Auburn's encore season under Malzahn doomed by mistakes, poor defensive play late

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The Auburn Tigers couldn't overcome defensive deficiencies or find ways to pull out close games this time.

That doomed the Tigers in Gus Malzahn's second season, sending them tumbling from national title contention and limping to the finish line. The disappointing season ended with a 34-31 overtime loss to Wisconsin in Thursday's Outback Bowl when the Tigers' weak defense was exposed again.

No. 19 Auburn (8-5) dropped its final four games against FBS opponents, allowing at least 31 points in each of them after rising to No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings.

It's a pattern the offensive-minded Malzahn has tried to remedy for a program that made it to the national championship game in his first season. He fired defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson a day after a 55-44 loss to Alabama and then lured ex-Florida head coach Will Muschamp for a three-year deal worth some $1.6 million annually.

"It's a good thing we hired the best defensive coordinator in college football," Malzahn said after the bowl game, "and he'll get it corrected."

He expressed that message multiple times during the postgame news conference. The Tigers made it to the brink of a national title in his first season despite an average defense, often finding dramatic ways to win close games.

This team was more prone to costly turnovers, penalties and other blunders.

"All year we hadn't executed down the stretch the way we did the previous year that got us in the national championship," senior tailback Cameron Artis-Payne said. "That's why we are sitting here with the record that we have currently."

Malzahn's offense remained productive if not as finely tuned as the 2013 group, but the defense was the biggest liability.

Auburn gave up an Outback Bowl-record 251 rushing yards to Wisconsin Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon, who also ran for three touchdowns.

The defense is expected return its three top tacklers, linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy and safety Johnathan Ford. Cornerback Jonathan Jones and defensive tackle Montravius Adams are also back. Both Frost and McKinzy have looked into leaving early for the NFL draft.

The biggest returnee might be defensive end Carl Lawson, whose season-long absence with a knee injury left the Tigers without a consistent pass rusher. Guard Alex Kozan also missed the season after back surgery.

Auburn loses four of its top offensive players, including quarterback Nick Marshall. Artis-Payne's departure forces the Tigers to replace the SEC's leading rusher for the second straight year.

Wide receiver Sammie Coates, who was limited in the bowl game with a knee injury, is skipping his senior season to enter the NFL draft. Rimington Award-winning center Reese Dismukes is also departing.

Malzahn finds reasons to be optimistic for the 2015 season, including the addition of Muschamp. There's also backup quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who has had success in limited action the past two seasons and is more of a dropback passer than Marshall. Leading receiver D'haquille Williams is also returning for his senior season, Malzahn said.

Artis-Payne's successor could either be talented freshman Roc Thomas or highly rated junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, who is already enrolled.

Auburn is still pursuing some top defensive recruits but Malzahn feels he landed a big one in Muschamp.

"We just hired the best defensive coach in college football and he's going to get our defense going 100 percent," Malzahn said. "Offensively, we've got a chance to be really good next year. Our goal next year will be to win the SEC. That's the way it'll be every year. The future is bright. We feel really bad right now, but the future's really bright."

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