Auburn Tigers: C.J. Uzomah

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.

Ranking the SEC tight ends

June, 11, 2014
We started the day by ranking all 14 teams based on their receivers and tight ends. Next, we looked at the top 10 wide receivers in the SEC. Now it’s time to look at the top 10 tight ends.

[+] EnlargeO.J. Howard
AP Photo/Butch DillO.J. Howard figures to play a bigger role in Alabama's offense in 2014.
1. O.J. Howard, So., Alabama: He’s big, he’s strong and boy is he athletic. There were times last season when Howard looked unstoppable. Linebackers were too slow to keep up with him and cornerbacks were too small to cover him one on one. But he was underutilized as a freshman, failing to catch a pass in five games. With Lane Kiffin now running the offense and a new quarterback under center, Howard won’t go unnoticed as a sophomore.

2. Hunter Henry, So., Arkansas: Even without any consistency at quarterback, Henry emerged as one of the most promising young tight ends in the country as a true freshman last year, a pass-catcher who wasn't afraid to go over the middle. He finished with 28 catches for 409 yards and four touchdowns, and this year coaches are expecting even more.

3. Evan Engram, So., Ole Miss: Injuries clouded an otherwise eye-opening rookie campaign. He started last season on a tear with 20 catches and four touchdowns through seven games and then missed the final five games of the regular season. If he has a clean bill of health, he’s the type of hybrid receiver-tight end who can flourish in Hugh Freeze’s offense and complement Laquon Treadwell on the outside.

4. Jake McGee, Sr., Florida: The Gators' outlook at tight end went from bleak to rosy in one stroke when McGee transferred from Virginia, where he was the Cavs' leading receiver last season. At 6-6, 255, he gives quarterback Jeff Driskel a veteran safety net he can turn to in a pinch. Last season at UVA, McGee got a first down or touchdown on 26 of his 43 receptions.

5. Malcolm Johnson, Sr., Mississippi State: When he arrived in Starkville, Johnson was a three-star wide receiver who weighed only 200 pounds. Now, four years later, he’s 231 pounds and considered one of the better tight ends in the conference. He not only has evolved into a tight end, he ha become more productive every year. He had his best season yet last year with 30 catches for 391 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Rory Anderson, Sr., South Carolina: The only question with Anderson is his health. He tore his triceps during spring practice, but the Gamecocks are optimistic that he will be ready for the season. He's a big-play target at tight end who has averaged 17.8 yards per catch during his career and had five touchdowns as a sophomore.

[+] EnlargeJay Rome
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia's Jay Rome, who was the top-ranked tight end in the Class of 2011, has 20 career catches for the Bulldogs.
7. Jay Rome, Jr., Georgia: Everybody is excited about incoming freshman Jeb Blazevich, but don’t sleep on Rome. He only had nine catches last year, but he played behind Arthur Lynch and missed the final four games with an injury. At 6-foot-6, 254 pounds, Rome will provide a big target for quarterback Hutson Mason, and be an asset in the rushing game.

8. Cameron Clear, Sr., Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin’s wide-open up-tempo offense doesn’t have an extensive history of using tight ends but he hasn’t always had the kind of premier player at the position to utilize. Clear, a massive 6-6, 274-pounder who can move well for his size, gives the Aggies a matchup advantage at the position. He wasn’t used often in his first year on campus, but look for his role to expand this fall under new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.

9. Jerell Adams, Jr., South Carolina: With three touchdown catches in 22 career games, Adams is one of those players who could explode this season. He's got great size (6-6, 247) and more than enough speed to get open and make plays down the field.

10. C.J. Uzomah, Sr., Auburn: He might not be the most productive tight end in the SEC, but he’s one of the most clutch. Uzomah had the game-winning touchdown grab against Mississippi State, and he caught another touchdown in the Iron Bowl. As quarterback Nick Marshall evolves as a passer, Uzomah could see his stock rise.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Nick Marshall sat in the film room and watched last year’s tape with offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, he saw all of his flaws. He wasn’t making the right reads. He was handing the ball off when he should’ve kept it. He was overthrowing his wide receivers or throwing it behind them. He was tentative at times, afraid to make a mistake.

He didn’t look ready.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's coaches are looking for significant improvement in Nick Marshall's completion percentage.
To his defense, Marshall showed up at Auburn over the summer and had very little time to learn the offense. He had his natural abilities, but playing for Gus Malzahn in the SEC was a far cry from his days of playing in junior college.

“If somebody could go out there and try to play quarterback for us I think it would blow their mind,” Malzahn said. “Just pre-snap what they have to do, communication, get everything straight before they even look at the defense. There’s a lot to it.”

After watching tape from earlier games against LSU and Texas A&M, Lashlee fast forwarded to the Tennessee game. It was like night and day. Marshall completed his first two passes, and midway through the first quarter, he dropped back, went through his progressions, looked off a safety and threw a gorgeous touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah.

Those turned out to be his only three completions in the game, but you could see the poise, the moxie. He was confident again and in control of the offense.

Two months later, Marshall had maybe his best game passing of the season when Auburn played Florida State in the BCS title game. He went 14-of-27 for 217 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in a 34-31 loss to Seminoles. The quarterback who showed up that game looked completely different than the one who was missing throws early in the season.

Fast forward again. Spring practice has started for the Tigers, and the quarterback who sits in the film room with Lashlee is even further along than the one who lost in Pasadena. It’s only been a week, but Marshall already looks like he’s in midseason form.

“It's just the way he's carrying himself,” Malzahn said. “You can tell he's getting more comfortable, and the game's a lot slower for him. He’s had a solid first week.”

As the game slows down, Marshall’s passing picks up. He missed his fair share of deep balls last season, but according to his receivers, he’s been putting them on the money this spring. He’s also been crisper on the short routes and looks more comfortable in the pocket.

“I’m seeing an NFL-caliber quarterback right now, and it’s just the spring,” senior receiver Quan Bray said. “He’s making throws that he wasn’t making last year.”

“Nick’s throwing the ball real good,” fellow target Sammie Coates added. “It’s going to be a shock to the world what he’s going to do when he puts it all together.”

It’s not like running the ball didn’t work for Auburn last year. The Tigers led the nation in rushing, and their offense carried them all the way to the national championship game. However, with an experienced Marshall and a talented group of skill players around him, Malzahn expects his quarterback to throw it more this fall.

“Nick's a very talented player, not just running, he can really throw it,” Malzahn said. “I know I said that a lot during the fall, but now that he's got a spring, he'll be more comfortable, more reactive and we feel very good about him throwing the football."

Just because Marshall was known more for his rushing abilities last season doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy throwing it. He threw for 3,142 yards the year before while in junior college.

But the goal is not just to have Marshall throw it more. The goal is to have him throw it more and throw it at a higher completion rate. Last week, Lashlee said he wants his quarterback to complete between 65 and 70 percent of his throws. That would be a significant improvement from a year ago when Marshall had a 59.4 completion percentage.

“It’s a goal,” Marshall said. “It should be a goal. The expectations for us are high this year. I’m just going to do what the [coaches] tell me and complete the passes like they want me to. I’ll go through all my progressions and not turn the ball over.”

The expectations are high for Auburn this year, and its success rides on both the legs and the arm of its quarterback. The Tigers will go where Marshall takes them.
This is Part III of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- In 2013, Auburn ran it 72 percent of the time. That means for every time they threw a pass, they ran it three times. That’s closing in on teams such as Air Force, Georgia Tech and Navy, and yet, the Tigers don’t run a triple-option offense -- not a traditional one, anyway.

Even Gus Malzahn, a run-first head coach, would say his Auburn team ran the ball a lot last season. In fact, no team he has coached at the college level has run that much. The closest would’ve been when he was AU’s offensive coordinator in 2010 and the Tigers ran 69 percent of the time, but traditionally, his teams have had more of a 60-40 split.

[+] EnlargeCoates
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsSammie Coates returns after leading Auburn with 42 receptions for 902 yards and seven touchdowns.
So to say that Auburn will be more balanced on offense in 2014 isn’t exactly going out on a limb.

Tre Mason, the SEC’s leading rusher, is gone. Greg Robinson, the league’s best run-blocking offensive tackle, left after his sophomore year. And Jay Prosch, arguably one of the nation’s top blocking fullbacks, played his last game against Florida State.

It’s still Auburn, though, and Malzahn is still the coach which means the Tigers are going to run it more often than they throw it. You can take that to the bank. However, don’t be surprised if the split on next year’s team is closer to 60-40 as opposed to 70-30.

How’s this for a prediction? Quarterback Nick Marshall will average at least 10 more passing attempts per game next season. That’s 27 for those counting at home.

Too many? Keep in mind that Auburn has its top four receivers back including Sammie Coates, the team leader with 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns. Marshall will also have tight end C.J. Uzomah, his go-to target down in the red zone, at his disposal.

But the real reason isn’t Coates or Uzomah. It’s the addition of the top 2014 junior college player in the nation, wide receiver D'haquille Williams.

From his RecruitingNation scouting report: “[Williams] has terrific tools and phenomenal ball skills/body control to consistently make plays even when covered. Possesses premier, immediate impact ability, but still must learn little nuances of the position.”

The incoming star has already enrolled and could be the team’s No. 1 wide receiver by the end of the spring. If nothing else, he and Coates should form a receiving tandem that’s as good as any other in the SEC. How can you not throw to that?

This will also be Marshall’s first spring practice with the team, and the emphasis will be on his improvement as a passer.

“He throws the ball well,” Malzhan said after the season. “I think the big thing is just getting his timing down with him and his receivers. And probably just giving him a little more freedom now that he will know the offense even better.

“Week to week, you have a game plan. It was good for him having that 30 days [prior to the BCS title game]. I think you could see that in the passing game. We’re looking forward to spring.”

Malzahn will also have Jeremy Johnson this spring, an asset he didn’t have a year ago at this time. The backup quarterback, considered a better passer than Marshall, threw for 422 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman. He could be in for a bigger role this coming season as the staff looks to find news ways to get him involved.

Ultimately, Auburn will still be a run-first team, but if the Tigers wants to play to their strengths and utilize all of their weapons, that means a more balanced offense on the Plains in the fall.

Video: Auburn TE C.J. Uzomah

January, 7, 2014

Chris Low talks with Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah following the Tigers' loss to FSU in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.
Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Today's matchup is between Auburn’s wide receivers and Florida State’s defensive backs.

Auburn’s wide receivers: If there was ever a game for Auburn to stick to the run, this would be it. Quarterback Nick Marshall has struggled at times through the air and the Tigers are in for their most challenging test yet against a Florida State secondary that leads the nation in interceptions (25).

Expect a heavy dose of Marshall and Tre Mason running the read-option together like they’ve done all season.

Florida State still has to be wary of Auburn’s big-play ability. It starts with Sammie Coates who has emerged as a go-to wide receiver for the Tigers. He’s one of the fastest players in the SEC, if not the nation, and he leads the team with 38 catches for 841 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s second nationally in yards per catch (22.1) and all seven of his scores have come from more than 35 yards. It was his 39-yard touchdown grab in the final minute against Alabama that put Auburn in position to win that game.

The problem for the Tigers is that nobody has emerged opposite Coates. Freshman Marcus Davis had his moments early in the season, making key catches in critical situations. Ricardo Louis, who hauled in the 73-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to beat Georgia, might be the most dangerous athlete on the team. But neither has been consistent.

When Auburn plays Florida State, it’s going to need a play in the passing game from somebody other than Coates. Whether it’s Davis, Louis or even tight end C.J. Uzomah, who’s healthy again, somebody is going to have to step up and make a play when their number is called. Nothing will come easy, though, against a talented Seminoles’ secondary.

Florida State’s secondary: Only five teams threw less often this season than Auburn, which runs the ball on 72 percent of its plays. When the Tigers do throw, however, they’ve mustered some big plays -- averaging 14 yards per completion.

The recipe for Auburn is pretty simple -- run, run, run, then go deep. It’s a plan that may run into some trouble against Florida State, however. The Seminoles’ secondary is the nation’s best for the second straight season. Lamarcus Joyner leads a deep and talented group that leads the nation in fewest yards per attempt (4.9), most interceptions (25) and lowest QBR allowed (18.1). Opponents have completed just 6 of 36 passes thrown 20 yards or more against them this year, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Coates and Louis both have good size to win some battles downfield, but Florida State can match that physicality with P.J. Williams (6-0, 190) and Ronald Darby (5-11, 190), who have both been exceptional this year. Darby has allowed just seven completions this year and allows the fifth-lowest completion percentage among AQ-conference defensive backs in the nation.

Marshall can keep some plays alive with his legs, giving his receivers a chance to get open downfield, but Florida State hasn’t been burned often this year. Sammy Watkins, Allen Hurns and Devin Street all found some success this season, which should provide a bit of optimism for Coates, but no QB has managed better than 7 yards per attempt against FSU’s secondary all year. In its last eight games, Florida State’s secondary is allowing just 4.5 yards per attempt with 6 TDs and 19 INTs.

Ostendorf: Edge Florida State

Hale: Edge Florida State

ATLANTA -- As Auburn fullback Jay Prosch walked off the field inside the Georgia Dome Saturday night, confetti still stuck to his sweat-drenched jersey, he couldn't help but feel like he'd seen this before.

The surroundings were different, as was the significance of the moment, but the performance he saw from his teammates, especially juggernaut running back Tre Mason, was all too familiar. The Tigers had just churned out 545 crippling rushing yards, including 304 from Mason, in Auburn's 59-42 win over Missouri in the SEC championship game.

It was a performance for the ages, but Prosch wasn't surprised by the effort or production he saw, especially from Mason, who catapulted himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsTre Mason led Auburn's historic rushing attack against Missouri with 304 yards and four touchdowns.
"I see a performance like that out of Tre every week," Prosch said. "He runs hard and he's the same runner every time. I love the guy."

Mason has quietly been one of the league's most consistent running backs, but Auburn's running game has been incredible all season. Everyone knew how dangerous Auburn's running game was, but seeing the Tigers dismantle the SEC's top two rushing defenses in back-to-back weeks was eye-opening.

Auburn punished Alabama with 296 rushing yards before gutting Missouri Saturday. Auburn's 545 rushing yards was the third most gained this season nationally. Mizzou hadn't even allowed a team to rush for more than 184 yards in a single game, but Auburn had 282 by halftime.

"We could tell right away that we were wearing them down up front," said running back Cameron Artis-Payne, who added 36 yards and a touchdown on two carries against Mizzou. "Tre came to the sideline and was like, 'Hey, we got them,' and our offensive line, they thought so as well. They came to the sideline and said we could get push on them and we just kept rolling with it."

They rolled, rolled and rolled some more. It was the fourth time this season Auburn finished a game with two 100-yard rushers, as quarterback Nick Marshall ran for 101 yards against Mizzou. It was also the second time Auburn had four different players score a rushing touchdown.

Mason was the workhorse, carrying the ball an SEC championship game-record 46 times, but it started with tremendous push from Auburn's offensive line. Auburn pushed Mizzou's d-line around all night, creating Godzilla-sized holes for Mason and his buddies to sprint through.

Another reason for Auburn's rushing success was the offensive pace. Mizzou's offense is fast, but its defense wasn't prepared for Auburn's speed. Auburn was set and ready before most of Mizzou's defense could catch its breath. It seemed like Mason only gained energy as the game went on.

"I didn't even think about fatigue at that point in time," Mason said. "Just not quitting until the clock said zero."

Added left tackle Greg Robinson: "When they get tired, he doesn't have to work hard to do what he do."

Check out these numbers regarding Auburn's running game against Mizzou, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:

• Auburn's 545 rushing yards were the most ever by an SEC team against an SEC opponent and the most overall by an SEC team since Auburn had 565 against Southwestern Louisiana in 1985.

• Auburn had 29 carries in which first contact was not made until at least 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, the most by any AQ school in a game this season. Entering Saturday, Missouri hadn't allowed more than nine such rushes in a game.

• Auburn had 19 runs of at least 10 yards, second most in a game this season behind New Mexico, which had 20 against Air Force. Entering Saturday, Missouri had allowed 42 such runs all season and had not given up more than five in a game.

• Auburn had 29 carries outside the tackles for 309 yards, the most such rushing yards yielded by any SEC defense this season and the second most by Auburn. This season, Auburn has more rushing yards outside the tackles (2,893) than 105 FBS teams have total rushing yards.

Now the Tigers will take the nation's best rushing game (335.7 yards per game) to the VIZIO BCS National Championship against the country's No. 14 rushing defense owned by top-ranked Florida State. The Seminoles haven't allowed 100 rushing yards in three straight games.

Don't expect the Tigers to be intimidated by another stout rushing defense.

"We're able to run the ball on just about everybody, I guess," tight end C.J. Uzomah said. "Numbers don't lie at all."

ATLANTA -- In the minutes that Tre Mason spent inside Auburn's locker room before Saturday's SEC championship game, he felt as though he was in some sort of a trance. He was fully aware of where he was and what was about to transpire, but his focus was heightened.

He wasn't jittery or anxious. He possessed a calm demeanor, but spoke with power when he finally stood in front of his teammates and told them the plan: They weren't leaving Atlanta without rings.

"I had the eye of the tiger," Mason said.

Once he stepped on the field, Mason had the strength, agility and heart of one, too, as he sliced and diced his way through Missouri's top-ranked rush defense to carry No. 3 Auburn (12-1, 7-1 SEC) to a 59-42 SEC championship victory.

Mason, who has quietly pummeled SEC defenses all season, not only left Atlanta with dreams of bling and a trophy, he left with a few records and some legitimate Heisman Trophy buzz after registering a career-high 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries. The game's MVP set the SEC championship-game record for rushing yards and attempts, while leaving the rest of the SEC's running backs in his dust with a league-high 1,621 yards and a school-record 22 touchdowns on the season.

"Tre told me he was going to do that and he did," receiver Ricardo Louis said. "He's the greatest player here. He's the best running back in the nation."

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
AP Photo/John BazemoreTre Mason had four touchdowns against Missouri and has 13 TDs in his past five games.
Mason couldn't be stopped by a defense that entered the game allowing just 119 rushing yards per contest. Before Saturday, fifth-ranked Missouri (11-2, 7-1) hadn't allowed a team to rush for more than 184 yards or two touchdowns in a single game.

By halftime, Mason had 195 yards, two touchdowns and was averaging a bruising 8.5 yards per carry. With 14 minutes, 26 seconds remaining in the third quarter, his 12-yard, first-down run to Auburn's 37-yard line that gutted the middle of Mizzou's defense pushed him past LSU's Justin Vincent's SEC championship-game record of 201 rushing yards (2003).

With Mizzou worried about athletic quarterback Nick Marshall and that deceptive read-option, Mason barreled his way through a line that featured way too much three-man personnel. He did most of his damage through the middle of the field, churning his legs and exploiting truck-sized holes made by his offensive line, and finished the game with just 2 negative yards. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Mason gained 182 yards inside the tackles, the most by an SEC player this season. Mason also gained 5 yards past the line of scrimmage without being contacted on 14 of his 34 carries inside the tackles. When he made his way to the edge, he embarrassed Mizzou's ends, linebackers and defensive backs with speed that left them panting and strength that left their measly arm tackles futile.

It was only fitting that he sealed the game with a feisty 13-yard touchdown run that carried a few Mizzou defenders into the end zone with 4:22 remaining.

With Mason having his way with Mizzou's defense with every punishing run he mustered, Auburn rushed for a title game-record 545 yards (third-most nationally this season) and had seven rushing touchdowns.

"We put the workload on him for the majority of the game and he always delivers," tight end C.J. Uzomah said. "He always shows up and he's always ready to play. Sixteen-hundred yards ... there's no reason he shouldn't be in New York.

"Coach [Gus] Malzahn said we were going to run the ball down their throats and really try to impose our will, and he came out and had a performance that I don't think anybody will forget."

So it begs the question: Is Mason, who leads the SEC in rushing and has had eight 100-yard rushing games (five straight), worthy of a seat at next week's Heisman Trophy ceremony?

"I want to win that, that's a goal of mine," said Mason, who now holds Auburn's single-season record for all-purpose yards (2,137). "I want to be in New York and be a finalist for the Heisman."

"I struck the pose a couple times [Saturday]. I feel like I should be in the talk with those guys."

His coach, who knows something about the Heisman, agreed.

"You're looking at one of the top running backs in college football, and he proved it again today," Malzahn said. "So usually, the best players on the best teams have a chance at it, and you're looking at one of those guys right here."

In the nation's toughest conference, Mason ran over and through defenses. Five of the defenses he has faced rank in the top 50 against the run. He rushed for 100-plus yards against each but Mississippi State (34). He has averaged at least 5 yards per carry in nine games and has at least one rushing touchdown in 12 games.

He's confident that he's one of the best players on one of the best teams, and it seems foolish to leave him out of legitimate Heisman talk -- or New York.

He's etched his name into the Auburn record books next to -- and over -- names such as Bo Jackson and Cam Newton. His yardage total Saturday was the second-most in Auburn history. In a special season for a program that has made college football's biggest turnaround, Mason has been a major piece of the Tigers' championship run.

Now he's hoping his own run takes a detour to the Big Apple.

"I feel like I'm chasing after [my dreams]," he said, "and nothing can stop me on the way there."

What to watch in the SEC: Week 15

December, 5, 2013
Almost nobody thought these two teams -- neither of which even reached bowl eligibility a season ago after going a combined 2-14 in SEC play -- would be here when the season started, but here we are. No. 3 Auburn (11-1) and No. 5 Missouri (11-1) will meet in Atlanta on Saturday with an SEC championship, a BCS bowl berth and maybe a spot in the national championship game at stake.

Let's take a look at five things to watch in Saturday's showdown at the Georgia Dome:

Possible hangovers: One could hardly blame Auburn if it entered this game a bit flat. Gus Malzahn's Tigers are coming off consecutive miracle wins against their biggest rivals: Georgia and Alabama. Chris Davis' missed field goal return for a touchdown against the top-ranked Crimson Tide resonated outside the sports world, considering that it was a subject on conversation on “The View” and the “Today” show and not just on sports highlight shows. Likewise, an emotional win against Texas A&M prompted the home fans to empty onto the field after Missouri clinched the SEC East title last Saturday. If one of these teams starts slowly Saturday, it could easily find itself facing a big deficit early in the game.

Defending the run: If Missouri is able to slow down Auburn's powerful running game (No. 5 nationally at 318.2 YPG), it will be in a small group of defenses that has been successful in that endeavor this season. Alabama -- which entered last week's game ranked fourth nationally against the run -- couldn't do it, as Auburn ran 52 times for 296 yards. In fact, Auburn has run for at least 200 yards in all but one game this season. Tre Mason (237 carries, 1,317 yards, 18 TDs) is the league's top rusher at 109.8 yards per game and quarterback Nick Marshall (140-922, 10 TDs) is eighth at 83.8 YPG. Meanwhile, Missouri -- which is 14th nationally against the run (119.1 YPG) has yet to allow 200 yards in any game. Let's not forget about the other side of this token, however. Missouri's offense performs with more balance than Auburn's, but its running game has been extremely productive, as well. Missouri ranks second in the league in rushing offense (236.2 YPG) with Henry Josey (153-951, 13 TDs) leading the way and ranking ninth in the league with 79.2 yards per game.

Auburn secondary against Missouri's big wideouts: Auburn has done a good job of pressuring opposing quarterbacks, but its secondary has been erratic at best. The Tigers surrendered 277 passing yards and three touchdowns to Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron last week -- including a 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper -- and gave up 415 yards to Georgia's Aaron Murray in the previous game. Overall, Auburn ranks second-to-last in the SEC against the pass (256.7 YPG), which is a scary sign with Missouri's big, talented receiving corps on deck. The Tigers have the No. 5 passing offense in the league (252.6 YPG), featuring L'Damian Washington (44 catches, 824 yards, 10 TDs) and Dorial Green-Beckham (49-686, 10 TDs), who rank seventh and 12th, respectively, in the SEC in receiving yards per game. Senior Marcus Lucas (50-596, 2 TDs) ranks 10th with 4.17 catches per game.

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
Zumapress/Icon SMIMichael Sam and Missouri's defensive front will be tested by Auburn's powerful run game.
Containing quarterbacks: Marshall's emergence has been one of the leading factors in Auburn's revival after last season's dismal results. Not only is he poised to become a 1,000-yard rusher, but he has made some enormous plays in the passing game -- and not just the miracle pass for the game-winning, 73-yard touchdown to Ricardo Louis against Georgia. He hit Sammie Coates with a crucial game-tying touchdown pass in the final minute against Alabama, went for 339 yards -- including the game-winning touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds remaining -- against Mississippi State and made some huge throws in the road win against Texas A&M. He has fumbled 11 times this season (and only lost four), however, so Missouri's turnover-happy defense (SEC-high 27 takeaways) will most certainly look to generate some momentum off Marshall turnovers. On the other hand, Mizzou's James Franklin creates major matchup issues of his own. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound quarterback earned the nickname “Frank the Tank” with his physical running style, although it would be understandable if he hesitated to put his shoulder down Saturday after missing four games with a shoulder injury suffered against Georgia. Franklin was a combined 30-for-47 for 375 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against Ole Miss and Texas A&M since returning from the injury and also rushed 26 times for 122 yards in those two games, so he appears to be back to the form that makes him so difficult to corral.

Defensive playmakers: Few defensive players, if any, have made a bigger impact around the SEC this season than Mizzou defensive end Michael Sam. He leads the league with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss, while fellow defensive lineman Markus Golden is fourth with 13 TFLs and Kony Ealy (9.5) and Shane Ray (9.0) aren't far outside the top 10. If Auburn's typical form holds, Mizzou won't have much of a chance to add to its SEC-leading sack total, but its defensive front will be the determining factor in whether it can handle Auburn's running game. Aside from defensive end Dee Ford (eight sacks, 12 TFLs), Auburn doesn't have many defensive players whose individual stats jump off the page. But a deep defensive line and playmakers like Robenson Therezie, Ryan Smith and Davis have combined to deliver some clutch plays when the Tigers needed a boost the most.

Don't call Auburn lucky

November, 26, 2013

Don't call Auburn a lucky football team. The Tigers are 10-1 and fourth in the BCS standings thanks to a tipped Hail Mary touchdown pass against Georgia, but Alabama coach Nick Saban isn't about to say his SEC West rivals are anything other than good and deserving of their lofty ranking.

"I don't think they were lucky to win," Saban said of the Georgia game. "I'm not saying that at all.

"They really probably deserved to win the game, based on how they played in the game, and they got rewarded for it in the end by making a big play."

Call Auburn whatever you want. Call what's happening on The Plains a miracle season, if you must, and point to the last-second win over Georgia or the utter lack of passing game as serious flaws in Auburn's championship resume. But recognize that none of what you're saying takes anything away from what the Tigers have accomplished and what they're capable of accomplishing come Saturday afternoon when they take on the top-ranked Crimson Tide at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The Iron Bowl is alive and well because Auburn is a good football team once again. This isn't 2011 or 2012 where Alabama won both games by a combined score of 91-14, failing to surrender a single offensive touchdown in the process. Gus Malzahn was Auburn's offensive coordinator for one of those games and absent at Arkansas State during the other. Since returning as Auburn's head coach this season, he's completely turned around what was a dysfunctional program.

Nick Marshall has developed into one of the most dynamic athletes in the SEC, Tre Mason is the league's leading rusher and the defense, while porous at times, has been good at creating takeaways. Sound familiar? It should because you could describe the 2010 Tigers that beat Alabama and won the national championship with Cam Newton and Michael Dyer in the same way.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAuburn quarterback Nick Marshall has thrown for 1,530 yards and rushed for 823 yards this season.
They were called lucky then, if you remember. Alabama was even favored to beat Auburn in that year's Iron Bowl. The Tigers are a two-touchdown underdog this go around.

"We don't feel lucky, of course," said Auburn defensive end and sack leader Dee Ford. "But we feel like it would definitely close a lot of the mouths [beating Alabama] with the things that we've been hearing. At the end of the day, that's not one of our goals. We're not really worried about the outside world because the outside world didn't even believe in us last year.

"We know it will close mouths [talking] about this being a fluke season."

Teammate C.J. Uzomah said they've been aware of Alabama's success this season. It's been hard to miss the constant media coverage, he explained, and on Saturday, he and his teammates will get to show they're deserving of the same type of respect by playing them heads-up at home.

"I think that's just fuel for us," Uzomah said of the uneven attention paid to the two programs, "just knowing there's so much hype and talk about them that we're going to prove ourselves, and we feel like we will.

"We feel like we've had a great season thus far, but we aren't satisfied. We want to win this game, and I think this will be a measuring stick of how we've grown as a team, where we are and where we want to head."

Malzahn, who called Alabama the best defense his team will see this season, said he's not letting he or his players get too caught up in the national picture. Improving every day is the goal, he said, not worrying about who's saying what. As he told his team a few weeks back: "We'll worry about all that patting ourselves on the back stuff after the season."

"Anytime you win 10 games, your team has done some right things," Malzahn said of proving his team is good and not lucky. "We're playing the No. 1 team in the country for the right to go to Atlanta. That's big enough in its own right."

Taking a cue from their head coach, Alabama's players aren't about to call Auburn lucky either. If anything, they agreed that having their rival playing good football makes the Iron Bowl better.

"They're a great team," UA receiver Christion Jones said, adding that he wasn't surprised by their success. "Auburn's a good unit."

But how good? Just ask Saban, who had no trouble heaping praise on those lucky Auburn Tigers.

"They're one of the leading offensive teams in the country ... Nick Marshall has almost 1,000 yards rushing himself," he explained. "They create a lot of issues and a lot of problems. They have good receivers that can make plays down the field when you try to load up on them.

"Defensively, they've played really, really well. They're hard to score on. ... Very, very good in the kicking game. Most of the time the guy kicks the ball out of the end zone. ... All the way around, this is a very, very good team, and I think their record sort of reflects that."

Five things: Auburn-Georgia

November, 16, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. -- It’s called the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry for a reason. When Auburn and Georgia play Saturday, it will be the 117th meeting between the two bitter rivals. That’s tied for the fourth most-played current series in the nation, six games behind Minnesota and Wisconsin, which have played a record 122 times.

The winner of Saturday’s game will break a 54-54-8 tie in the all-time series. Here are five things to watch for:

Marshall check: It’s a big game for both teams, but even more so for Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall. It’s been well documented this week that Marshall began his career at Georgia but was dismissed after his freshman season for a violation of team rules. After playing in junior college for a year, he’s now on the other side of this heated rivalry. The Peach State native has always been considered calm and cool going back to his high school days, but there’s no telling what to expect Saturday. It’s critical for him to keep his emotions in check because he’s the team leader. The Tigers go as Marshall goes.

Run or pass: Auburn would love to finish with less than 10 pass attempts Saturday. That means the offense did what it’s been doing all season and ran over the opponent. The Tigers are tops in the SEC (3rd nationally) with 320 rushing yards per game. They put up 444 yards last week at Tennessee and only threw the ball seven times. It starts with Marshall, who leads all SEC quarterbacks with 734 rushing yards. He’s averaging more yards per attempt and has a higher Total QBR than Cam Newton the year Newton won the Heisman Trophy. However, it’s a strong possibility that Marshall will be asked to use his arm more against a stout Georgia run defense.

Gurley man: Georgia running back Todd Gurley might not be 100 percent, but he’s back and that could spell trouble for Auburn. The Tigers have struggled against bigger, more physical running backs such as LSU’s Jeremy Hill or Tennessee’s Rajion Neal. The latter rushed for 124 yards and a touchdown last week. Gurley is the best of the bunch when healthy. Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson called him the most physical back in the SEC. He finished with 116 yards and a touchdown last season in Georgia’s 38-0 rout over the Tigers.

Out for revenge: The all-time series might be tied, but Georgia has won six of the last seven meetings between these two, including last year’s lopsided affair. The seniors are the only class to know what it feels like to beat the Bulldogs. They did it back in 2010 when Newton was still the quarterback. The game is extra personal for the 26 Georgia natives on the roster. Marshall is the most well known, but starters Quan Bray, Jonathon Mincy, C.J. Uzomah and Gabe Wright also hail from the Peach State.

Iron Bowl implications: It’s hard to look ahead, but if the Tigers wins Saturday, it turns the Iron Bowl into a virtual SEC championship play-in game between in-state rivals Alabama and Auburn. Both teams still control their own destiny with just two conference games left for each. It would be the first time since 1994 that both the Crimson Tide and the Tigers entered the game with one or fewer losses in SEC play. However, Auburn knows it can’t look past Georgia. The Bulldogs still have a chance to win the SEC East and make a return trip to Atlanta. They need to win Saturday and hope that Missouri loses its last two remaining conference games.

Q&A: Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah

November, 15, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. -- Before the season, Georgia was expected to be the top-10 team in control of its destiny when it faced Auburn in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. But instead, it’s the Tigers who are 9-1 and ranked seventh in the BCS standings. They’re just two victories away from a spot in the SEC championship.

Georgia (6-3, 4-2) is no pushover, of course. The Bulldogs have dominated the rivalry in recent years, winning eight of the last 11 games, including a 38-0 victory last season. The majority of Auburn’s team, including tight end C.J. Uzomah, has yet to beat its cross-division rival.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Uzomah
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAuburn's C.J. Uzomah has extra incentive on Saturday, being from Georgia.
Uzomah, who grew up in the Peach State, took a few minutes to talk about Saturday’s game and what this Auburn team can accomplish.

What's this season been like for you and this team?

C.J. Uzomah: It's been great. We've had unbelievable amounts of confidence in ourselves. The coaches have instilled confidence in us, and we've really bought into what Coach [Gus] Malzahn says about buying into his system and what his coaches are going to be implementing in us. I think once we started to buy in to him and Coach [Ryan] Russell's workout program and everything we do in the offseason, that's what's showing this season. That's why we're doing as well as we are.

Last week, you caught a touchdown pass, but Nick Marshall only completed three passes all game. Is that reason for concern?

Uzomah: I don't think it's a concern. We were just able to run the ball. We know that if we're able to physically run the ball and get after it the way we were getting after it, the passing game doesn't really need to be there as much as it has to. We're confident in our passing game, and know that if the running game starts to falter, we'll be able to rely on Nick's arm and the receivers' hands to make the plays.

What's the team's mood been this week?

Uzomah: It's been higher than ever, knowing the past few games we've had with Georgia have been bad for us. We haven't played as well as we should have, and we know that they're going to bring their "A" game. It's another great SEC team, and they have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. We're just going to have to really get after it this week in preparation and perform on Saturday.

Is the game extra personal for you, being a Georgia native?

Uzomah: It, for sure, is a little more personal just because I'm going to be hearing some stuff from my friends saying Georgia this, Georgia that. So it's going to be a little more personal, but that's just going to give me a little extra fight.

Has there been any talk of what all this team can accomplish going forward?

Uzomah: It's hard to not look ahead. As players, it's hard to not look ahead. But Coach Malzahn and all the coaches are just like, 'Don't worry about it. Don't think about it because if you do, Georgia will come in here and smack you in the mouth, and you'll be stunned and not know what to do next.' As hard as it is to not look forward, I think that we've been doing a great job so far this year. We know the implications, but at the same time, we're taking it one game at a time.

What are the team goals right now?

Uzomah: Just win out and see where we lie afterward.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Gabe Wright was supposed to be a part of Georgia’ “Dream Team” recruiting class in 2011.

He hails from Columbus, Ga. He was teammates with Isaiah Crowell, a five-star running back who signed with the Bulldogs. As a sophomore, Wright thought he wanted to stay in state and play for Georgia.

Carl Lawson, Gabe Wright
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia native Gabe Wright never doubted his decision to spurn the Bulldogs for Auburn.
“There was pretty much no doubt then that I wanted to be a Bulldog,” he said.

But all that changed when Todd Grantham replaced Willie Martinez as Georgia’s defensive coordinator. The Bulldogs transitioned from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense, and among other things, Wright didn’t feel like he was a fit with the in-state school anymore.

So on signing day, when Crowell held up a bulldog puppy to announce his intentions to sign with Georgia, Wright put on an Auburn hat and signed with the Tigers.

Mark Richt and his staff inked 19 recruits from the Peach State in that 2011 class, but they let Wright, the state’s No. 4 prospect, slip away.

At first, the decision looked like it could be the wrong one. Wright watched as Georgia went 12-2 last season, narrowly missing a chance to play for the BCS national championship. Meanwhile, Auburn finished 3-9 and failed to win an SEC game. When the two teams met, Georgia shut out the Tigers to the tune of 38-0 last November.

“Before this season, I remember telling the [players] it was hard to go home and wear some of our 'AU' gear because we were 3-9,” Wright said. “It's not so much that people look at the Georgia game. It was just as a whole.”

But Wright never doubted his decision. He never wavered.

Now, Auburn is 9-1, ranked No. 7 in the BCS, and it controls its own destiny in the SEC West. It’s been the biggest turnaround in college football, and Wright can proudly wear his Auburn gear when he goes back home now.

But the Tigers face an old nemesis on Saturday in Georgia, a team that has beat them in eight of the past 11 games.

“It's the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry,” Wright said. “From a personal standpoint, I've yet to beat Georgia. There are a lot of guys that have yet to beat Georgia, all except that senior class.”

In all, Auburn has 26 players from the state of Georgia on its roster. It’s a big game from the standpoint of where the Tigers are and what they can still accomplish, but it’s also a big game on a personal level for a number of players.

“Growing up, all I hear is Georgia so I’m definitely amped up about this game for sure,” said tight end C.J. Uzomah, a native of Suwanee, Ga.

Cornerback Jonathon Mincy grew up in Atlanta as a Georgia fan, but he wasn’t even recruited by the Bulldogs.

"For everybody from Georgia, this is a personal game,” Mincy said. “Just us being there, being [from] in state and for the folks that weren't able to be recruited. It's going to be a fun game, and I'm excited to go out there and play."

But ultimately, it’s just another game on the schedule. Auburn has taken the one-game-at-a-time approach, and this week is no different. It doesn’t matter that it’s a rivalry game. It doesn’t matter that there will be plenty of familiar faces on the opposite sideline. It’s just another game.

“All that aside, it's another week,” Wright said. “Guys have showed that we've been able to persevere, push through. There ain't no stopping now.”

Week 11 helmet stickers

November, 10, 2013
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- There were plenty of helmet stickers to pass around for Auburn on Saturday. After a slow start, the Tigers found their groove in the second half and cruised to a 55-23 victory. It was the most points scored by either team in the series.

QB Nick Marshall: On the opening drive, Auburn came out throwing. Marshall completed his first pass, but after two incomplete passes and a sack, the Tigers went back to their bread and butter -- running the football. They finished with 444 yards on the ground, and it was Marshall who was the catalyst. The Auburn quarterback rushed for a career-high 214 yards and two touchdowns. He had 164 yards by halftime. He became the 25th player in school history to run for more than 200 yards and the first since Cam Newton did it against LSU in 2010. Marshall completed only three passes all game, but one was a 25-yard touchdown to tight end C.J. Uzomah. The former Georgia defensive back will face his old team next week.

CB Chris Davis: It was only a matter of time before Davis broke one on a punt return this season, and Saturday was the day. With the game tied 13-13 early in the second quarter, the senior cornerback returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown. He dropped it initially but picked it back up, made a couple of moves and the rest was history. It was the third-longest punt return in school history. In the first quarter, Davis returned a punt 42 yards which set up the Tigers for their first touchdown. He finished with 127 return yards. On defense, he made four tackles and now has 47 on the season, second on the team.

LB Cassanova McKinzy: There were plenty of outstanding performances to choose from on the Auburn defense. Robenson Therezie pulled down his fourth interception of the season. Elijah Daniel recorded his second sack of the season. But nobody played better than McKinzy. He was all over the field for the Tigers. The sophomore led the team with 10 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. At times, he was asked to spy Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs, and although Dobbs got loose a couple of plays, it could have been a lot worse if not for McKinzy. The linebacker corps has struggled this year, but McKinzy seems to play better every week. He now leads the team with 49 tackles.

Honorable mention: RB Tre Mason
AUBURN, Ala. -- The biggest turnaround in college football is happening on the Plains right now as Auburn, who started 2-7 a year ago, is sitting at 8-1, No. 9 in the BCS standings and in control of its own destiny in the SEC West.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Uzomah
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesC.J. Uzomah's TD catch against Mississippi State gave Auburn its first SEC win in more than a year.
But none of it would have been possible if not for what took place on Sept. 14.

The Tigers started the season 2-0 but were trailing Mississippi State 20-14 with less than two minutes to play. Gus Malzahn had come in and preached to the team that it was a new day at Auburn University, but how could the team buy in if they lost their 11th straight SEC game?

Quarterback Nick Marshall led the Tigers on a 12-play, 88-yard drive that was capped off by an 11-yard touchdown pass from Marshall to C.J. Uzomah with just 10 seconds left. The 24-20 victory was Auburn’s first in the SEC in nearly two years, and it set the tone for the rest of the season.

“That was a huge win,” Malzahn said. “Like I’ve said before, it’s kind of the way we won that game. We were able to come back. There was a lot of pressure on our kids at home, and I think our crowd was still trying to figure out who we were as a team. I think that gave everybody a good shot in the arm moving forward.”

One drive and these Tigers had reason to believe their new head coach.

In the past decade, Auburn and Mississippi State have opened conference play against each other every year, and the game tends to be a barometer of how the season is going to play out. In all three of Auburn’s 10-win seasons since 2004, the Tigers opened with a win over Mississippi State. Last year, the season fell apart after a loss to the Bulldogs.

So when Marshall threw the game-winning touchdown pass, the rest of the team knew just how important that moment was.

“Statistically, if you go back, if we lose to them we always have a terrible year,” center Reese Dismukes said. “If they lose to us, they have a terrible year. That's always a big one to win. That was really the starting point, the foundation for our season -- that win right there.”

Said defensive back Ryan White: “It’s a huge confidence boost. That’s all we talked about -- this game could make us or break us -- sort of like it did last year.”

It’s safe to say this year’s game has made the Tigers. Although they lost to LSU the following week, the Tigers have since run off five straight victories. The team’s confidence seems to grow with every game, and it will be needed as the Tigers prepare for their final three games, starting with a trip to Tennessee this weekend.

And while the Tigers feel good about where they are going, Malzahn says the mentality hasn’t changed.

“… I really feel like this team’s grounded,” Malzahn said. “They bought into taking it one game at a time. I don’t hear anybody talking about anything looking forward. That’s a lot of maturity from our older guys as far as leadership. They’ve done a very good job in that area.”

But the excitement around the program is back. As Malzahn noted, the fans didn’t know what to make of this Auburn team in that SEC opener against Mississippi State. Even the players were a little unsure of how good this team really was. Now, six wins later, there’s a belief that the Tigers can beat anybody.

“When you start winning games, that brings more and more people to believe in what's going on here,” Dismukes said. “Everybody has joined in together and really taken a part. Everybody is getting better each week.”

Funny what a game-winning touchdown drive in September can do for you.


Peach State: Top Tier Recruiting Ground?
California, Florida and Texas are largely considered the "Big Three" in college football recruiting. But national recruiting analyst Gerry Hamilton joins ESPN's Phil Murphy to explain why Georgia deserves to be in the top tier and has numbers to prove it.