Auburn Tigers: Auburn

SEC lunchtime links

March, 31, 2014
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We hope you're grabbing a late lunch and can catch up on the goings on around the SEC. Unfortunately we slept in a bit -- we blame the weekend's fantastic college basketball action -- and we're running just a touch behind. So without further delay, here's some reading material for your day.

SEC lunchtime links

March, 14, 2014
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It's Friday! That means some much deserved time off, the continuation of the SEC hoops tournament in Atlanta and the opening of a few more spring football practices around the SEC. Alabama gets going on Saturday, and Arkansas kicks off on Sunday. To get you ready, here's some reading material that should get you through Friday and on into the weekend.
  • Nick Saban for president! No, not that president. The Alabama head coach received a few write-in votes for SGA president, outpacing some of his own players in the process.
  • Miracle man Chris Davis is no longer in Auburn's secondary. But the Tigers do have some talent returning at cornerback. Here's a good breakdown of the position to get you ready for spring practice on The Plains.
  • As stated earlier, Arkansas opens spring camp this weekend. For those you who like to plan ahead, here's a full rundown of the Razorbacks schedule.
  • Our very own Mel Kiper Jr. sees former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney going No. 3 overall to the Jaguars in the upcoming NFL draft. But he could also see the talented defensive end ending up in other locations.
  • He's battling inconsistency, but Vols wideout Von Pearson is being described by his coach as "ultra-talented." His offensive coordinator would one-up that assessment, calling the 6-foot-3 target "very, very, very talented."
  • Maty Mauk is clearly the leader to become Missouri's starting quarterback, but he's no incumbent. Trent Hosick is aiming to compete for the job, himself. But the quarterback room, as he describes it, is "loaded."
  • It's early, but the defense is running a little ahead of the offense at LSU. Les Miles said, as only Les Miles could, that "there's a lot of speed and get-to-the-ball" on defense.
  • Vanderbilt needs more playmakers on offense with Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause gone. That's why Derek Mason moved talented freshman C.J. Duncan from quarterback/running back to receiver, where he has no game experience.

SEC lunchtime links

January, 24, 2014
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We've come to the end of the work week. But first, a quick look around the SEC.

SEC lunchtime links

January, 21, 2014
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So this is the new College Football Playoff? On Monday, tickets to the first-ever title game under the new format became available for purchase. But the cheapest premium seats -- sounds like something of an oxymoron, doesn't it? -- come at the hefty price of $2,000.

SEC lunchtime links

January, 20, 2014
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After this weekend, all the underclassmen who wanted to go to the NFL are officially gone. Now begins the hectic final push in the recruiting season. Nick Saban did the electric slide, Lane Kiffin sang karaoke and that's just the nonsense going on at Alabama to impress recruits. Signing day is Feb. 5, so strap in tight because things could get really weird before it's all said and done.

SEC's Heisman hopefuls in 2014

January, 17, 2014
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The SEC did pretty well for itself in the Heisman Trophy balloting last year. Even though Florida State's Jameis Winston ultimately wound up hoisting the prize, three SEC players found themselves among the top six receiving votes.

All three of those players are gone. AJ McCarron, Johnny Manziel and Tre Mason are off to try their hand in the National Football League.

With that, we're left to wonder who will emerge as the SEC's Heisman favorites in 2014. With so many big names gone -- Aaron Murray, Jadeveon Clowney, Odell Beckham Jr., Zach Mettenberger -- the field of favorites is as wide open as ever.

Here is our list of the top five candidates to win the 2014 Heisman Trophy from the SEC:

Georgia RB Todd Gurley: Had Gurley stayed healthy, he may have had a seat in New York last year. Had he not missed all of October, he might have had the stats to support such a trip. Even so, the talented tailback averaged 98.9 yards per game and had one of the most impressive touchdown-to-rush ratios in the country at 6.1 percent, a full percentage point more than Boston College's Andre Williams, who finished fourth in the Heisman balloting. At the Gator Bowl, Gurley showed that even on a sore ankle he is one of the best backs in the country, racking up 183 total yards of offense against the Blackshirts of Nebraska. With a full offseason to heal and a new quarterback under center, Gurley could be asked to do even more in 2014.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Nick Marshall has been a Division I QB for just one season and is already one of the SEC's biggest playmakers. His potential is scary.
Auburn QB Nick Marshall: Gus Malzahn brought this point up an awful lot last season, but it bears repeating: Marshall became a Division I quarterback only some seven months ago. He didn't have the benefit of spring practice and still won the starting quarterback job at Auburn. After a few bumpy starts, he became one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the league. For the first six games of the season, he ranked 40th in the country in Adjusted QBR. From then on he would rank third in Adjusted QBR with 20 total touchdowns, two interceptions and an average of 231.8 total yards per game. Now imagine all he could do with that kind of momentum and a full offseason to prepare.

South Carolina RB Mike Davis: We entered last season touting the SEC's stellar class of young running backs with Gurley, Marshall and Mason. For a while we left out Davis, a relative unknown after staying in the shadow of Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina. But Davis let us know who he was right away, running for 115 yards in the season opener against North Carolina and 149 more in a prime-time matchup with Georgia. He wound up rushing for 100 or more yards in all but two of the Gamecocks' first nine games. He fell off the map some in his final three games, due in no small part to a nagging ankle injury. If he can get that corrected, he could be one of the league's most productive backs in 2014.

Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon: He's not thought of as an explosive back, but why not? Yeldon finished last season with an impressive 34 rushes for 10 or more yards, more than every running back in the SEC not named Tre Mason or Jeremy Hill. All told, Yeldon rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns -- both improvements from his freshman year. With the help of Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, Yeldon won't have to shoulder the load next season, but he'll still be the man with the most carries and the best shot at making it to New York.

Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott: He's a dark horse, no doubt, but don't count out Prescott. He didn't finish the season 10th in Adjusted QBR for no reason. The talented sophomore quietly put up some big numbers and ended the year strong, coming off the bench to lead a fourth-quarter comeback against Ole Miss and following that up with a five-touchdown performance in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice. With so many veteran quarterbacks of the SEC gone, he could quickly pick up the mantle as the league's best.

Auburn no overnight sensation

December, 23, 2013
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The Auburn program Gus Malzahn took over in December 2012 was stuck in the mud.

The majority of the coaching staff had been fired. The fan base was largely disenchanted and the players were, too, with many fleeing for greener pastures and higher ground. The defense had turned atrocious. The offense had lost direction. And to make matters worse, there was no suitable quarterback in place to make things better.

The afterglow of the 2010 national championship had turned into a palling shadow over The Plains, a reminder of how things could go from so good to so bad so quickly.

Malzahn began lifting that gloom right away. When he was hired, he set expectations to championship or bust, and promised that "Whatever happened last year happened last year and it's a new day." The words were bold -- "New Day" was plastered everywhere -- but creating a fresh start wasn't as simple as a catchphrase. Spring practice didn't promise much, and the Tigers were predicted to finish fifth in the SEC West. Auburn entered the first week of the season favored to beat Washington State, but only barely.

To say Auburn was average then was an overstatement.

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Nick Marshall
AP Photo/Dave MartinWhen Nick Marshall finally grasped Gus Malzahn's offense, the Tigers showed their true stripes.
"Maybe below average," Malzahn said with a grin. "We weren't very good."

What Malzahn remembered of that seven-point win is anyone's guess. It was like watching a baby walk for the first time: first a stumble as Nick Marshall fumbled his first-ever snap, then a rally as the offense struck for 25 first-half points, followed by the inevitable clinging on for dear life as the offense soured and the defense yielded nearly 500 yards.

Malzahn can smile about it now only because the team he had then is so different from the one he has today. Auburn has gone from battling for its first SEC win since October 2011 to winning the conference title and preparing to face Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship on Jan. 6. He can grin and laugh and joke with reporters about the drastic turnaround now because what might be perceived to the outside world as an overnight sensation is actually something far less flashy. It was earned, and it was anything but easy.

Auburn was bad in Week 1. It was only slightly better Week 2. And in every week that followed, things improved.

"I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team come as far as we have," Malzahn said. "We were a work in progress probably the first half of the season. Our guys continued to improve. They continued to work hard in practice, which is rare. I probably can count on one hand practices our coaches weren’t happy with. Our players bought in to what we asked and they worked extremely hard and they earned the right to get here."

Maybe we should have seen Auburn's turnaround coming. The first clue would have been a junior college quarterback transferring to The Plains.

But Marshall was no Cam Newton. Like everything else this season, Marshall proved to be a work in progress.

The 6-foot-1 athlete was a defensive back at Georgia before being dismissed from school. He only wanted to play quarterback, so he went to Garden City (Kan.) Community College, accounted for 37 touchdowns (19 rushing) and convinced Auburn to give him a shot.

Missing all of spring practice made his chances of starting at Auburn slim. He didn't have the polish as a passer and didn't yet know how to make the reads, but he could run, and that gave him an edge. He separated himself at the very end of fall camp, according to coaches, and together they agreed that he gave them the best shot at winning, even if that meant learning on the fly.

He entered Week 1 knowing about 25 percent of the offense, so Malzahn ran and ran and ran some more. Auburn won, but Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday wasn't impressed. After the loss he said, "If they could find a quarterback, they'd be a top-five team. … They just don't have a guy that can throw it."

"We knew we were going to have to be patient with him," Malzahn said.

Marshall struggled to grasp the offense against Arkansas State and Mississippi State. He showed he could throw, passing for more than 300 yards in his first SEC game, but he also threw two interceptions. He showed he could lead by engineering a game-winning touchdown drive, but a week later all momentum was lost as Auburn was beaten down by LSU.

Malzahn regrouped and re-evaluated during the bye week.

"It gave us a chance to catch our breath because we still were learning about our players," he said, "not only from a physical standpoint but as a team, how we handle situations. We evaluated our personnel and we got a plan for the rest of the year. Offensively we felt like we needed to run some more zone read."

When Auburn went all-in on the zone read is when everything changed. A game after Marshall mustered just 46 yards rushing against LSU, he ran for 140 in a victory over Ole Miss. A week later, he ran for 100 yards against Texas A&M and led another game-winning touchdown drive. He rushed for the most yards by a quarterback (99) against Alabama in the Nick Saban era and combined for 233 yards and two touchdowns a week later in the SEC championship game.

Since Oct. 1, Marshall has thrown just two interceptions, accounted for 17 touchdowns and lifted his QBR from 52nd nationally to 10th.

"It looks like we found one," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said when asked Wednesday about Halliday's comments from earlier in the year.

"The only thing I’ve seen that’s crazy like this is Cam Newton, and it’s kind of hard to be compared to him because he’s a freak," Auburn wideout Sammie Coates said. "But Nick, he did a great job. The way he just turned it around, he put up crazy numbers this year rushing. It’s amazing how he just turned it around real quick and learned everything."

Malzahn I don't know if I've ever had a team come as far as we have.

-- Gus Malzahn
But Marshall isn't the only reason Auburn is where it is today. If this season were a script, he might be the leading man. But there were plenty of supporting actors: Tre Mason and the rest of the tailbacks, Reese Dismukes and the offensive line, Ford & Co. in the trenches on defense.

A year after allowing 37 sacks, Auburn surrendered only 17. A year after letting offenses run wild, Auburn's defense increased its stops of zero or negative yards from 27.6 to 35.8 percent. And Mason, a year after churning his way to 1,002 yards, ran for 1,621 yards and a sixth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Lady Luck played a part, too.

Auburn wouldn't be in a BCS bowl game without miracle finishes against Georgia and Alabama. The tipped touchdown catch by Ricardo Louis and the kick return by Chris Davis were one-in-a-million shots.

But there's a difference between stumbling into luck and working your way into her favor.

"We've definitely done the work to be able to be where we're at," fullback Jay Prosch said . "It's not luck, but I do think some crazy things happened."

From Week 1 until now, it's been a wild ride. All Malzahn can do is smile, knowing exactly what it's taken to get here.

"I feel very blessed to not only be at Auburn but to be at Auburn at this time, coaching this team," Malzahn said. "It’s been extremely gratifying for me to watch this group, very proud of our coaches, too. Our coaches have done an excellent job. The unique thing about it, it’s players, it’s coaches, it’s managers -- we’re all in this thing together."

SEC lunchtime links

December, 20, 2013
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After a few weeks of waiting, the bowl season begins in earnest this weekend with four games on the schedule for Saturday.

SEC lunchtime links

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
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And we've got an early leader in the clubhouse for the best rant of the college basketball season. Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson found another gear during a post-game press conference, calling out his players, claiming there was a sniper in the gym and even mixing in a few hilarious notes about his marriage. It's a good one and it's only a few minutes, so give it a listen.

SEC lunchtime links

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
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It seems as if everyone is denying interest in the now-vacant Texas head coaching position. Even Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly took a swing at stamping out the speculation the other day. But even so, this thing is far from over. Until the Longhorns have their guy in place, expect the rumor mill to continue churning.
  • Speaking of Texas, LSU coach Les Miles says, "Oh please, let's not kick my name around," about speculation on him leaving for Austin. His focus is on an Iowa team he's fired up to face.
  • "I'm a good fit for the Tigers," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of the Texas job talk. "That's why I signed a contract."
  • What's Malzahn's first impression of Florida State? The Noles are "super fast." And that's coming from a guy who loves to put the pedal to the metal.
  • Like a lot of teams around the country, Georgia isn't just facing Nebraska in the Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs must battle apathy in order to finish the season strong against the Cornhuskers.
  • Grading the Gamecocks: How did South Carolina grade out on offense, defense, special teams and coaching?
  • The time for rest is over for Ole Miss. "We got to get after it," Hugh Freeze says. Now it's on to the Music City Bowl against a dangerous offense in Georgia Tech.
  • "Turn up! Turn up!" That's what you'll hear from Geoff Collins during practice these days. Mississippi State's defensive coordinator wants his guys to turn up the pressure.
  • Oklahoma and Alabama enter bowl practice on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. How will the Tide resolve after ending the regular season on such a sour note?

SEC lunchtime links

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
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Yes, it's Monday and we've survived the Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award and everything in between. Maybe we can move on to the matter at hand: bowl season.

Unheralded players in the SEC

December, 13, 2013
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Not every player has the profile to earn an invite to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremonies. Like any famous party, it's reserved for the select few, the guest list limited to only well-known names like McCarron, Mason and Manziel.

But even in a top conference like the SEC, players get lost in the shuffle. Most don't get the recognition they deserve.

That's where we come in. The following are some of the unheralded players of the SEC. Some you might know. Others you might be only tangentially aware of. But their contributions are worth noting.

South Carolina QB Connor Shaw: Ignore the stats. They're not bad, but they're not important. Shaw isn't arguably the most underrated player in the whole of the SEC because he threw for 2,135 yards, 21 touchdowns and just one interception. Instead, think about where the Gamecocks would be without him. They most certainly wouldn't be in the Capital One Bowl. Shaw was gutsy leading South Carolina, coming back from injury time and time again. He's one of the best quarterbacks in school history and an all-time great competitor in the SEC.

[+] EnlargeCoates
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsWR Sammie Coates keeps defenses a little bit honest when facing the powerful Auburn run game.
Auburn WR Sammie Coates: Gus Malzahn makes no secret he wants to run the football with Nick Marshall, Tre Mason and Co., but without someone to stretch the field the running lanes becomes much tighter. That's where Coates comes in. His 38 receptions aren't a league high -- the offense isn't tailored for him -- but when he gets the football, he makes the most of it. Defenses are forced to keep a safety back to cover him as he leads the SEC and ranks second nationally with 22.1 yards per catch. He didn't fumble the ball once this season and caught seven touchdowns to go along with 841 yards.

Missouri DL Markus Golden: By now we're all aware of the beast known as Michael Sam. He's the best pass rusher in the league and one of the best in all of college football. But his teammate at Missouri isn't half bad either. Golden has been as productive and balanced as they come in the trenches this season with 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, good enough to rank him eighth and fourth in the SEC, respectively.

Alabama RB Kenyan Drake: Like Golden, Drake has been a bit overshadowed by a teammate. Granted T.J. Yeldon is the primary back in Alabama's offense, but Drake isn't far behind. In fact, there's not much of a noticeable drop-off, and Drake is actually the more dynamic and speedy of the two runners. Drake's 7.5 yards per carry is first in the SEC and seventh nationally (minimum 80 carries). He finished the regular season with a healthy 694 yards and eight touchdowns.

Georgia ILB Amarlo Herrera: He's not flashy and his talent might not wow you, but if production is the name of the game then you ought to know Herrera. One hundred tackles should get you noticed. And yet Herrera is nowhere to be found on the first- or second-team AP All-SEC lineups despite finishing with more tackles than a linebacker many consider to be the best in the country in Alabama's C.J. Mosley.

Kentucky LB Avery Williamson and DE Alvin Dupree: Chances are you didn't hear or see much of the Wildcats this season. Mark Stoops' first season in Lexington was a struggle as UK won no conference games. But it wasn't all bad. The Cats defense featured two of the better producers in the SEC in Williamson and Dupree. Williamson finished with 100-plus tackles for the second consecutive season, and Dupree ranked sixth in the SEC with seven sacks.
Tre Mason graphicESPN Stats & InformationTre Mason's late surge got him to New York, but he was consistently great throughout the season.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Tre Mason didn't show up at Auburn with a silver spoon in his mouth. He's the son of a famous musician -- his father, Vincent, was a member of the popular hip-hop group De La Soul -- but that doesn't mean he's accustomed to wealth and unaccustomed to struggles.

Tre was born in New York City. Success for Vincent wasn't immediate, and in the beginning the Masons stayed with Tre's grandmother as the life of a starving artist took its often circuitous route.

Vincent's career took time to blossom. De La Soul didn't sell more than 20 million records overnight. And now, as Tre rests on the eve of the Heisman Trophy ceremony in his native New York, he can fully understand what that road to fame is like.

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Tre Mason and Gus Malzahn celebrate
AP Photo/John BazemoreIn August, Tre Mason was in a three-back rotation. In December, he celebrated with Gus Malzahn.
Tre came to Auburn as a middle-of-the-pack recruit, hung on through last year's 3-9 season, and after Gus Malzahn was hired as head coach last offseason, Tre wasn't even the team's top tailback, instead starting the season as part of a three-man rotation.

Like everything else in life, reaching No. 1 on the charts had to be earned.

"I worked toward it," Tre said. "There's a lot of goals and dreams that I have. I remember saying my goal in the beginning of the season was 1,500 yards, and people said, 'Oh, that's too much.'

"Like my mom said, 'Whatever you put your mind to, you can achieve.' So I surpassed that, and I'm looking forward to keeping it going."

Mom might have dispensed the wisdom, but Dad taught him the value of motivation.

"My dad being who he is also made me more hungry, because he started from the bottom," Tre explained. "He's come from nothing, and he worked his way up. He doesn't give us everything. He makes us work for everything we have to make us as hungry as he was."

Tre has shown himself to be hungry, all right. The way he carried the ball a record 46 times during the SEC championship game Saturday, he left no doubt about his own will to succeed. Malzahn came to the sideline at one point during the game to check on him and see if he had any more gas in the tank. Malzahn said Tre had a "look in his eye" when he told him, "Coach, keep giving it to me." By the time the game was over and Auburn had won, Tre had racked up an eye-popping 304 yards and four touchdowns.

At one point, Tre let emotions get the better of him. He scored a touchdown, lifted his leg, feigned a stiff arm and gave the classic Heisman pose.

"Some people were telling me to do it," Tre explained. "But it was just this emotion going through my body at the time, and it just came out and I did it."

Tre's flamboyant celebration might have been a premonition of sorts, as he has completed the unlikely jump from the very fringe of the Heisman Trophy conversation to dead center as one of six finalists for the most recognizable individual award in college football. Florida State QB Jameis Winston is the favorite to take home the prize, but Tre is a dark-horse candidate.

Dee Ford, Auburn's veteran defensive end, tried to bolster Tre's campaign after Auburn won the SEC title, telling reporters, "Tre for Heisman! It's going viral!"

And why shouldn't it? If all it takes is a "Heisman moment" like the one Johnny Manziel had against Alabama last year, what does that say for Tre? He has had arguably two such performances in the past two weeks, first rushing for 164 yards and a touchdown in a narrow win over then-No. 1-ranked Bama before doing all he did against a Missouri defense that many considered among the best in the country.

Malzahn himself had to switch course, stating his quarterback's case for the Heisman one week before stumping for his running back the very next.

"He's one of the best players in college football, there's no doubt," Malzahn said of Tre. "He proved that [against Missouri]. You look at what he's done in this league, especially as of late against very good defenses, and the way he runs -- I think he has 22 touchdowns, which is the most, I believe, in single-season SEC history."

Win or lose the Heisman, Tre's run to New York this season will be remembered for years to come. It wasn't an easy route to the national stage, but Tre has earned it. Now if only he can become the most famous person in his family.

"My dad has a lot more experience than me," he said, grinning. "He's a legend."

SEC helmet stickers: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
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Time to hand out some helmet stickers from the SEC championship game. And considering there were 101 points scored between Auburn and Missouri, don't be offended that the two defensive coordinators didn't make the grade.

Tre Mason, Auburn: Was there any doubt? If one game can win you the Heisman Trophy, then go ahead and hand the award to Auburn's leading tailback. At least get him to New York City for the ceremony. Mason had arguably the best performance in SEC championship game history, running for an incredible 304 yards and four touchdowns against a Missouri defense that hadn't allowed a single team to break the 200-yard rushing mark this season. Mason finished just four yards shy of setting a school record. His 46 carries were the most ever in the league title game, passing former Tennessee Vol Jamal Lewis, who ran the ball 31 times in 1997.

Nick Marshall, Auburn: Auburn coach Gus Malzahn could have asked for nothing more from his quarterback, whom we'll all do well to remember came to The Plains only some six months ago. Marshall was the perfect orchestrator of Malzahn's offense on Saturday afternoon, knowing when to hand the ball off and when to tuck it and run on the zone-read. Auburn ended up with 545 yards on the ground, 101 of which belonged to Marshall, who averaged a staggering 12.0 yards per carry. But what has been most impressive about Marshall is his passing. He still is not the most accurate or developed passer, but when he throws it, he makes it count. Against Missouri, he kept the Tigers' defense honest by completing 9 of 11 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown.

Auburn's big uglies: Applaud Mason, congratulate Marshall and pat Corey Grant, Ricardo Louis and Cameron Artis-Payne on the back. But when you consider the running lanes they all had to work with in Atlanta, it's no wonder those guys went off for more than 500 yards. Reese Dismukes, Greg Robinson and the rest of Auburn's offensive line controlled the point of attack, moving around a defensive front that Alabama coach Nick Saban earlier in the day called the best in the league. Michael Sam's pass-rushing ability was negated and Matt Hoch wasn't allowed to disrupt the running game up the gut. Auburn's 545 rush yards was the most allowed by Missouri in a game since at least 2000.

James Franklin, Missouri: Missouri didn't lose to Auburn because of its offense, and fans certainly can't turn to Franklin and wonder, "What if?" Maty Mauk couldn't have done any better. Maybe no one could have. When you score more than 40 points in a game, you should win. Given the way Missouri's defense struggled to stop Auburn in Atlanta, it's safe to say Franklin kept his team in the game. The senior signal-caller threw for 303 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri: Did anyone else watch Green-Beckham take that screen pass 37 yards for a first down in the second half and see shades of NFL All-Pro Calvin Johnson? The speed. The size. The graceful stride. It was all there when Green-Beckham ran over the middle and past the Auburn defense for the big gain. Auburn's secondary had no answer for the 6-foot-6, 225-pound former five-star receiver, who wound up going off for 144 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Their pain exiting the visitor's locker room was obvious. Far-off looks and muted responses told their story. Alabama's players had just endured the most heartbreaking, debilitating loss of their careers. And to make matters worse, it happened at Auburn on an improbable finish that Tide wide receiver Kevin Norwood couldn't help but call "lucky."

But it wasn't luck that led to Auburn's win. That's a hard pill for Alabama fans to swallow so soon, but the game was tied with one second remaining. That was no fluke. Nick Saban then went for a long field goal, didn't have his players properly prepared to defend the return and paid the ultimate price. The gates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium flooded into a blue and orange sea of joy, and Alabama had no one to blame but itself.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesGus Malzahn has a lot in common with Nick Saban.
Was it a likely scenario? Of course not. According to NCAA records, it was only the fourth time that a missed field goal was returned for 100 yards. But the answer to that most timeless of questions -- Did they win the game or did the other team lose it? -- doesn't apply here. Forget Cade Foster's missed field goals. As a matter of fact, get off his back already. You'd do well to remember the litany of missed opportunities Auburn had as well. The Tigers dropped passes, fumbled the football and committed penalties.

It's been more than 24 hours since the best, craziest, wildest Iron Bowl ever, and that's more than enough time to realize what we witnessed on Saturday night: Both teams played like champions, both coaches were among the best in the game and this rivalry is going to be the most compelling in college football for years to come.

As one SEC head coach told me prior to Saturday's game, "Alabama is at the top … Auburn is still trying to get there." Well, whether Auburn wins the SEC championship and advances to the BCS title game is beside the point now. They proved that coach wrong. By beating Alabama, Auburn showed it’s more than just a team on the rise, it's an equal. The upstart Tigers are ready to compete with the likes of the vaunted Tide for championships today, not somewhere off in the future.

And the Iron Bowl rivalry is better off for it. Why? Because competitive games are good games, and rivalries are healthiest when both teams are playing well. What we saw from Alabama and Auburn over the past two seasons was sickly, predictable and no fun to watch.

Gus Malzahn, instead, has the Tigers back less than a year after walking into what was, by all accounts, a dumpster fire. Players quit, recruits jumped ship and the entire coaching staff was fired two seasons removed from a national championship. Rebuilds of that variety are supposed to be measured in years, not months. Winning Iron Bowls wasn't supposed to happen right away. Look at it this way: Nick Marshall's touchdown run in the first half Saturday was the first offensive touchdown by Auburn against Alabama since 2010.

Sound familiar, Alabama fans? It should. Saban walked into a similar mess in 2007. He took a little longer to recover from what NCAA probation and Mike Shula left behind, but in 2008 he and Alabama snapped Auburn's six-game Iron Bowl winning streak with a 36-0 win in Tuscaloosa. A year later the Tide won a national championship.

Try to separate Saban and Malzahn all you want, but their similarities are striking. They're both singularly focused coaches with a public personality that, to be put kindly, is often lacking. They eat, sleep and breathe football. They don't hype games and they don't regale the media with humorous stories. And they're both geniuses at what they do. Saban has established himself as the best defensive coach in college football and Malzahn is quickly making his case to become the best offensive coach in the game. One pushes the tempo like a maniac while the other does everything he can to slow it down.

It's brilliant. You couldn't draw up a better foil than Saban to Malzahn and Malzahn to Saban. They're even in the same state. They're practically neighbors. They'll cross each other's path on the recruiting trail, nod, smile and silently plot ways to ruin one another's existence. Just think of the weeks and months the Alabama staff will spend in the dark scouring Auburn's film this offseason, trying to find some place to exploit, some soft spot in the read-option to destroy.

Get ready, Alabama. Prepare yourself, Auburn. You're both lucky because this is going to be a fun ride for the next few years. With these two coaches, the Iron Bowl should continue to be a competitive back-and-forth like we saw Saturday every year.

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ESPN 300 Ranking Motivates Byron Cowart
After a recent rise into the top 10 overall, defensive end Byron Cowart of Armwood (Seffner, Fla.) joins ESPN's Matt Schick to discuss recruiting and the new ESPN 300.Tags: Byron Cowart, Armwood, ESPN 300, RecruitingNation, high school football recruiting, Matt Schick
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