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The AU Wishbone’s 2014 Auburn Preview

After the most fun-filled, exciting, dramatic season in school history, what can the 2014 Auburn Tigers do for an encore?  Finish the job the 2013 team started.

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ZOOM, here comes the ZOOM, ready or not, ha ha…

Coach:  Sweater vest marketer

Mascot makes us think of:  “They can’t keep them off the field tonight!”

Returning starters:  8 on offense, 6 on defense.  (Auburn returns a lot of players with starting experience beyond those listed.)

Offense loses:  Passing Yards: 0%; Rushing Yards: 40%; Receptions: 10% (Auburn lost the production of one of the best running backs in SEC history and still returns 60% of its rushing yards. )  Auburn returns the most still position talent and experience in the SEC.  Think about that for a second – Auburn lost the player who had the best rushing season in school history and the team STILL RETURNS 60% OF THE YARDAGE ON THE GROUND FROM LAST SEASON.

Strength of schedule: 2nd toughest in the nation according to Brian Fremeau and toughest in the SEC.  Road games are Kansas State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia, and Bama.  Auburn has the toughest possible set of SEC East teams with Georgia and South Carolina.  They take on San Jose State, Kansas State, LA Tech, and Samford out of conference.

Questions:  See below for our expanded analysis.  Hey—we don’t do this for just any old team.

Best case scenario:  Auburn makes the first ever college football playoff and wins the whole thing.

Worst case scenario:   The schedule is too tough and the injury bug continues to hit this team: 9-3.

Van and John thinkFive Reasons to be excited and Five Reasons to be concerned:

 

Five Reasons to Be Excited about the 2014 Season

1)     A returning starter at quarterback

This time last year Auburn wasn’t sure what it had in Nick Marshall.   And even now, we have not seen Nick Marshall at the best he can be.  Last year he didn’t know the offense well at the start of the seasons, banged up his shoulder mid-season and finally started to hit his stride late in the season.   But with a full off-season spent working with Rhett Lashlee and Gus Malzahn, Marshall will emerge as the best offensive player in the SEC in 2014.   By increasing the accuracy of his passes (through better footwork and a more consistent motion on his end and better timing with his receivers) and with increased chances to throw the ball, Marshall will put up much better passing numbers in 2014.  And with a quarterback who is fully versed in all the details of the offense Malzahn can increase the tempo to have Auburn go as fast any team in college football (or faster).

Screenshot 2014-08-28 15.18.21

2)     Auburn’s receiving corps is the best in the SEC – and in the nation.

This group of Auburn wide receivers is so much deeper and more talented than it was a few years ago.   Why hasn’t the regional or nation media picked up on how good this group is yet? The answer is simple – opportunities were limited last year for the receivers to show what they could do.  But with the addition of Duke Williams (who will be the 2014 SEC Offensive Rookie of the Year  – over Leonard Fournette of LSU, Jacob Coker of Alabama or anyone else), Auburn has a group nine deep of players that can take this offense to another level.

All off-season the defensive coordinators have been plotting and scheming of how to stop this Auburn offense and its devastating running game.  But Gus Malzhan didn’t show all his cards last year – and as SEC defenses crowd the line of scrimmage and attempt to shut down the run this group of receivers will run by them and past them and Nick Marshall will connect with them again and again and again.  And then defenses will have some very difficult choices to make.   Auburn will still run the ball more often than it throws it – but the number of passes will increase this year and Auburn’s effectiveness when it passes will increase dramatically.

3)     Auburn’s defense will improve

Auburn came within 13 seconds of winning the national championship with a defense that wasn’t very good.   Oh, they were very good at a few specific things, like red zone defense and third down defense, but overall they gave up way too many big plays and allowed too many yards.   In the hazy afterglow of the season many fans have forgotten how bad it was:

–        Auburn was 13th in the SEC and 102nd in the nation in passing defense

–        Auburn was 13th in the SEC and 113th in the nation in opponent plays of 10 yards or more (208 plays last year or 21% of the plays against the Auburn defense went for 10 yards or more!)

–        Auburn was 9th in the SEC and 47th in the nation in points allowed per game (24.7 points per game)

The good news is that all of those numbers should improve in 2014.  The first and most obvious answer is that SEC offenses lost an enormous amount of experience and talent after last season.  2013 was an abnormal year for the SEC in terms of offensive production.  So in 2014 all SEC defenses will look better because teams will have a harder time moving the ball and scoring.  Additionally, Auburn’s defense should be better on its own.   The defensive line is deep and experienced.   Auburn should be better at linebacker (which was the weakest position on the team last year and resulted in many of those big plays).  Additionally, Auburn is deeper and more experienced in the secondary coming into this season – at the end of last year many key players played every snap on defense and the result of that was tired players giving up big players.  This year we will see more rotation at all positions on defense and fresher players in the second half will perform better.  We are particularly excited to see Auburn’s extra-large defensive line packages against the power running teams in the SEC.  Finally, the players and coaches have been together for a year and should understand the system better and so be able to react more quickly to events on the field without having to think too much.

4)     Auburn has a lot of talent on the offensive and defensive lines

The positions that win games in the SEC are offensive and defensive linemen and Auburn is well stocked in both areas, even after the off-season injuries.  Even without the injured Alex Kozan Auburn returns the second most offensive line starting experience in the SEC.   SB Nation ranked SEC offensive and defensive lines, and Auburn’s talent shows up in the rankings.   When you combine that talent with lots of experience playing in the SEC and what Auburn’s skill position players can accomplish in Malzahn’s offense and you understand why people are excited about this team.

5)     This Coaching Staff

Auburn has the best coaching staff in the nation, and it’s not close.  Additionally this entire coaching staff stayed together this off-season and that has led to consistency and players not having to learn new systems.  (See Bama’s offense, Georgia’s defense, Arkansas’ defense, etc.)  Though he has only been a head coach at Auburn for one season, we feel incredibly confident with Malzahn coaching this team that Auburn will never be unprepared in a game.  Additionally, the in-game adjustments made on both sides of the ball by this coaching staff are the best in the country by a large margin.

 

Reasons for Concern

1)    The injury bug is starting to bite Auburn

In 2013 Auburn was able to overcome a number of key injuries and still win the SEC (Garrett, Holsey, Whitaker, Denson, etc.)  In 2014 the team has more depth and more talent at almost every position but the injury bug has started to have an impact on this team. The number one risk that could derail the season would be injuries to key players or an accumulation of injuries at one position. If the injuries are limited to what has already happened then Auburn will be fine.

2)     Whither Robinson Therezie?

Clearly Therezie is not going to play against Arkansas on Saturday.  Beyond that, we know nothing for certain.  With Justin Garrett out last season Therezie stepped up and make a lot of plays, especially in pass defense, which Auburn will need to replace if he is unavailable.

3)     The schedule is tougher this year

Again, Auburn plays the toughest schedule in the SEC and the second toughest schedule in the nation according to Brian Fremeau.  The early road game against a well coached Kansas State team is going to be a challenge.  Auburn has more talent and experience than KSU but strange things happen to highly ranked teams on the road on Thursday night.  We expect Auburn to improve as the season goes along with a key milestone being the off week on October 18th after the MSU road game.  At that point Malzahn will have a good feeling about what this team can do and should be able to make and implement the adjustments the team needs to play to its potential down the stretch.  The good news for Auburn is that the new Playoff Committee is supposed to consider strength of schedule in deciding who to invite this season so even if the Tigers lose a game they still should be in excellent shape.

4)     Where will the pass rush come from?

Without Dee Ford and with no date set for Carl Lawson’s return where will the pass rush come from?  Those two accounted for 45% of the team’s sacks last season. Auburn’s offense will score plenty of points in 2014.   Once Auburn gets ahead in a game, this will put pressure on the other team to throw the ball in order to attempt to keep up.  And this is where the need for a pass rush is so important.   Auburn had the second most pass attempts against it in the SEC last year – getting pressure on the quarterback in those plays is critically important to success.  We expect LaDarius Owens, Gabe Wright, Elijah Daniel and Cassanova McKinzy to get the job done, but this is area where Auburn will probably take a step backwards.  And that will end up putting more pressure on the Auburn secondary to cover longer and make plays on the ball.

5)     How will the punting and kicking perform when the team needs it?

Auburn fans have been spoiled by excellent special teams for many years.  This is the single item on this list that scares us the most.  Against the better teams on the schedule Auburn is going to need good kicking and punting.   If the punts are much shorter and more returnable this year than the other teams will get better field position and won’t have to work as hard to score on Auburn’s defense.  If the field goal kicking is inconsistent then Auburn may go for it more on 4th down and it may cost Auburn a game.   It seems small in the big scheme of things from 2013, but Steven Clark and Cody Parkey were excellent last year and most fans won’t notice until the first time Auburn punts off its own 15 yard line and the ball goes 25 yards and then gets returned.

 The Bottom Lne:

Auburn has the talent, the depth, the experience, and the coaching to make it to the first ever national college football playoff.   If the schedule and one or two of the concerns above trip this team up, a 10-2 record and a trip to a major bowl game (the Sugar, Orange or Peach under the new playoff system) are realistic landing spots for this team.  Auburn’s offense and defense will both be better this season and this coaching staff will once again prepare players for games better than anyone else and make adjustments during the game better than anyone else.  2013 was a wild ride.  2014 is time to soar.

 

Read The Wishbone’s 2014 SEC Preview here.

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