Auburn Tigers: Auburn Tigers

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

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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

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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

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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.
Another week, another off-field incident. That is the way it has been this offseason in the SEC, and this past week was no different.

Texas A&M suspended cornerback Victor Davis after he was arrested and charged with shoplifting, and defensive end Gavin Stansbury, who was arrested in April, left the team for personal reasons.

At Georgia, Mark Richt dismissed yet another player a day after defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor was arrested for aggravated assault.

These incidents are just the latest in what has been a troubling offseason for the SEC. With media days behind us and fall camps about to begin, we want to know which team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions for this season.

SportsNation

Which SEC team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions this coming season?

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    12%
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    13%
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    42%
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    8%
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    25%

Discuss (Total votes: 14,133)

In Tuscaloosa, the media's pick to win the SEC has had its fair share of off-field incidents. Dillon Lee and Jarran Reed were both arrested for driving under the influence, Altee Tenpenny was caught with marijuana, and Kenyan Drake was arrested for disobeying a police officer. None of the players involved has been dismissed, but this is becoming both a problem and a distraction for Alabama.

Across the state, Auburn is still trying to figure out what to do with quarterback Nick Marshall. The potential Heisman Trophy contender was given a citation for possession of marijuana this month, but will he miss any time as punishment? To make matters worse, teammate Jonathon Mincy was arrested for the same thing, possession of marijuana, just two weeks prior.

The school that has been in the news the most this offseason is Georgia. Four players were arrested in March for theft by deception. Two of those four, Taylor and Tray Matthews, were later dismissed for separate incidents. A third, Uriah LeMay, opted to transfer. Back in February, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons also was dismissed from the program following multiple violations of team rules.

At Missouri, it was three strikes and you're out for star wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. The sophomore was arrested for the second time on drug-related charges in January, and after being involved in an altercation with his girlfriend in April, he was dismissed from the team. Green-Beckham has since joined Oklahoma.

Lastly, there is Texas A&M, which has not seen any decline in off-field distractions since quarterback Johnny Manziel left. Quarterback Kenny Hill was arrested in March for public intoxication. Two months later, head coach Kevin Sumlin dismissed a pair of key defenders -- Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden -- after they were arrested and charged with aggravated robbery. Then the news broke this week with Stansbury’s departure and the suspension of Davis.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Welcome to SEC media days!

It didn't seem as if we'd ever get here, but in a couple of hours, the inside of the Wynfrey Hotel will be transformed into a circus. The arrival of SEC media days brings us ever closer to the start of the 2014 season. Remember, this is the first season in which we'll be seeing an actual playoff end the season. That right there might be too much to digest.

But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the season, we're turning our attention to SEC media days. It's where you can have 1,000 media members all together -- along with a lobby jam-packed with ravenous fans (usually Alabama ones) -- crowding around kids and coaches.

It really is a beautiful thing, and here are 10 things to keep an eye on this week in Hoover:

1. Life without Marshall: Monday was supposed to be a chance for Auburn to truly introduce quarterback Nick Marshall to the world. Sure, we've all seen what he can do with a football in his hand, but this was where we were supposed to hear Auburn's quarterback talk about all he does with a football. After all, Marshall could be a Heisman Trophy candidate this fall. But after Marshall was cited for possession of a small amount of marijuana Friday, he's out for media days. Tight end C.J. Uzomah will take his place. Marshall should be here to own up to his mistake. He should be here to take responsibility, but he isn't. Now his coach and teammates have to do that.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama may be picked for the fourth time in five years to win the SEC.
2. Bama talk: For the first time since the 2011 SEC media days, Alabama did not arrive as the defending national champs. The Crimson Tide didn't even make it to the SEC title game. But that won't matter. Alabama still will steal the show. Everyone is here to see coach Nick Saban and ask questions about why Alabama couldn't get it done last season. We'll hear questions about the present and future for Alabama. And with so much talent returning, Alabama will likely be picked to win the SEC for the fourth time in five years.

3. Mason's debut: Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is headed to the big leagues, but his first official stop as the man in charge of the Commodores is in Hoover. This ain't Stanford, and it definitely isn't the Pac-12. He'll meet a throng of media members inside a gigantic ballroom. He'll be bombarded with questions about replacing James Franklin, and we'll all wonder if he has what it takes to keep Vandy relevant. Will he wow us during his introductory news conference? Or will he take the businesslike approach and just try to get through such a long day?

4. Muschamp's hot seat: After a 4-8 season that saw an anemic offense and a loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp is feeling the heat under his seat. While he has been very collected about the pressure he should be feeling, he knows that this is the most important season of his tenure. To be fair, Florida dealt with an unfair amount of important injuries, but that means nothing now. Muschamp has yet to take Florida back to the SEC title and is 0-3 against archrival Georgia. Muschamp knows he has to win, and he and his players will be grilled about it all day today.

5. Sumlin dealing with distractions: Johnny Manziel might be gone, but Texas A&M is still dealing with distractions away from the football. Before Kevin Sumlin could even get to media days, he had to dismiss two of his best defensive players in linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery earlier this year. One of his quarterbacks -- Kenny Hill -- also was arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. Once again, Sumlin will have to talk about more than just football this week.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri's Maty Mauk threw for 1,071 yards with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in place of the injured James Franklin.
6. Quarterback composure: A lot of talented quarterbacks left this league after last season, but we'll get our fill this week. Marshall might be absent, but we'll hear from Jeff Driskel, Dak Prescott, Dylan Thompson, Bo Wallace and Maty Mauk. All these guys could have big seasons and will be crucial to their respective teams' success. Can Florida's Driskel rebound after his early, season-ending injury? Is Thompson ready to replace Connor Shaw at South Carolina? Can Wallace of Ole Miss finally find some consistency? And can Prescott (Mississippi State) and Mauk (Missouri) prove their 2013 success wasn't just a flash in the pan?

7. Mauk's composure: Speaking of Missouri's quarterback, he's an incredibly interesting character to watch. He went 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured James Franklin last season, and has the right attitude and moxie that you want in a quarterback. Is he ready to be the guy full time? Is he ready to lead without a stud like Dorial Green-Beckham to throw to or Franklin to help him? A lot of veteran leadership is gone, so all eyes are on Mauk. He's also a very confident person who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Let's hope he's on his game.

8. Players and the playoff: This is the first season of the College Football Playoff, and we've received just about everyone's opinion on the matter. Well, almost. We haven't heard much from the people who might be playing in it. What do players think about it? Are there too many games now? Not enough? Do they care about the bowl experience? Do they even care about the playoff?

9. What do players think about getting paid? With the Power Five a real thing and autonomy becoming more of a reality, what do the players think about it all? What are their thoughts on the prospect of getting some sort of compensation from their schools? Are they getting enough now? How much is enough?

10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!
We continue our "most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved.

Today, we take a look at Auburn.

Most important game: Nov. 29 at Alabama

Key players: It starts with Nick Marshall. Alabama had no answer for the Auburn quarterback who had 97 yards passing, 99 yards rushing and three total touchdowns in last year's Iron Bowl. However, Tre Mason is gone; Greg Robinson is gone; and Nick Saban and Kirby Smart will have had an entire offseason to prepare for the Auburn offense. It's critical that Marshall be able to throw the ball against an inexperienced Tide secondary when the two meet in November.

That's where wide receivers Sammie Coates and D'haquille Williams come in. They hold the key to how Marshall develops as a passer this coming season, and they're both capable of making big plays against Alabama's defense.

For Auburn's defense, it will be up to the defensive line once again to not only try and slow down the Tide's rushing attack but also get pressure on new quarterback Jacob Coker. The health of Carl Lawson will be vital. Even if the sensational sophomore misses time early in the year, if he's back by the Alabama game it could provide a huge lift for the Tigers.

And somebody has to defend Amari Cooper. Jonathon Mincy is the No. 1 option, but he got burnt by Cooper for a 99-yard touchdown in last year's game.

Why it matters: Considering the last five years the winner of this game has gone on to play in the BCS national championship game, this could very well turn into a virtual play-in game for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

It's arguably more important for Alabama and its fan base after what happened last year, but if Auburn wants to rid itself of the 'little brother' label, then it has to be able to take down Alabama on a consistent basis. Since winning six in a row from 2002-07, the Tigers have won just two of the last six meetings with their in-state rival. A win in Tuscaloosa this fall will continue to shift the balance of power and further entrench Gus Malzahn as one of college football's top coaches and as a worthy adversary to Saban.

It will also do wonders in recruiting. Auburn has already started taking back some of the state's top players, most notably ESPN 300 athlete Kerryon Johnson, but back-to-back wins in the series could make the Tigers the team to beat on the recruiting trail.

There are plenty of difficult games and potential road blocks on Auburn's schedule, but none hold the same kind of weight as the Iron Bowl. Even if the Tigers lose a game or two along the way, a win against Alabama could put them right back in the playoff picture or it could ruin the Tide's chances of winning it all, which can be just as rewarding for AU fans.
LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. -- Nineteen of the nation's top quarterbacks landed in northwest Oregon on Saturday afternoon, a day before the annual Elite 11 quarterback competition begins. While eyes will be focused on several storylines during the event -- including having the top six dual-threat quarterbacks in the country on hand -- attention on Saturday turned to the few uncommitted quarterbacks in attendance, including Sam Darnold, Torrance Gibson and Deondre Francois.

SEC's lunch links

July, 2, 2014
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The World Cup run by the USMNT is over, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performance by goalkeeper Tim Howard on Tuesday. His 16 saves were a World Cup record, and there’s now talk that he could be the greatest goalie in history. Personally, I think he would’ve made a great safety, but clearly he made the right choice with soccer.



No, thank you Tim Howard. Now on to Wednesday’s lunch links.
This is beginning to sound like a broken record, but Alabama is in the midst of putting together yet another historic recruiting class. The Crimson Tide's 2015 class already has 19 commitments, 16 ranked in the ESPN 300, and it's only July. What's maybe more impressive is that 10 different states are represented in the class.

There's just one problem. When you recruit on a national level, it allows your in-state rival, in this case Auburn, to take kids out of your own backyard.

Last week, Gus Malzahn and the Tigers landed commitments from ESPN 300 offensive lineman Tyler Carr and three-star tight end Jalen Harris, two in-state prospects who had offers from Alabama but chose to go to Auburn instead.

"It was really just a gut instinct," Carr told ESPN.com after he committed. "I felt a little bit more at home at Auburn. I just had to go with what I felt was right."

In April, ESPN 300 athlete Kerryon Johnson, the state's top prospect, committed to Auburn over the likes of both Alabama and Florida State. It was a huge recruiting victory for the Tigers, and if it holds it will be the first time they have landed the No. 1 player in the state since 2011 and only the second time in the last eight years.

So what's the reason for balance of power shifting in the state of Alabama?

"I just think when Gus came back that people saw a new Auburn," Johnson said. "He brings a lot of energy to that place. They're fired up to play football now, and that's enticing to [anybody]. There's a lot of people at Bama, there's a lot of people who still choose Bama, but it's just that new fire there that's hard to pull away from."

The ‘kick six' in last year's Iron Bowl also gave the Tigers a boost.

"That's how easy momentum can shift," Johnson said. "One game, an in-state game like that, and it's just over."

Still, it's not as if Auburn is dominating the state. In fact, the Tide had the same number of in-state commitments in the 2014 class, and they have the same number of in-state commitments so far in 2015. If anything, the two are on a level playing field ... both on the field and in recruiting their home state.

But it wasn't long ago when Alabama was dominating the state, taking all of the best players. Those days have since passed.

Auburn already has five in-state commitments for 2015, and the Tigers are in good position with at least three others in the top 10 including outside linebacker Richard McBryde and offensive lineman Brandon Kennedy.

"I think it's a great thing," Carr said. "It's definitely going to help us out later on. It's something to have people from in state because it means a little bit more to them I think, but it will be really interesting to see how it goes."

Come signing day, both schools will have their fair share of in-state commitments. More importantly, both schools will have elite recruiting classes. It's the reason why they have combined to play in the last five national championship games, and it's the reason why they will be be a part of the CFB Playoff conversation for the foreseeable future.

The balance of power in Alabama might be shifting, but it's only making both sides stronger.

SEC lunchtime links

July, 1, 2014
Jul 1
12:00
PM ET
The USMNT is back in action on Tuesday against Belgium. Winner moves on to the quarterfinals. Loser goes home. Are you ready? Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is ready.

Watch the game here: United States vs Belgium, 4 p.m. ET

In the meantime, get your American football fix in with Tuesday’s SEC lunch links.

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