Auburn Tigers: Auburn Tigers

Price of playing good defense going up

December, 13, 2014
Dec 13
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Alabama’s Kirby Smart makes $1.35 million per year and, at least for now, is the second-highest-paid defensive coordinator in the state.

How is that possible?

This is how: The price for good defense in college football is skyrocketing, especially in this era of offense being played at breakneck pace and 57 FBS teams averaging more than 30 points per game this season.

It’s the reason Auburn went out and made one of Smart’s best friends, former Florida coach Will Muschamp, the highest-paid coordinator (offense or defense) in college football. Muschamp’s blockbuster deal will pay him in excess of $1.6 million per year, which according to USA Today’s recent study, is more than at least 60 FBS head coaches earned this season.

That’s some serious dough to be paying a coordinator, but Auburn is serious about establishing the kind of identity on defense that it has on offense under Gus Malzahn.

What’s more, there’s also the business of keeping up with Alabama, which outgunned Auburn 55-44 a few weeks ago in the Iron Bowl, sending the Tigers to their fourth loss. In all four of those losses this season, Auburn gave up at least 34 points.

Less than 24 hours after the loss to Alabama, Malzahn fired veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who has a pretty spiffy résumé of his own. But Auburn struggled to stop people most of the season, and even though the Tigers played for the national championship a year ago, Malzahn felt like he had to make a move on defense.

It was already a foregone conclusion that Muschamp was going to be one of the hottest free agents out there after getting the boot at Florida with two games remaining in the regular season, which made Malzahn’s decision to part ways with Johnson only that much easier.

South Carolina and Texas A&M had also set their sights on Muschamp, who had the luxury of sitting back and seeing how everything played out. He walked away from Florida with a $6 million parting gift and his reputation as one of the top defensive minds in the game fully intact.

Few defensive coaches around the country are more respected than Muschamp, who runs the same 3-4 defense Alabama does under Nick Saban and Smart and has a keen eye for the kind of player he’s looking for in his scheme.

Muschamp’s problems at Florida were on offense. The Gators were a load on defense every year he was there. In fact, they’re the only team in the SEC to finish in the top 10 nationally in total defense each of the past four seasons. They allowed just 4.45 yards per play this season; only four teams in the country were better (Clemson, Penn State, Stanford and UCF).

The Gators gave up 21.2 points per game this season, which was their highest average under Muschamp.

His true value goes a lot a deeper than numbers, though. His defenses play with a passion and a bloody-your-nose mindset that are infectious, and it also doesn’t hurt that he knows Alabama’s defensive scheme inside and out.

Saban has said the two guys who know how to run his defense exactly the way he wants it run are Smart and Muschamp.

The challenge for Muschamp will be incorporating his style of defense into Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle system on offense. As a rule, the two don’t always go together, and one of the tricky parts is being able to find the right balance on the practice field, where, as a defensive coach, you feel like you’re able to be physical enough to keep your edge.

One of the reasons Muschamp was comfortable with signing on as Malzahn’s defensive coordinator was that Malzahn, for all the talk about his being a spread coach, believes deeply in running the ball. The Tigers are not one of these spread teams that’s going to throw it on every down.

It’s an offensive world right now in college football. Every game is on television, and the people who write the checks love points and love being entertained.

Most of the marquee head-coaching jobs are going to offensive guys right now. That’s no coincidence.

But it’s also no coincidence that the teams winning national championships are also playing championship defense. Only one of the past 10 BCS national champions (Auburn in 2010) has finished outside of the top 10 nationally in total defense.

The game’s changing, no doubt, but not to the point where defensive coaches of Muschamp’s ilk are devalued.

As Auburn showed us Friday night, people are still willing to pay top dollar to get them.

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On The Trail Show (noon ET)

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
8:00
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Join RecruitingNation's panel of experts as they break down all the recruiting news around this week's rivalry games.

Three keys: Auburn vs. Samford

November, 21, 2014
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For 27 Auburn seniors, Saturday will be the last time they play a game inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. It won’t be quite as dramatic as last year’s home finale, but this senior class will be extra motivated to finish strong in front of their fans.

“This is a very good group of seniors that has done a lot of great things for Auburn,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “So I’m really hoping our fans will show up, be loud and send these guys off on the right track.”

Auburn is 26-0-1 all-time against Samford and 91-47-2 against teams from the state of Alabama.

Key player: C Reese Dismukes

Dismukes, recently named a semifinalist for the Outland Trophy, has started more games (47) than any other player on Auburn’s roster. Saturday will be his 29th and final start at home. No player has meant more to the program over the last four years. He’s snapped the ball to six different quarterbacks. He’s blocked for four separate 1,000-yard rushers. And the last player other than Dismukes to start at center was Tunde Fariyike, who started in October 2012 against Ole Miss. Enjoy him while you can Auburn fans.

Key question: Which running back will gain the most yards?

There are four running backs who might have more than 100 yards on Saturday. Cameron Artis-Payne, the SEC’s leading rusher, is almost a lock to hit the century mark. He’s done it in seven of Auburn’s 10 games this season. Fellow senior Corey Grant has been quiet for much of the season, but he could see more touches against Samford and he’s liable to break one at any time. Then there’s freshmen Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber. It all depends on how many carries they get, but both are averaging more than 5 yards a carry this season.

Key stat: On runs outside the tackles, Auburn had its fewest carries (8) and yards (32) in a game under Malzahn last week against Georgia per ESPN Stats & Info.

How does a team that has scored 20 or more points in 23 straight games score only seven points last weekend? The stat above will give you the answer. Auburn was averaging nearly 150 yards per game on runs outside the tackles this season, but Georgia took that away. Why does that matter this week? It doesn’t really, not against Samford, but it’s important for Nick Marshall and the offense to find its rhythm before next week’s Iron Bowl. Also, Marshall needs only 78 rushing yards to become Auburn’s all-time leading rusher at quarterback.

Three keys: Auburn at Georgia

November, 14, 2014
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Saturday marks the 118th meeting between Auburn and Georgia in what is known as the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. The two schools have played 117 games, and Auburn holds a one-game edge (55-54-8) thanks to last year’s memorable win and the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare" to add to the rivalry's already substantial lore.

“It’s one of the better rivalries in college football,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “It’s the oldest rivalry in the South, so it’s going to be a big one.”

[+] EnlargeRicardo Louis
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsRicardo Louis answered the "Prayer at Jordan Hare" in last year's game against Georgia, adding another epic chapter to the oldest rivalry in the South.
“It’s always meant a lot to me,” added Georgia coach Mark Richt. “It hits at a time of year where usually it’s going to decide somebody’s fate when it comes to playing for the SEC championship.”

This year is no different. If Georgia wins and Missouri loses Saturday, the Bulldogs would clinch the SEC East. Auburn’s road to Atlanta is a bit more treacherous, but there’s still a chance of winning the West if the Tigers can win out.

Key player: QB Nick Marshall

The return of Todd Gurley might have been a blessing in disguise for Auburn, or at least for Marshall. The former Georgia defensive back turned Auburn quarterback has flown somewhat under the radar this week with Gurley grabbing most of the headlines. But Marshall is returning to the place where he started his career and the same place where he reportedly stole from his teammates. He’s typically a cool customer, but how will he handle the hostile atmosphere this Saturday? The Tigers need him at his best if they want to return home with a win.

Key question: Can Auburn’s offense keep up without its top wide receiver?

Though Malzahn has yet to officially rule out D'haquille Williams for Saturday’s game, we can go ahead and assume he’s not going to play. That’s a big blow considering how important he was to this offense, but don’t forget that Auburn beat Georgia last year without him. In that game, fellow wide receiver Ricardo Louis had maybe his best game as a Tiger. He rushed for 66 yards and caught four passes for 131 yards, including the game-winning touchdown. He’ll likely play a key role Saturday, and as always, expect a heavy dose of Cameron Artis-Payne.

Key stat: Auburn has allowed 36.2 points per game in its last four games (2-2) after giving up only 14.4 in its first five (5-0), according to ESPN Stats & Info

What happened to this Auburn defense? The competition has been better, no doubt, but it still feels like the unit has regressed since the beginning of the season. It doesn’t get any easier this week against a Georgia team which is averaging an SEC-best 43 points per game, even with Gurley missing the last four games. Now he’s back to pair with freshman phenom Nick Chubb in the backfield, and quarterback Hutson Mason is playing as well as he has all season. The Tigers better hope they can either force turnovers or get stops in the red zone.
Everybody keeps talking about Les Miles' 46-4 record at home in night games, but how about Gus Malzahn’s record at home? Auburn is a perfect 13-0 at Jordan-Hare Stadium since Malzahn took over prior to last season, winning by an average of average score of 41.5-19.0.

The second-year coach will put that streak to the test Saturday when the Tigers welcome Texas A&M to town in what will be the last SEC home game for Auburn’s seniors.

Key player: Right tackle Avery Young

Young began the season at guard but has since moved back to right tackle, and Saturday he’ll draw the assignment of trying to slow down Texas A&M’s star freshman Myles Garrett. That’s no easy task. Garrett has already set the freshman record for sacks (11), a mark previously held by Jadeveon Clowney, and he still has three games left to play. As a team, Auburn leads the SEC having only allowed six sacks on the season, but Young and the rest of this offensive line will have their hands full with the Aggies’ talented youngster.

Key question: How will Kyle Allen fare in his first SEC start?

It wasn’t that long ago when another true freshman quarterback was making his first SEC start at Auburn, and it didn’t go so well. LSU’s Brandon Harris went 3-of-14 for 58 yards before getting pulled in the third quarter. Allen is obviously hoping for a better performance Saturday, but he didn’t blow by anybody last week against UL-Monroe. The freshmen threw for 106 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The good news is that Auburn’s defense has struggled recently against the pass, but maybe this is what gets them back on track.

Key stat: Since Malzahn took over as head coach, Auburn is 16-0 when it runs for at least 240 yards and 3-3 when it does not per ESPN Stats & Info.

I’m not sure what’s crazier -- that Malzahn is perfect when his team rushes for more than 240 yards or that they’ve done it 16 times in 22 games. Either way, it shouldn’t be a hard number to reach on Saturday, not against a Texas A&M defense that is 12th in the SEC against the run and not when Auburn has Cameron Artis-Payne, the SEC’s leading rusher. Artis-Payne has gone more than 100 yards six times in eight games this season, and he’s liable to get closer to 200 against the Aggies. Maybe then he’ll start getting recognized outside the SEC.

Three keys: Auburn at Ole Miss

October, 31, 2014
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AUBURN, Ala. -- When the College Football Playoff rankings debuted Tuesday, Gus Malzahn and his Auburn team were busy practicing. They didn't see nor care that the committee put them at No. 3, the highest of any one-loss team in the country. They had all their attention on Saturday's matchup with No. 4 Ole Miss.

After all, the Tigers have to take care of business in Oxford before looking ahead.

"I'm viewing this Saturday as, this is the biggest game on the schedule,” Malzahn said. “We've got to go there, we've got to play well to win, and that's the only thing on our mind. I'm not looking ahead, this or that, no. We're going to Ole Miss, and we're trying to win a game."

Key player: RB Cameron Artis-Payne

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Butch Dill/AP PhotoAuburn Cameron Artis-Payne can expose Ole Miss up the middle.
Yes, he was the key player last week, and he responded with 167 yards rushing and a touchdown. The senior back will be even more important this week. Ole Miss has arguably the top defense in the SEC, but if there's one area it can be exposed, it's up the middle. LSU rushed for 264 yards against the Rebels last week, and it came primarily between the tackles. That's where Artis-Payne thrives for this Auburn team. It's going to be hard to reach 167 yards again, but the Tigers have won all six games that he's reached the century mark this season.

Key question: Which Bo Wallace will we see, Good Bo or Bad Bo?

It sure looked like Wallace was past his late-game struggles. He led Ole Miss back to a thrilling come-from-behind win against Alabama and through the first seven games, he had thrown six touchdowns to no interceptions in the fourth quarter. That all changed Saturday. Wallace went 6-of-14 in the fourth quarter against LSU and threw the game-clinching interception. Can he bounce back this Saturday against Auburn? The Tigers have forced seven turnovers in their last two games.

Key stat: Ole Miss leads the FBS in points off turnovers (97) and turnover margin (+13).

The last time Auburn went on the road, it turned the ball over on its first two possessions. The Tigers were down 21-0 before they knew what hit them. This offense can't afford to turn the ball over like that again and Nick Marshall in particular has to be careful against an Ole Miss defense that has an FBS-high 17 interceptions. It will be important for the Tigers to establish a running game and grab an early lead because they don't want to throw unless they have to, not against a secondary that includes Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson.
Before the season, Saturday’s Auburn-South Carolina matchup looked like one of the best we’d see all year. Two top-10 teams, two great offensive minds and a rare cross-division game that hasn’t been played since 2011.

Despite losing its last time out, Auburn held up its end of the bargain. The Tigers are ranked No. 5 in the latest AP poll. The same can’t be said for South Carolina, though. The Gamecocks are nowhere to be found in the Top 25 after a 4-3 start. It doesn’t help that Gus Malzahn is a perfect 12-0 at home since becoming the Auburn head coach prior to last season.

Key player: RB Cameron Artis-Payne

Everybody is talking about freshman running back Roc Thomas after his short but impressive stint at Mississippi State -- the coaches have even said that he’ll have a bigger role in the second half -- but don’t forget about Artis-Payne. He’s fifth in the SEC with 664 yards rushing, and he’s had over 100 yards in four of Auburn’s first six games. He’s also the type who plays better with a chip on his shoulder. He’s heard all the Roc Thomas hype, too. Saturday will be his chance to go out and prove that he is still the team’s No. 1 running back.

Key question: How much will Jermaine Whitehead play?

We know that Whitehead has been reinstated to the team after missing the last four games due to suspension. Malzahn announced the news Tuesday. But what the Auburn coach didn’t specify was how much the senior would play Saturday against South Carolina. All he said was that Whitehead would have to earn back his playing time. There have been reports that the former starting safety will play special teams for the immediate future, but for how long? When will he crack the defensive back rotation? The Tigers could sure use him next week.

Key stat: South Carolina has allowed opponents to complete 50 percent of its passes thrown 10 yards or longer this season (38-of-76), worst in the SEC according to ESPN Stats & Info.

This stat should make Nick Marshall’s eyes light up. The Auburn quarterback has always been criticized about his accuracy throwing downfield. He can throw a great deep ball, but his completion percentage on longer passes doesn’t always reflect that. Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will likely try to take a couple of shots Saturday, looking to exploit the Gamecocks’ secondary which has been prone to giving up the big play. That also means that D'haquille Williams and Sammie Coates could both be in for a big night.
Former Auburn running back Tre Mason made his NFL debut Monday night and led the St. Louis Rams with 40 yards on five carries. They were his first meaningful carries since a 37-yard scamper to the end zone against Florida State in the BCS title game more than nine months ago.

The Tigers came up short in that game, his last at Auburn, but the run capped off a terrific season in which Mason rushed for 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns. The junior left early for the NFL draft, and was taken in the third round by the Rams.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsFormer Auburn standout Tre Mason is in his rookie season with the St. Louis Rams after being drafted in the third round.
As he continues to build on Monday’s success, Mason took some time out of his schedule to talk about his rookie season, his relationship with Rams teammate Greg Robinson, and whether this season’s Auburn team can still win it all.

How is your first season with the Rams going?

Mason: The season is going great. Of course, I can’t wait to get out there and start playing football again. It’s been what, about 10 months since the national championship game? I was excited to be out there (Monday). I’m fired up.

You finally got your first NFL carry. Describe that feeling.

Mason: In my head, all I was thinking was pick up where I left off at ... keep it running.

What is it like having (former Auburn offensive tackle) Robinson on the team with you?

Mason: Having Greg on the team with me is fun. It’s like coming in here with a brother. I don’t even think blood could make Greg and I any closer. It made the transition a lot easier, just being here (together). We know how to push each other, how to keep each other’s mind right, and how to attack the game together.

What are your thoughts on Auburn’s season so far?

Mason: Those are my brothers. I still think they’re the best team in the country. Everyone faces adversity, and they’ve met theirs a little early -- like we did last year. Everyone has that adversity, but I expect them to be fighting for the national championship. I don’t expect them to lose another one.

How do you feel the running backs have performed in your place?

Mason: That’s a great group. I already knew that before I left. While I was there, I knew CAP (Cameron Artis-Payne), Corey (Grant), any of those guys can take over that role. Even Peyton Barber. There’s a bunch of talent in that backfield. It’s a scary sight.

Have you been able to get back to a game, or are you planning to?

Mason: I have not been able to. Hopefully I have time to get to a game. Hopefully they make it all the way, so I can definitely be at that game. But I’m in touch with those guys every day, like I’m still there.

What are your goals for both you and for the Rams this season?

Mason: Right now my goal is flat out, just win. Three-letter word, win. That’s all I want to do. I don’t care how it’s done, how we do it, if I play a big part, but I know I’m going to do everything I can to put together a win. That’s my only goal right now.
Auburn has dominated this series as of late, winning 11 of the last 13 games, but take a closer look and you’ll see that it’s not as lopsided as it looks. Five of the last seven games have been decided by a touchdown or less, and three of the last four came down to the final drive.

Don’t be surprised if Saturday’s game in Starkville, a matchup of No. 2 vs. No. 3, comes down to final drive yet again.

Key player: C Reese Dismukes

In a game like this, experience is critical, and nobody on Auburn has more experience than Dismukes. He’s started 42 games. He’s been to Mississippi State. He’s played in big games, bigger games than this even. (Remember last year’s Iron Bowl?) He simply knows what it takes to win. It doesn’t matter that All-SEC freshman guard Alex Kozan is out for the season or that the offensive line has had to reshuffle in recent weeks since Patrick Miller went down. What matters is that the Tigers are winning games, and that’s in no small part thanks to their captain. The offense will once again be following his lead on Saturday.

Key question: How does Auburn handle the cowbells?

Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah hates going to Mississippi State because of the cowbells. “Those things are awful,” he told the media Tuesday. And who can blame him? That constant ringing throughout the game? Brutal. So what’s the best way to take the crowd and the cowbells out of it? Score early and often. If the Tigers can get off to a fast start, similar to what they did against LSU last Saturday, then the noise won’t be a problem. If they fall behind, it’s a different story. The only ringing Auburn wants to hear is from its own fans’ cowbells.

Key stat: Auburn is 14-0 in the last two seasons when it runs for at least 250 yards and 3-2 when it does not, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

So as long as the Tigers rush for 250 yards, they’re going to win. Easy, right? Not so fast. It’s been well documented all week that Mississippi State held Auburn to 120 yards rushing last season, its fewest ever under Gus Malzahn. Sure, it was only Nick Marshall’s third game and he probably knew about 25 percent of the offense, but give credit where credit is due. The Bulldogs have a big, physical front seven, and Benardrick McKinney is as good a linebacker as you’ll find in the SEC. Auburn isn’t going to just run over Mississippi State. Expect Malzahn to get a little creative with his play calling and pull out a few tricks on Saturday.

Three keys: Auburn vs. LSU

October, 3, 2014
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Oh, how the tables have turned since last year. Auburn is now the top-10 team favored at home against a young LSU team that's starting a new quarterback. But this is still LSU. The only time Auburn has beaten the Bayou Bengals in the last seven years is when a guy named Cam was playing quarterback. Nothing will be easy.

Key player: WR D'haquille Williams

Shocker, right? Well, Williams would have been on here even if he wasn't playing the school where he was one committed. With Sammie Coates banged up and inconsistent play from Ricardo Louis and Quan Bray, it's been Duke who has picked up the slack. Quarterback Nick Marshall is completing 62.5 percent of his passes when targeting Williams and just 53.1 percent when targeting any other player. The matchup is a difficult one for Williams, but expect the Louisiana native to come up with at least one big play against LSU.

Key question: How many of Auburn's injured players will play Saturday?

Auburn might have come away with a win against Louisiana Tech last Saturday, but it didn't come without a cost. Four starters -- Montravius Adams, Kris Frost, Cassanova McKinzy and Patrick Miller -- all left the game due to injury and only Adams returned. The sophomore defensive tackle looks good to go Saturday, but the other three remain day-to-day. If both Frost and McKinzy are out, it would leave the Tigers extremely thin at linebacker and force freshman Tre Williams into action. Auburn remains hopeful that all three will play.

Key stat: LSU is allowing the third-most rushing yards per game in the SEC and has allowed two opponents to rush for at least 250 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The Tigers did not allow any team to reach that mark in 2013.

This isn't the LSU defense we've grown accustomed to seeing. Mississippi State dominated the Tigers up front two weeks ago, rushing for more than 300 yards. That's not a good sign heading into a matchup with Auburn, the No. 1 rushing team in the country a season ago. However, through the first four games, Auburn is missing key pieces like Greg Robinson, Tre Mason and Jay Prosch more than they anticipated. The offense hasn't looked as sharp. Maybe this LSU defense will be the perfect remedy to get Auburn going on the ground.
Auburn didn’t look overly impressive in its win over Kansas State last week, but road wins in hostile environments such as the Little Apple are hard to come by. On Saturday, the Tigers return home in search of their 300th win at Jordan-Hare Stadium when they face Louisiana Tech. The stadium opened in 1939.

Key player: DB Nick Ruffin

Auburn will be without starting safety Jermaine Whitehead for the second straight week, which means another start for Joshua Holsey and more playing time for the younger players such as Ruffin and Stephen Roberts. Holsey didn’t miss a beat moving from boundary safety to free safety against Kansas State -- he was named the SEC defensive player of the week -- but I’m more intrigued with how the freshmen play, especially Ruffin. He’s played some this season at both star and safety, and he’s growing more confident with every game.

Key question: What will Jeremy Johnson's role be?

We all saw Johnson line up at wide receiver for a couple plays against Kansas State, right? And then when it looked he might get a snap as the quarterback, there was some confusion and Nick Marshall came right back in the game. The plan, the timing of it, the execution -- everything about Johnson’s appearance was odd. I expect the sophomore to have a more prominent role this Saturday against Louisiana Tech. The coaches want to use him going forward, and this is the perfect opportunity to give him more game experience.

Key stat: Auburn has not allowed a third-quarter touchdown this season.

The Tigers have only allowed three touchdowns in the last 10 quarters combined after giving up three touchdowns to Arkansas in the first half of the season opener. To me, this says two things. First, the defense is much improved in Ellis Johnson’s second year as coordinator. They’re still lacking that dynamic pass rusher off the edge, but they’ve been solid against the run and they’re forcing turnovers. Second, whatever the coaches are telling the players at halftime must be working because Auburn’s second-half adjustments have been very good.

Three keys: Auburn at Kansas State

September, 17, 2014
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Auburn is ranked No. 5 in the country, but nobody’s talking much about the defending SEC champs. Alabama is currently ranked higher in the polls, and after Week 1, everybody was raving about Georgia and Texas A&M. The Tigers need a sexy win to really make a statement. How about a road win at No. 20 Kansas State on national television?

Key player: QB Nick Marshall

Marshall
Think Marshall won’t be a little extra amped for this one? Think again. He’s returning to the state where he revived his career as a quarterback, and he’s going against the program that he nearly signed with out of junior college. Bill Snyder knows him well, but that doesn’t mean Kansas State will be able to stop him. Marshall has scored a rushing touchdown in seven straight games, and the return of his favorite wide receiver, Sammie Coates, will make him even more dangerous as a passer, a part of his game he’s worked hard to improve.

Key question: How will Auburn handle its first road test?

Remember last season? Auburn opened with three straight home victories before travelling to Death Valley to face a top-10 LSU team. The atmosphere was hostile, it poured down rain, and by halftime, Auburn was trailing 21-0. Gus Malzahn’s squad played much better in the second half, but at that point it was too late. They lost 35-21. This year’s team is more experienced and more battle-tested, and they’re going to need that as they play in front of what Kansas State is expecting to be the biggest crowd in school history.

Key stat: Kansas State has won 40 straight games when leading at the half, which is currently the third-longest active streak in the country.

A slow start killed Auburn in Baton Rouge last year, and it could cost them again Thursday in the Little Apple. Kansas State is clearly very good when it gets a lead, and the Tigers have struggled in the first half this season, especially on defense. In two games, they have allowed 31 points and 447 total yards in the first 30 minutes. With the game on the road, it’s critical that Auburn start fast and try to neutralize the crowd early because the longer Kansas State hangs around, the better chance there is for an upset.
Winning at Jordan-Hare Stadium has proven difficult over the years. For non-conference teams, it's proven to be almost impossible. Auburn has won 23 straight non-conference home games dating to 2007, which means San Jose State will have its hands full in the first meeting between the two teams.

Key player: WR Sammie Coates

[+] EnlargeCoates
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsLook for a rebound week from Auburn's Sammie Coates against San Jose State.
Remember him? The guy who led Auburn with 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns just a season ago? Well, Coates caught just one pass Saturday for 13 yards. He was quickly forgotten with the debut of D'haquille Williams, the junior college transfer who caught nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown against Arkansas. Coates might not be as big or as gifted as Williams, but look for him to bounce back this week, especially considering Nick Marshall will be back under center for the Tigers.

Key question: How many true freshmen will play?

San Jose State isn't as much of a pushover as, say, Florida Atlantic or Western Carolina from last year, but the Tigers should still win this one with relative ease. Assuming that's the case, it's always fun to see which true freshmen get to play. In Week 1, Tre Williams, Nick Ruffin and Stephen Roberts were the only three to land on the participation report, and all three should see the field again Saturday. Others to watch include Racean ‘Roc' Thomas, Braden Smith, Stanton Truitt and Jakell Mitchell.

Key stat: Auburn averaged 8.5 yards per play against Arkansas last week, the most against a Power Five conference opponent since 2004. – ESPN Stats & Info

What happened to Auburn's offense taking a step backwards this season? The early departures at running back and left tackle, coupled with the loss of an All-SEC freshman at guard, were supposed to make the Tigers human again. That wasn't the case Saturday. And to think, they did it with the backup quarterback playing the entire first half. The arrival of Williams helped, along with the emergence of Cameron Artis-Payne, but as long as Gus Malzahn is running the show, Auburn will have one of the more prolific offenses in the SEC.
AUBURN, Ala. -- "There goes [Chris] Davis. Davis is going to run it all the way back. Auburn’s going to win the football game. Auburn’s going to win the football game. He ran the missed field goal back. He ran it back 109 yards. They’re not going to keep them off the field tonight. Holy cow. Oh my God. Auburn wins."

That was the last play Auburn radio announcer Rod Bramblett called inside Jordan-Hare Stadium -- the infamous "Kick-Six" -- the play that beat rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl and paved the way to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' last-second, 100-yard touchdown return won't soon be forgotten on the Plains.
As Bramblett predicted, the fans poured onto the field after the game, creating a scene that won’t soon be forgotten on the Plains.

"The imagery of that field covered in orange and blue just captured the moment, captured the sheer jubilation of something special they had witnessed," Bramblett said later.

A new season is upon us, and Auburn is focusing more on the 13 seconds left when Florida State scored the go-ahead touchdown in the BCS title game rather than the one second that was still on the clock when Davis returned the field goal to beat Alabama.

However, Saturday will be nine months to the day since that play happened, and it will surely be on the fans’ minds as they return to Jordan-Hare Stadium to watch the Tigers open the season against Arkansas. It will be the first game back home since the Iron Bowl.

"We’ll be excited," Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne said. "I don’t know what it’s going to be like. We’ve got the greatest fans, so I know it’s definitely going to be a great atmosphere. I’m just looking forward to it."

"I think in terms of season openers, home openers, the electricity and the atmosphere will probably be at an all-time high," Bramblett added. "I just think it’s going to be an incredible scene."

There is a strong possibility that the replay of the kick-six, accompanied by Bramblett’s call, will be shown on the scoreboard before the game, and though the players will likely be in the locker room, Artis-Payne believes he will know when it comes on.

"I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to hear them," he said.

As of Wednesday, Bramblett hadn’t come up with his signature lead-in that he does before every game, but he was confident this first one of the season would include last year’s Iron Bowl in some form or fashion.

Auburn meanwhile is hoping for a similar result in the win-loss column, but it could do without all the drama this time around.

Three keys: Auburn vs Arkansas

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
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Winning the SEC championship isn’t easy, but winning it two years in a row has proved nearly impossible as of late. The last team to repeat in the SEC was Tennessee in 1998. But that is the goal for Auburn this season, and the quest begins Saturday at home against Arkansas.

Key player: Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy

Injuries, suspensions and ineligible players have left a lot of questions marks on this Auburn defense, but McKinzy is one player you can count on. He led the Tigers with 75 tackles a year ago, and that number should increase this season with his move to middle linebacker. The junior will be especially important on Saturday against a physical Arkansas team that features a trio of talented running backs, and he also might get his feet wet as an edge pass-rusher, a spot where the coaches want to use him on third-down-and-long situations.

Key question: How will Jeremy Johnson play in his first SEC start?

The big question is obviously how long it will take before Nick Marshall comes into the game, but I’m curious to see how Johnson responds to the opportunity. He played well against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic last year, but those weren’t SEC opponents. All eyes will be on him this Saturday. How will he handle the pressure? If he struggles early and Marshall replaces him, he is a forgotten man. However, if he puts on a show in the first quarter, he might force the coaches to play him more this coming season.

Key stat: Arkansas allowed opponents to convert 43 percent of their third downs last season, 13th in the SEC and 94th best in the FBS -- ESPN Stats & Info

The key to slowing down this Auburn offense is to keep them off the field, and to do that, you have to make stops on third down. In last season’s game, the Tigers converted 6 of their 11 third-down attempts en route to a 35-17 victory. How do you make life easier on third down? By creating negative plays on first and second down. That will be a major part of the Razorbacks’ game plan for Saturday, so it’s important for Auburn, regardless of who plays quarterback, to get positive yardage on every play.

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