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College Football Preview 2014-2015: 6. Auburn Tigers

Nick Marshall
6. Auburn Tigers 
Coach: Guz Malzahn (2nd year)
2013-2014 Record: 12-2 (7-1 SEC)

August 30th vs. Arkansas
September 6th vs. San Jose State
September 18th @ Kansas State
September 27th vs. Louisiana Tech
October 4th vs. LSU
October 11th @ Mississippi State
October 25th vs. South Carolina
November 1st @ Ole Miss
November 8th vs. Texas A&M
November 15th @ Georgia
November 22nd vs. Samford
November 29th @ Alabama

Few teams in the history of college football have had as crazy as seasons as the Auburn Tigers did in 2013. Led by a first-year quarterback who was kicked off another SEC program (Nick Marshall at Georgia), a first-year head coach (Gus Malzahn) and a quiet superstar (running back Tre Mason) the Tigers put together a magical 12-2 campaign that culminated in a near national title. Included was some amazing moments and just pure luck. Like their improbable victory over Georgia in the "Prayer at Jordan Hare" and Chris Davis' kick return in the Iron Bowl that will go down as one of the greatest moments in college football history. Now comes the tough part for Malzahn: sustaining the success after last year's breakout.

Backfield: Nick Marshall's chance at college football looked dead when he was kicked out of Georgia and went to junior college. But, Malzahn (who was the offensive coordinator of the Cam Newton-led national title Tigers in 2011) gave him a chance and Marshall repaid the favor. Marshall threw for 1,976 yards and ran for 1,068 more. He proved to be an incredible read-option quarterback but he left something to be desired as a passer. He completed less than 60% of his passes and threw six interceptions. He has proven to have a huge arm but he didn't have the overall accuracy and smarts to be a great quarterback last season and the ground attack really made up for that. He looks improved this spring and will look to impress in fall camp. Unfortunately, an arrest for marijuana possession this offseason forced Malzahn's hand; Marshall will not start in the team's opener on the 30th against Arkansas. Combined, Marshall, the graduated Mason, Corey Grant and senior Cameron Artis-Payne ran for 4,141 yards and the team averaged 328.3 yards per game, top in the nation. Gone is Mason, but Grant and Artis-Payne return, giving this team still some very dangerous backs. Artis-Payne is a little bit powerful of a runner, while Grant is a speedster who will be the lightning rod of the offense. The addition of redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and the signing of stud Roc Thomas give Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee a ton of options to move the ball. They will ask Marshall to pass more than they did in 2013, but this offense should still be all about the read-option and rushing the football, until the rest of the SEC proves they can stop it.

Receivers: In order for Marshall to become a better passer, his receivers will need to help him. That
Sammie Coates
is good news, considering the talent returning in the receiving corps. Junior Sammie Coates was fantastic last season and should prove to be a legitimate No. 1 target in 2014-2015. He recorded 902 yards and seven touchdowns, while catching 42 passes. Coates is a superb athlete who proved that he can really do damage after the catch. Joining him will be junior Ricardo Louis, who had the huge touchdown grab to beat Georgia in that "Prayer at Jordan Hare" game. He is a speedster who can really grow into a reliable target this season. Arriving in Auburn is JUCO star D'haquille Williams who will make a major impact this year. Williams is the No. 1 ranked receiver coming out of the junior college ranks and he is extremely explosive. The return of senior Quan Bray helps as well, he had 23 receptions for 195 yards while picking up 3 touchdowns. Although none of these guys are established stars, Coates is a very dangerous target who could really improve while the rest give Marshall a variety of options. At tight end, C.J. Uzomah has proven to be one of the SEC's most reliable tight ends and is very dangerous in the red zone. Nearly 1/3 of his catches (he had 11) were touchdowns (he had 3 touchdowns in 2013). Uzomah was an All-SEC tight end who could definitely grow into more than just a red zone threat this season. He will also have to turn into a better blocker with the loss of fullback Jay Prosch. Four-star tight end Jakell Mitchell will find ways to make an impact and will be the future at the position.

Offensive Line: Gone is Greg Robinson, a talented offensive tackle who went No. 2 to the St. Louis Rams and should have a great career there. Not only was he extremely talented and reliable, Robinson played maybe the most important position on the unit, left tackle. The good news for this unit is center Reese Dismukes returns at center after earning All-American honors last season as a junior. Dismukes is a rugged veteran who is very strong as both a pass blocker and helping in the ground attack. Also returning is guards Alex Kozan and Chad Slade, giving Auburn a fantastic interior to this line. Kozan, an experienced sophomore, is a gritty run blocker who is pretty mobile for his 300-pound frame and he is loaded with potential. Slade returns at right guard for his senior campaign and is another talented veteran who should be a major reason why this rushing offense will be among the top in the nation again. The big question is at Robinson's vacated left tackle position, where Malzahn appears to be leaning towards sophomore Shon Coleman. Coleman was one of the most impressive players this spring, and although he is young and relatively inexperienced he could be very productive this season. Malzahn brought in a number of players who will contribute now and in the future in both trenches. Guard Braden Smith is a four-star pickup from Big 12 country who was excellent size and provides valuable depth. Right tackle is in good hands with the return of sophomore Avery Young, a massive veteran.

Defensive Line: This unit might lose their best player, Dee Ford (10.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss) but it should still be a strength. Returning is sophomore Carl Lawson, a defensive end who made a major impact last season despite not really starting. Lawson still recorded four sacks and should replace Ford, meaning he could really have a breakout second season with the Tigers. On the other side, senior LaDarius Owens returns, hoping to end his career with Auburn with a bang. Owens recorded 30 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2013 and should play a much bigger role with him being the real star on this line. Up the middle, Auburn and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will lean on senior Gabe Wright, a hard-working linemen with exceptional size. Wright is a real help in rush defense, picking up 31 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss. The biggest question mark on this unit is at the other defensive tackle spot where the Tigers will miss Nosa Eguae. There is experience at the position however with the return of seniors Ben Bradley and Angelo Blackson. Either could start or sophomore Montravius Adams could push for snaps. The Tigers landed a number of marquee defensive line prospects in the 2014 recruiting cycle including a pair of important ends, Justin Thornton and Andrew Williams. Also joining is defensive tackle Dontavious Russell, the No. 14 DT in this year's class and three-star JUCO Devaroe Lawrence. If Lawson or Owens or somebody else can step up and replace the production of Ford this unit could be among the SEC's best with the experience and the depth in it.

Linebackers: The defense as a whole should be more comfortable and improved in their second year under Ellis Johnson, especially the linebackers. Emerging star Cassanova McKinzy returns after leading Auburn in tackles in 2013. McKinzy notched 75 tackles, 8 TFL along with one interception. He will once more by the Tigers starting middle linebacker and should continue to take major steps as a linebacker. Joining him will be versatile junior Kris Frost, a hard-hitter who has incredible instincts and could have a breakout year. Depth shouldn't be much of an issue in this unit either as Malzahn and Auburn brought in a number of playmakers and a number return. Four-star inside linebacker Tre' Williams was a nice pickup; he could really have a great future in Auburn. Another important inside linebacker, Deshaun Davis also a player with loads of potential who will find ways to make an impact. Add to the equation yet another junior college pickup in Derrick Moncrief, a nice pickup from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, who was ranked as the top outside linebacker coming out of the JUCO ranks. This is a pretty young unit but it should take big steps and it is deep enough to be a very strong unit.

Secondary: Cornerback Chris Davis is always going to be remembered for his return in the Iron Bowl last year against Alabama in one of the craziest endings the sport has ever seen, but he was more than just a returner. Davis, who graduated, recorded 74 tackles and had 14 passes defended and his absence will certainly effect a pass defense that was a real issue in 2013. The good news is that senior Jonathan Mincy returns after being Davis' sidekick a season ago. Mincy had 56 tackles last year along with 14 passes defended as well. He is a knowledgeable corner with improving coverage skills who could really improve this season. Senior safety Jermaine Whitehead will start at one of the safety spots and should find ways to make an impact; he is a hard-hitter who is a tremendous athlete. The likely starter at the "Star" position, a defensive back hybrid, is senior Robenson Therezie, a quick, playmaking defensive back. Joining him will be Justin Garrett, who missed all of 2013 with a variety of injuries. Garrett struggled as a linebacker, meaning he will stack at "Star" where he looked very comfortable and great this spring. The other cornerback position is likely to be either sophomore Kamryn Melton or junior Jonathan Jones. Melton is young and still scratching what he can be as a cornerback, he has real potential. Jones is a hard-working cornerback who has receiver's hands and will find ways to make an impact. The Tigers add a number of defensive backs who will be ready to make plays from the beginning. Local Alabama product Stephen Roberts and Kalvaraz Bessent give Auburn a pair of studs. Add yet another JUCO transfer, Joseph Turner, a three-star cornerback from all the way on the West Coast, and this might well be the strength of this year's recruiting class.

Special Teams: The loss of kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark plunge the special teams into issues. There is a ton of inexperience at both positions now, with Daniel Carlson likely taking over at kicker. A number of players could play a role in the return game like running back Corey Grant and the receiver Quan Bray.

Many teams have had breakout seasons and followed that up with major disappointments. The pressure is on for Malzahn and the Tigers but they have all the talent to return to the SEC Championship Game and possibly even the National Championship. If Marshall can take the next step as a passer and somebody in the ground game can step up and replace Tre Mason, the Tigers can continue the magic they began last season.

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