NCAA Football Preview - Auburn Tigers

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Updated: 8/18 9:52 am

What unfolded instead was one of the most improbable worst-to-first turnarounds in college football history.

The Tigers came firing out of the gate with three straight wins over Washington State (31-24), Arkansas State (38-9) and Mississippi State (24-20), the latter ending their 10-game SEC losing streak. They ran into some trouble in a Sept. 21 bout at No. 6 LSU, falling 35-21, but that setback did not deter them from their magical season.

The squad responded from the loss to rip off nine straight victories, a few of them coming in miraculous fashion. Its 43-38 triumph over Georgia on Nov. 16 came thanks to a fourth-down Hail-Mary heave from Nick Marshall to Ricardo Louis with under a minute to play, a pass that inexplicably found Louis' grasp after deflecting off a defender. The Tigers kept up with the theatrics in the Iron Bowl the following week, upending Alabama, 34-28, after the Crimson Tide's last-second field goal attempt was fielded by Chris Davis and returned the other way for the game-winning 100-yard touchdown.

Auburn's momentum carried right over into the SEC Championship Game, where it steamrolled Missouri, 59-42, behind a legendary rushing performance by Tre Mason (46 carries, 306 yards, four TDs).

The Tigers appeared to have one more improbable outcome up their sleeve in the BCS National Championship Game after Mason scored the go-ahead touchdown with just 1:19 to play, but their magic ran out when Heisman winner Jameis Winston led Florida State down the field in the final minute to score the game-winning TD to be crowned national champs.

Even though the Tigers' championship run fell just short, it was an incredibly successful first season for Gus Malzahn, who took home just about every possible Coach of the Year award, as he brought Auburn football back to prominence in the SEC quicker than anyone could have imagined.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: The majority of Auburn's rousing offensive success last season (39.5 ppg, 501.3 ypg) came thanks to its top-ranked rushing offense, which racked up 328.3 ypg. In the absence of the NFL-bound Mason, a Heisman finalist who rushed for a school-record 1,816 yards and an SEC-record 23 touchdowns a season ago, that number is sure to take a hit, but there's still plenty of talent in place moving forward.

In limited reps playing behind Mason, both Corey Grant (647 yards, 9.8 ypc, six TDs) and Cameron Artis-Payne (610 yards, 6.7 ypc, six TDs) displayed excellent explosion. It remains to be seen if either can be the bell cow that Mason was, but a split workload between the two could just as easily match what was lost.

At quarterback, Marshall returns looking to expound upon an outstanding 2013 season (59.4 completion percentage, 1,976 passing yards, 14 TDs, six INTs, 1,068 rushing yards, 12 TDs), but after being cited for marijuana possession in July, he will not start the season opener against Arkansas. When, or if, he will see the field in that game remains to be seen.

"I've decided that (he) will not start game one," Malzahn said of his signal callers's punishment. "Jeremy Johnson was going to have a bigger role regardless this year. We've talked about him and his ability and how we feel about him, (but) I will say this: Nick Marshall is still our quarterback."

"Up until (the incident), Nick has been a model student, a model teammate and a model citizen," Malzahn said. "But he made a mistake, and he's going to have to suffer the consequences for that mistake. I'm not saying what that consequence is right now, but it will be addressed."

"The good thing is that we've got Jeremy Johnson, who could start on the majority of teams in college football," he continued. "We'll just see what happens."

Auburn doesn't rely too heavily on production out wide, but it still has the good fortune of welcoming back big-play receiver Sammie Coates (902 yards, seven TDs), who's 21.5 yards-per-catch last season was tops in the nation among players with at least 40 receptions.

The Tigers will surely miss mammoth offensive tackle Greg Robinson, who was selected No. 2 overall in May's NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams, but the other four starters along the outstanding offensive line are all back.

DEFENSE: Clearly overshadowed by the offense's production, Auburn's defense ranked in the middle of the pack in the SEC in terms of points allowed (24.7 ppg), and its total defense (420.7 ypg) was the conference's third worst. Still, the unit was good enough when it needed to be and returns seven starters this season.

Cassanova McKinzy returns as the leading tackler after tallying 75 stops and 8.0 TFL, while starting all 14 games. Also returning to the linebacking corps is Kris Frost (59 tackles, 6.0 TFL, two FF).

The secondary remains largely intact as well, led by playmaking safety Robenson Therezie (57 tackles, four INTs). Jonathan Mincy (56 tackles, INT) broke up 14 passes a year ago, and Jermaine Whitehead (65 tackles, two INTs) gives the team three senior leaders to rely on in the defensive backfield.

The pass rush could take a hit without Dee Ford (14.5 TFL, 10.5 sacks), as Gabe Wright (8.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) and LaDarius Owens (5.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks) are the only experienced defensive linemen remaining.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Daniel Carlson and punter Jimmy Hutchinson, both redshirt freshmen, will step into starting roles.

The return game was outstanding for the Tigers last season, but the team will be without Davis, who averaged an astounding 18.7 yards per punt return. Quan Bray was reliable fielding both punts and kickoffs and should assume the role of primary return man. Grant only ran back five kicks in 2013, but one went for a 90-yard score, so his break-away ability could be called upon in certain situations as well.

OUTLOOK: Even though Auburn advanced all the way to the national championship game a season ago, it played the role of the underdog for most of its run, only gaining respect at the tail-end of the season. Now, all eyes will be on the Tigers as they are out to duplicate their success in 2014, but Malzahn sees his team being under the microscope as a blessing, not a curse.

"Last year we weren't on anybody's radar. We snuck up on people," Malzahn said. "The pressure we have this season is a good pressure."

The added pressure to succeed this time around will presumably lead to a higher level of concentration from the Tigers, and they will need it with a slew of marquee SEC showdowns on the docket. In addition to the always- treacherous Western Division slate, the reigning conference champs will need to face perennial Eastern Division powers South Carolina and Georgia as well.

Expect the Tigers to remain in the race through the end of November, but getting back to the SEC title game with Alabama and LSU breathing down their neck is going to be very difficult to do.

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