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Malzahn, Auburn hoping for strong first impression in opener against Washington St.

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The Auburn Tigers are hoping to make a distinctly better first impression than the one they left fans with last season. (abc3340.com) The Auburn Tigers are hoping to make a distinctly better first impression than the one they left fans with last season. (abc3340.com)

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — The Auburn Tigers are hoping to make a distinctly better first impression than the one they left fans with last season.

The Tigers open the Gus Malzahn coaching era Saturday night against Washington State desperate not only to show they're improved from last year's debacle but that they have better character and chemistry.

"Our effort, our attitude, how we handle adversity, how we handle success — that's what I'm most curious about," Malzahn said Tuesday. "And that's my expectations for our team. We have put last year behind us and we're moving forward. That's kind of been our theme and our motto and definitely this will be our first chance to see how our guys react against an opponent."

Last year's dysfunctional team collapsed late in a 3-9 season two years after winning a national title, dropping the final three games by a collective score of 138-7.

This team has a different coaching staff, led by former offensive coordinator Malzahn, and a new quarterback in junior college transfer Nick Marshall. The Tigers also presumably have rebuilt psyches, but a little early boost would be welcome.

"The biggest thing for us right now is, these kids have not been successful," defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. "You've got to change that. The sooner we're successful together, the easier the transition is going to be. It's just human nature — until we have success together, there's always going to be that little lack of trust or lack of buying in. That's human nature. The earlier we have success, that obviously will enhance everything."

Most of the preseason talk has centered on the team's improved disposition, not promises of an instant turnaround and contention in the brutal Southeastern Conference Western Division. Marshall is the biggest name among the newcomers, but Malzahn said most of them will play.

The biggest difference, cornerback Jonathan Mincy said, is "a new sense of urgency."

"Everybody is confident with each other and we know we've been training and we can look over to the next guy beside us and that person is ready to go to war with us," Mincy said. "That's something you look for as a team, just that chemistry and bond that you have with each other."

The Tigers have already sustained injuries for the opener at positions that are thin on depth or experience.

Defensive end Dee Ford (knee), the top returning pass rusher, and backup cornerback Jonathan Jones (ankle) are sidelined with injuries. Safety Demetruce McNeal, last year's No. 2 tackler, was dismissed midway through preseason camp following an arrest.

Even Malzahn says he's not sure what to expect, while praising the team's progress and willingness to buy into the coaching staff's methods. The Tigers will start with home games against Washington State, Arkansas State and Mississippi State.

"I'm really looking forward to in person watching our guys play and really seeing where we're at," Malzahn said. "I told our players the other day, 'I'm excited to watch you guys.' I'm curious to see how we respond to certain situations.

"I think we'll learn a whole lot about our team, so I'm very excited about that."

Johnson, the new staff's elder statesman, doesn't think Malzahn or the Tigers will go into a panic mode even if the debut doesn't go off well.

"Gus isn't going to change his standards," Johnson said. "He knows what he believes in. It's going to be the standard. If they meet it? Fine. If they don't? Fine. If we have success? Fine. If we don't, he's not going to change, he's not going to meander. He's going to stay on course."

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