Davis. The group is bolstered by players who came into the season mostly anonymous but have carved out significant roles.
The Tigers are off this week before facing No. 22 Arkansas.
This Auburn defense has outperformed any in recent memory, including the 2010 national championship team and the 2013 runners-up.
The Tigers rank 12th nationally in scoring defense, giving up 16 points a game, a 10-point improvement from last season. They haven’t been better than 48th in scoring defense since finishing 14th nationally in 2008. They were sixth the previous year before beginning a prolonged drop-off.
Auburn has also jumped from 71st in total defense to 29th, giving up 346.8 yards per game.
As expected, the defensive line has been the biggest strength since Adams and Lawson opted against jumping to the NFL after last season. Freshman Marlon Davidson emerged as an instant starter opposite Lawson, redshirt freshman Javaris Davis has taken over at one cornerback spot and linebackers Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams have taken on big defensive roles.
Lawson has five of the Tigers’ nine sacks over the past three games, including a 38-14 win last Saturday at Mississippi State. He’s having a breakout year after missing half of last season and all of 2014 with injuries.
“As talented a D-line as you’re going to see anywhere in the country,” Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said.
Steele inherited a defense with six returning starters after former coordinator Will Muschamp left to become South Carolina’s head coach. Deshaun Davis and Williams have moved from deep on the bench into starting roles. Davis had five tackles last season and Williams didn’t have any; now they have 24 and 23, respectively.
Muschamp, who helped recruit some of the young players, has noticed their impact.
“They’re playing extremely well,” he said. “The defensive line has been dominating.
“They’ve got a bunch of good players up front. Marlon Davidson is a very mature freshman,” Muschamp said, adding coaches felt when they were recruiting Davidson “that he was going to be a guy that could step in and play.”
The defense has done it without significant impacts from last year’s top recruit, defensive end Byron Cowart, and Illinois graduate transfer linebacker T.J. Neal.
Malzahn thinks the defense has built off its strong season-ending performance against Paxton Lynch and Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl.
“The defensive staff really gelled and guys are playing extremely hard for them,” he said. “Our run fits have really been better than they have been in the past and we’ve done a good job of taking away the easy throws in the passing game.”
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