Auburn Tigers: Cameron Artis-Payne

AUBURN, Ala. -- When Cameron Artis-Payne addressed the media last week, he didn’t look like a player who was in the midst of a heated position battle. He looked at ease and confident of where he stood. And why wouldn’t he be? Spring has been kind to the second-year running back. It was when he emerged last year, and he hopes it will be when he solidifies a starting role for this fall.

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsCameron Artis-Payne is ready to carry the load in Auburn's backfield this fall.
“Who me?” Artis-Payne joked when asked about winning offensive MVP honors for the second year in a row. “I definitely got a shot at that ... I don’t think I’m going to need as many as touches as I did last year.”

Artis-Payne had 20 touches in last year’s spring game and finished with 164 yards of offense and a touchdown. It was a breakout performance that capped what was an impressive spring for the junior college transfer, and it ultimately landed him a contributing role in Auburn’s backfield this past season.

Although he gave way to Tre Mason once SEC play began, Artis-Payne still finished with 610 yards and six touchdowns in his debut on the Plains.

With Mason leaving early for the NFL, Artis-Payne is now battling fellow senior Corey Grant for the featured back role this spring, and although they are looked at as very different runners -- Artis-Payne known for his power and Grant for his speed -- there’s more than what meets the eye.

“It’s funny that we get that label,” Artis-Payne said. “A lot of people say I'm a power back, but I can run in the low 4.4 range. And Corey is one of the strongest guys on the team.”

Both players have shown they’re more than capable of carrying the load, but regardless of who wins the job, they’re both going to play in 2014 and play to their strengths.

“We complement each other very well,” Artis-Payne added. “It's something that just happens naturally. Out there on the field, it's just a change of pace with a guy like Corey. He's literally a home-run threat every time he touches the ball. And then you've got a guy like me that grinds away the defense. It's just a good thing to have.”

Earlier this spring, Artis-Payne admitted that he was eager for a resolution and wanted to know who the starter would be, but there has been no indication to this point as to who will win the job or when it will be announced. That’s up to head coach Gus Malzahn and his staff.

“Everybody wants to be the guy, so from that aspect of course [I want to know],” Artis Payne said. “But at the end of the day, that's out of my hands. We just need to go out there and keep working, and when he feels like it's time for a decision to be made, he'll make it.”

The uncertainty certainly hasn’t affected Artis-Payne this spring. He has practiced with that same confidence he had last spring and the same confidence that carried over into the season. He’s not concerned with what’s going on around him. He’s just putting in the work.

“Love it,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said of Artis-Payne’s confidence this spring. “Cam's a pro. Cam was a pro last year. He practices like a pro. What that means is he comes to meetings every day. He's the same every day. He doesn't have bad days. He's always attentive. He's always trying to get better.

“I've got a lot of confidence that Cam will do everything we ask him to do -- carrying the ball, protections -- and really do a good job.”

The running back battle could go the way of the left tackle battle and spill over into the fall, but Artis-Payne is hoping -- no, confident -- he will put an end to it Saturday with another MVP-caliber performance in the spring game.
AUBURN, Ala. -- If there are any questions as to whether Corey Grant can be an every-down running back this fall, just go back to last year’s Texas A&M game.

On Auburn’s opening drive, Grant took a toss sweep around the left side and picked up 32 yards. At the end of the run, the Tigers’ “speed” back could’ve just run out of bounds, but instead he lowered his shoulder and laid out a Texas A&M defender before stepping out. It was his way of showing the Aggies that they better bring a little extra when they try to take him down.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMICorey Grant is in the running to inherit at least some of Tre Mason's carries, if not the lion's share.
“It’s kind of like a chip on my shoulder,” Grant said. “Coming into the game, guys know that I’m the speed-sweep guy. When they come up to tackle me, in their minds it’s ‘he’s not a big guy or he’s not the power back so I don’t have to come at him like that.’ But I always try to be the hammer instead of the nail. In that situation, that’s what was on my mind.”

This spring, Grant is competing with Cameron Artis-Payne for the No. 1 running back job. Despite teammates calling him one of the strongest members of the team, there are still questions about his strength and durability. Can he run in between the tackles? Can he carry the load? Can he be more than a just speed guy?

It’s the same questions that were asked when he signed with Alabama out of high school and the same questions that were asked when he transferred to Auburn after just one season.

“Corey is a gym rat,” former high school coach Brian Blackmon said. “He loves the weight room, and I think that’s something he has a real passion for. He’s probably as physically strong as he can be. He does over and above what they ask him to do.

“I think he’s plenty strong enough to be an every-down back. I think he’s plenty strong enough to take that beating as an every-down back in the SEC.”

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn shared similar thoughts after the team’s first scrimmage this spring, calling Grant “very physical” and “one of the stronger guys in the weight room.” It’s why the staff is giving the senior running back every opportunity to win the job.

And who better to comment on the position battle than Tre Mason, the man they’re vying to replace?

“It’s going to be a good battle,” Mason said after his pro day workout. “Cam has carried the load at times. He knows exactly what to expect. Corey is a speedster, but Corey is very versatile. He can run in between the tackles, too, because he’s tough.”

Mason knows a thing or two about toughness. In the same game that Grant lowered a shoulder and laid out a defender, it was Mason who carried the ball 27 times for 178 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown on a run in which he refused to go down.

As a junior, Mason led the SEC in rushing and earned an invitation to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation, but he, too, had questions asked about his durability when he arrived on the Plains.

“I learned a lot from Tre,” Grant said. “The biggest thing that I really liked about him and what comes to mind every time somebody asks me about him is never letting the first guy tackle you. That was always my thing. You can go back and watch his film, and you can always see where Tre, he would never let that first guy take him down. He would break tackles everywhere.”

Now it's Grant's turn.

Regardless of whether he wins the job, he will have a role in the offense next fall. He’s still running the speed sweep this spring, and he’s likely to be the first player to come in and spell Artis-Payne next season if he’s not the starter.

But like every competitor, Grant wants to be the guy. He has a hard time admitting it, but he wants to carry the load and be an every-down back.

“Corey is a competitor so he’s going to give everything he’s got to win the job,” Blackmon said. "But he’s also one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever been around, an incredible team player.

“I know there’s a tremendous desire inside of him to be the every-down back. I also know that he’s going to do whatever Coach Malzahn and Coach [Rhett] Lashlee ask him to do to help Auburn University be successful. He’s just got that in him.”
This is Part V of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- There are still five months until Auburn’s season opener, but with spring practice beginning Monday, football is officially back. Spring is an opportunity for coaches to see what they have, a time when position battles are won, and undoubtedly there will be a player or two, off the radar, who makes a name for himself.

Last year, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and linebacker Justin Garrett turned heads during spring practice.

Artis-Payne, a junior college transfer who arrived in January, earned offensive MVP honors at the spring game and carved out a role in the Tigers’ backfield. Garrett, meanwhile, found a home at the Star position. His performance, highlighted by a fumble return for a touchdown in the spring game, earned him a starting role before injuries derailed his season.

Now, as Auburn heads into Year 2 under coach Gus Malzahn, here are two candidates poised to break out this spring.

Peyton Barber, RB, freshman: When you’re high school teammates with Carl Lawson, the No. 2 player in the nation, it’s sometimes hard to create your own identity. It’s even harder when you commit to the same school. But that’s the route Barber took, and despite redshirting his first season, he’s out to prove that he’s more than Lawson’s high school teammate. The 5-foot-11, 217-pound back is built similar to Artis-Payne and earned rave reviews from the coaching staff throughout his freshman season. He didn’t ever play a down, but his talent was on display every day at practice. Former running back Tre Mason described Barber as ‘big, fast and quick on his feet.’ Now, with Mason gone, there’s an opportunity for the Georgia native. If he continues to play well and impresses the coaches this spring, he could earn himself some playing time next season. And, as if he needs it, there’s extra motivation for Barber knowing that ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas will arrive on campus this summer.

Elijah Daniel, DE, sophomore: The easy pick for the breakout player this spring would be Lawson. As mentioned above, he was a top recruit, and of the freshman defensive linemen who played last season, he showed the most promise. Most have already tabbed him as the replacement for Dee Ford at defensive end. But let’s not forget about Daniel. He finished the season with just nine tackles, but he was second on the team with 11 quarterback hurries and fourth with 2.5 sacks. The former ESPN 300 prospect seemed to play better as the season progressed, and his role increased because of it. He, too, will be in the mix to replace Ford this spring, and at the end of the day, the best player will play. It doesn’t matter how many stars you had from recruiting services -- though Daniel was pretty good in his own right -- the job will be won on the field. The best-case scenario for Auburn is that both Daniel and Lawson have breakout performances this spring, and the battle lingers on into the fall. The harder the choice, the better the team will be.

Other candidates: WR Ricardo Louis and S Derrick Moncrief
Editor’s note: This is part four in a week-long series looking at five positions battles to watch when Auburn opens spring practice in two weeks.

AUBURN, Ala. -- As Auburn searches this spring to find a replacement for running back Tre Mason, who better to ask about the competition than Mason himself? He led the SEC with 1,816 yards rushing, and he knows a thing or two about the other players who will vie to take over his featured role in the backfield.

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsCameron Artis-Payne rushed for 610 yards and six touchdowns in 2013.
The two leading candidates are Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. Both ran for more than 600 yards, and both finished among the top-20 rushers in the SEC.

“It’s going to be a good battle next year,” Mason said. “Cam has carried the load at times. He knows exactly what to expect. Corey’s a speedster, but Corey’s very versatile. He can run in between the tackles, too, because he’s tough.”

There will be others in the mix including incoming freshman Racean Thomas, the nation’s No. 5 running back, but Mason says to temper expectations on Thomas, who won’t arrive on campus until the summer.

“The only thing I can say about that is everybody was good coming out of high school,” Mason said. “You can’t come in with the mindset of you’re the best. You won’t know if you’re the best until you get here. You’ve got stuff to prove. That’s the reason why everyone is here -- they were good in high school. Now it’s time to prove it at the next level.”

Still, Thomas adds yet another playmaker to a backfield full of them. As coach Gus Malzahn said, you can never have enough depth at the running back position.

The contenders
Artis-Payne (senior): It was a season full of peaks and valleys for Artis-Payne in 2013. The junior college transfer rushed for over 100 yards and a touchdown in his second game, but he became somewhat of an afterthought when conference play started and Mason took over. Still, Artis-Payne showed glimpses here and there, including a nifty 21-yard touchdown run in the SEC championship game. Now it’s his turn. He was a breakout star last spring, and he could be the favorite to carry the load if he shines again this spring.

Grant (senior): When opportunity knocked last year, Grant took full advantage of it. He wasn’t your traditional running back, but he finished third on the team with 647 yards rushing and led the SEC in yards per carry (9.8). He’s a home-run threat on every play, and he forced the coaches to find ways to get the ball in his hands. It would make sense to keep him in the same role next season, but with Mason gone, why not give him a shot as the featured back? He wants to be the guy, and he’s physical enough to do it.

Peyton Barber (freshman): For a player who redshirted, Barber’s name still seemed to come up a good bit last season. The coaches raved about his talent throughout the season, and Mason echoed their sentiments, saying he’s big, fast and quick on his feet. This spring will be his first with the team, and it’s his chance to prove that he belongs in the conversation. He might not be in line to be the starter just yet, but he wants carries just like everybody else.

Johnathan Ford (sophomore): The versatile Ford might be the only player who will be in multiple position battles this spring. The coaches haven’t confirmed whether he will stay at cornerback or move back to his natural position of running back. Last fall, he had six carries for 73 yards and a touchdown in limited action.

Spring forecast
When Auburn opens the regular season, there will likely be a running-back-by-committee approach, similar to what the Tigers used early on in 2013. Artis-Payne, Grant, Barber and even Thomas could all be in line to get carries. The spring is still important, though, because it gives Grant an opportunity to prove himself as a feature back. And don’t be surprised if Barber winds up being the breakout star of the group.

Room to improve: Running back

February, 18, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is part two in a weeklong series looking at Auburn’s top five position groups with room to improve.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn led the nation in rushing this past season. Through 14 games, the Tigers averaged an astonishing 328 yards per game. Three different running backs finished among the SEC’s top-20 rushers, and Auburn had four of the top 20 if you count quarterback Nick Marshall -- who gained over 1,000 yards on the ground.

So how could the running back position possibly have any room left to improve?

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsCameron Artis-Payne (pictured) and Corey Grant will pick up much of the production lost when Tre Mason declared for the NFL draft.
It starts with the departure of Tre Mason. The junior star led the SEC with 1,816 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns, but he opted to leave early for the NFL draft. As good as Marshall and the offensive line were, it was Mason who carried this Auburn offense. Ultimately, it’s going to take more than just one player to fill that void.

The other major loss in the backfield won’t show up on the stat sheet, but that doesn’t mean Jay Prosch was any less important. The team’s H-back played a critical role as the lead blocker for the Tigers, and it will be difficult to find somebody who was as good as his job as he was.

With Marshall back and four of the five starters on the offensive line back, Auburn is still going to be among the SEC’s top rushing teams, but if it wants to duplicate last season's success, it has to find a way to replace both Mason and Prosch in the backfield.

Battling for No. 1: Marshall and Mason were both among the SEC’s rushing leaders last year, but people forget that junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne and former Alabama transfer Corey Grant each had over 600 yards rushing in their own right. That’s more than some teams got from their leading rusher. Grant, who led the SEC with 9.8 yards per carry, provided a nice change of pace with his speed, but he also showed a physical side at times and could be in the mix as the team’s feature back this season. Artis-Payne is bigger and more physical, but he still has quick feet and a good burst that separates him from other players. The most likely scenario is that Artis-Payne and Grant will split carries, forming a dangerous duo on the Plains.

Strength in numbers: On signing day, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said one can never have enough depth at the running back position. It couldn’t be more true at Auburn, where Malzahn has been known to play two and sometimes even three running backs in a game at the same time. We’ll get to the incoming freshmen, but the Tigers have some capable backs already on campus who are just waiting their turn. The most intriguing player might be redshirt freshman Peyton Barber. His name isn’t one you’ve likely heard of yet, but the staff is very high on him and he should get plenty of carries this spring. It’s also worth watching to see if freshman cornerback Johnathan Ford moves back to running back, his natural position.

New on the scene: Want to find the next Mason? Look no further than ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas. He’s the top-ranked player in Auburn’s 2014 recruiting class, and he has that combination of speed and power that puts him in the same category as Mason. The expectations are high for a guy who hasn’t even enrolled yet, but Malzahn said he has the ability to come in immediately and make a huge impact. Expect Thomas to be eased into the rotation early in the season, but his workload should gradually increase with every game. The Tigers might also find their replacement for Prosch from the 2014 class. Tight end Jakell Mitchell signed with every intention of playing the H-back, and fellow freshman Kamryn Pettway could also get a look there. Both players will arrive this summer.

SEC shoes to fill in 2014

January, 21, 2014
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Earlier, we took a look at some of the underclassmen leaving the SEC and who could replace them at their respective schools. Now it's time to look at 14 pairs of the biggest shoes to fill in the SEC in 2014.

These are either graduates or guys who decided to take their talents to the NFL early. It's never easy to replace top players, but the SEC has a tendency to just reload. Let's see if SEC teams can replace these 14 studs:

ALABAMA

AJ McCarron, QB: He won two national championships and went 36-4 as a starter for Alabama. He was also the first Crimson Tide quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards and was an excellent leader. Alabama must now turn to junior Blake Sims and a host of youngsters to fill his spot as Alabama's starter.

ARKANSAS

Zach Hocker, K: A kicker? You bet. Hocker finished his career as the SEC's active career leader in extra points made, extra points attempted, field goals made, field goals attempted points. Hocker ranked in the top-five nationally among active players in field goals made, points, extra points made, extra points attempted and field goals attempted. He was also excellent on kickoffs and has no true heir in 2014.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI Tre Mason's productivity won't be easy to replace for Auburn.
AUBURN

Tre Mason, RB: Replacing the guy who set the single-season school record for rushing yards (1,816) and total offense (2,374) won't be easy at all. Mason carried Auburn's offense for most of the season and led the SEC in rushing and rushing touchdowns (23). The Tigers now turn to Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, who both rushed for more than 600 yards and six touchdowns last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Racean Thomas.

FLORIDA

Dominique Easley, DT: Though his season was cut short by an ACL injury, Easley was so dominant when he was on the field. He was the type of player who didn't have flashy stats but created so many plays for other people. Losing someone as disruptive as Easley really showed as the season continued, as the Gators failed to get consistent pressure on opposing backfields. Leon Orr and Darious Cummings get first crack at trying to replace Easley.

GEORGIA

Aaron Murray, QB: He won a handful of games, went to two SEC championship games and broke a ton of SEC records. Now, Murray is gone, and Hutson Mason has been given the duty of replacing one of the most decorated quarterbacks to ever play in the SEC. Mason got his feet wet early when Murray went down late with an ACL injury, but now this is his team and it's his turn to be a leader.

KENTUCKY

Avery Williamson, LB: In his last two seasons in Lexington, Williamson totaled 237 tackles, including 116 solo stops. A leader of the defense, Williamson was all over the field, and it might take a committee to fill his shoes both in games and in the locker room. Kentucky was able to do more when Williamson was on the field, and now the Wildcats will need to find a new spark at linebacker.

LSU

Zach Mettenberger, QB: We got to really see what Mettenberger was capable of once he got comfortable running Cam Cameron's offense. He was third in the SEC with 3,082 passing yards and threw 22 touchdowns. His big-league arm and awareness will truly be missed, as the Tigers turn to a band of inexperienced quarterbacks, starting with Anthony Jennings.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Gabe Jackson, OG: Quietly, he was one of the country's best guards in 2013. He was the anchor of the Bulldogs' line and was arguably the team's best overall player in 2013. Mississippi State has Justin Malone returning from a season-ending foot injury, while former walk-on Ben Beckwith, who replaced Malone, and Jamaal Clayborn should compete for one of the guard spots.

MISSOURI

E.J. Gaines, CB: If not for Gaines' play, Missouri's secondary would have been in a lot of trouble last season. That means the loss of arguably the SEC's best cover corner will hurt that much more in 2014. What will make things even tougher for the Tigers is that two other seniors from the secondary will also be gone, but replacing Gaines is easily the toughest job of all.

OLE MISS

Donte Moncrief, WR: He might not have had the same sort of season as he did in 2012, but Moncrief was yet again Ole Miss' top offensive weapon in 2013. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's such a tough player to cover with his size and strength. He could hit the big play deep or make the tough catches in traffic. The loss of Moncrief now puts the pressure on sophomore-to-be Laquon Treadwell, who led the Rebels in receptions.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDylan Thompson will get the first crack at replacing Connor Shaw as South Carolina's QB.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Connor Shaw, QB: With all due respect to future top-five pick Jadeveon Clowney, Shaw's play, toughness and leadership will be tougher to replace in Columbia. He was the heart of this team and played through all sorts of pain to help lead the Gamecocks to their third straight 11-win season. Dylan Thompson backed him up for the past two seasons and now has to job of following Shaw's impressive career.

TENNESSEE

Antonio Richardson, OT: One of the best offensive linemen in the league, Richardson will be very tough for the Vols to replace in 2014, especially with young quarterbacks littering the backfield. Making matters worse is that the rest of the entire starting offensive line will be gone too. But not having that anchor at left tackle hurts the most.

TEXAS A&M

Johnny Manziel, QB: Yeah, like replacing all the on-field theatrics from someone who won the Heisman Trophy and produced 9,989 career yards of offense and 93 touchdowns will be easy. Manziel could hurt a defense with his arm and legs and was only contained a few times during his two seasons as the Aggies' starter. No one will be able to produce the entertainment Manziel provided.

VANDERBILT

Jordan Matthews, WR: One of the SEC's best all-time receivers is leaving the league. More importantly, he's leaving a Vanderbilt team that now has to find a consistent go-to receiver for its new quarterback. Sophomore-to-be Jordan Cunningham could be the next in line.

SEC's lunch links

January, 10, 2014
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Two handy reminders: College football underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to declare for the NFL draft, which will be May 8 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
video
As expected, Auburn junior running back Tre Mason declared for the 2014 NFL draft Thursday.

He's foregoing his final year at Auburn for a chance at millions, and no one would dare blame him for his decision.

Following a stellar season that ended with a dynamic performance in Monday's VIZIO BCS National Championship Game loss to Florida State, Mason had no choice but to leave Auburn early for a chance at the NFL.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesAfter rushing for 1,816 yards and 23 TDs in 2013, Tre Mason had nothing left to prove at Auburn.
The truth of the matter is that Mason's stock will never be higher. That's certainly not a knock against Mason, but after leading the SEC with 1,816 yards (which broke Bo Jackson's school record) and 23 touchdowns, setting a school record for yards of total offense (2,374), and finishing sixth in the Heisman Trophy race, there really wasn't anything else for Mason to prove.

He went from 161 yards as a reserve freshman to 1,002 last year and a national championship run this season. The chances of surpassing -- let alone duplicating -- what he did in 2013 are very slim. Not with SEC defenses looking to make a major rebound in 2014 and with defensive coordinators gunning for the Tigers' little wrecking ball.

Is Mason a first-round running back? He certainly has the vision, toughness, strength, speed and elusiveness to be in the conversation, but his 5-foot-10, 205-pound frame could hold him back some. But another year of college ball won't help him grow.

Regardless of his size, Mason believes he's more than ready to take on the NFL.

"They’re getting somebody that’s a hard worker and willing to do whatever it takes to win," Mason said Thursday. "My mind is not just set on money. It’s set on championships. I have yet to win a championship, and my mindset is not going to change. God willing, I’ll win a championship at the next level."

We know about the short self life NFL running backs have, and another pounding in the SEC won't do much to help him. Sure, more coaching can always be a benefit, but what else does Mason really have to learn? He's eclipsed 1,000 yards in both a pro-style offense and a spread. He knows adversity all too well, considering he rushed for 1,002 yards in 2012 during a 3-9 season that saw his head coach get fired, only to turn around and creep up on 2,000 yards under new coach Gus Malzahn in 2013.

Does he have much more to prove against SEC defenses? Uh, no. Against Alabama's top-rated rush defense in that fateful final week of the regular season, Mason rushed for 164 yards and a touchdown, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. The next week in the SEC championship against Missouri's rush defense, which ranked 14th nationally at the time, Mason rushed for a career-high and SEC championship game-record 304 yards with four touchdowns.

In SEC play in 2013, Mason averaged 123.1 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. He also had 13 touchdowns.

In Monday's 34-31 loss to the Seminoles, Mason looked like the best player on the field for most of the night, rushing for 195 yards and a 37-yard touchdown that appeared to be the game-winning score with 1:19 remaining. With the way he played on Monday, you have to think that he would have finished much higher in the Heisman race.

Mason has been great for the Tigers, and there's no doubt that he immediately would've made them a title contender again in 2014 if he had decided to stay. But he absolutely made the right decision.

For Auburn, it's time to look to its already-loaded stable of running backs, which includes Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne, who each ran for more than 600 yards and had six touchdowns this past season. Obviously, quarterback Nick Marshall (1,068 rushing yards) is a dangerous running threat. Auburn will take the redshirt off running back Peyton Barber and will have ESPN 300 back Racean Thomas coming in. Thomas could be a real stud for Auburn and could compete for solid playing time early.

The Tigers will certainly miss Mason, who was both a great player and person, but his family on the Plains had to know that it was his time to take the next step.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Gus Malzahn stood at the podium during his introductory press conference last December, he said his goal was to ‘play championship football like Auburn expects.’ It sounded great, but how realistic was that?

Across the state, Alabama was on the verge of winning its second national championship and third in the past four years. Auburn, on the other hand, was coming off a dreadful 3-9 season, the program’s worst finish in over 50 years. It didn’t look like the Tigers were going to be competing for championships any time soon.

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Tre Mason and Gus Malzahn celebrate
AP Photo/John BazemoreEven if Tre Mason decides to enter the NFL draft, things are looking up for Gus Malzahn's Tigers.
But here they are, 12 months later, headed to Pasadena, Calif., to play Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team come as far as we have,” Malzahn said.

Auburn isn’t just a year ahead of schedule. It’s two or three years ahead of schedule. Some people questioned whether Malzahn would ever get the Tigers to this point. After all, he was coaching high school football less than a decade ago, and his experience as a college head coach consisted of one year at Arkansas State.

However, he’s a proven winner. He’s won at every stop he’s made, and it was no different this season on the Plains.

It was a season that was kind to Auburn as far as injuries, and the ball bounced its way on certain occasions, but it was no fluke. The Tigers are in the national championship game for a reason, and the scary thing for the rest of the SEC is that they’re not going away. They could be even more dangerous in 2014.

The offense, which averaged 40 points per game and led the conference in rushing, has only one senior in the starting lineup -- H-back Jay Prosch. The rest of the unit is able to return next season, but a few key players still have decisions to make regarding their future and the NFL draft. Running back Tre Mason is one of those players.

“I’m not sure,” he said recently when asked about the NFL. “I’ve been talking to my family, talking to a couple of guys I know [who] are already there. I’ve been discussing those things with them, and they said, ‘Don’t worry about it, leave it in God’s hands. He’s going to make the right decision for you.’ I’m just going to let time wind down.”

Mason leads the SEC with 1,621 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns. On the heels of his 304-yard performance in the conference championship game, he was invited to New York City for last weekend’s Heisman Trophy presentation. If he opts to leave early for the NFL, it would be a devastating blow for Auburn but one the Tigers could still recover from.

They will have Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant back for one more season, and it could also open the door for ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas, who is currently committed to Auburn. The in-state prospect rushed for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior, despite missing several games due to injury.

The offense, though, is still run by the quarterback, and Auburn has one of the league’s best in Nick Marshall. The junior-college transfer arrived on campus over the summer, won the starting job and never looked back. He threw for 1,759 yards, rushed for 1,023 yards and scored 23 combined touchdowns. Imagine if he had gone through spring practice.

Next season, Marshall's numbers could be even more gaudy when he has a year of experience under his belt. It's not crazy to consider him an early candidate for the 2014 Heisman Trophy. It doesn't hurt that all five starters on the offensive line are eligible to return as well.

This week, Auburn began practice for next month’s BCS title game. It’s obviously a monumental game for the program, but win or lose, the Tigers have the players and the coaching staff to make a run at it again next year. And possibly the year after that. As long as Malzahn's in town, the AU program has what it takes to be playing championship football for a long time.

“While this season has been remarkable, I'm equally excited about the future of our program under his leadership,” athletic director Jay Jacobs said. “The future of Auburn football is very bright.”

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."

What we learned in the SEC: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
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Has an SEC season ever been this much fun? Auburn and Missouri capped a tremendous season with a thrill ride of a championship game. Here are five things we learned from Saturday's tilt.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Tre Mason not only carried the Tigers to a win in the SEC championship game, but he ran his way into the Heisman discussion as well.
1. Auburn's offense is impossible to contain: Missouri entered Saturday's game with a very good defense, ranking second in the conference and 14th in the nation against the run (119.1 yards allowed per game). When the burn marks cooled off and the game was over, Auburn had 545 yards rushing (the most in league history by an SEC team against an SEC opponent) as part of its SEC title game record 677 total yards. Gus Malzahn's offense was at its mind-boggling best, using every wrinkle in the playbook to steamroll yet another helpless opponent. When Mizzou geared up to stop the run in the first half, AU quarterback Nick Marshall went 6-of-6 passing for 94 of his 132 yards to loosen up the defense. When Tre Mason needed a blow -- which wasn't often -- Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne stepped in to score one TD each. When Missouri went with an extra linebacker in a 3-4 alignment to attempt to keep Auburn from gaining the edge, the Gus Bus simply ran up the middle and flattened Missouri. All of it happened at a breakneck pace, as Auburn's offense set a tempo that no defense appears capable of keeping up with.

2. The SEC has a chance to extend its streak of national championships: The SEC just won't be denied. After celebrating with the league trophy, the oversized logo and the confetti cannons, Auburn players and coaches settled in to watch the ACC and Big Ten championship games. No. 1 Florida State took care of business, but No. 2 Ohio State fell to Michigan State. Toomer's Corner exploded with toilet paper for the second time on Saturday night, as fans spilled into the intersection to celebrate a shot at the national title. Auburn took care of business on the field but needed help, and the Spartans delivered. What else would you expect in the Tigers' miracle season? The SEC's seven-year winning streak refuses to die, as AU is now projected to play unbeaten FSU in Pasadena, Calif., for all the marbles.

3. Mason deserves serious Heisman consideration: If the junior from Palm Beach, Fla., somehow wasn't on the national scene before Saturday, he certainly is now. Mason broke five SEC championship game records with 46 carries for 304 yards and four touchdowns. It was three yards shy of tying the Auburn single-game record of 307 set by Curtis Kuykendall in 1944. He ran away with the MVP award (pun intended) and could now find himself in New York City next week as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Mason finished strong in 2013 and added to his eye-popping 2013 season stats -- 1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns. It's only fitting that the Heisman could come down to Mason and FSU quarterback Jameis Winston, the two biggest stars on the nation's two best teams.

4. Mizzou has a great offense of its own: James Franklin's valiant attempt to keep up with the Auburn juggernaut deserves recognition. The senior kept his Tigers in the game, throwing for 303 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 62 yards and another score. His favorite target, sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham, put an exclamation mark on his breakthrough season with six catches for 144 yards and two TDs. Mizzou had balance and did plenty of big-play damage. Leading rusher Henry Josey broke off a 65-yarder as part of his 123-yard effort (13.7 yards per carry). But it wasn't enough to keep up, as Auburn's offense applied too much pressure, and Missouri eventually wilted in the fourth quarter.

5. If this is the new SEC, it sure is entertaining: An era of unbridled offense has taken over college football, and on Saturday the old formula of winning with defense, special teams and a conservative offense was nowhere to be seen inside the Georgia Dome. The first half was enough to know this wasn't your father's SEC. The combined 55 first-half points were not only the most in SEC championship game history, they were more points than the four-quarter totals scored in 15 other SEC title games. When it was over and the scoreboard operator got some much-needed rest, the combined point total of 101 had obliterated the previous record -- 75 points in 1996 (Florida 45, Alabama 30). Auburn and Missouri combined for a dizzying number of big plays, as the SEC's showcase looked more like a video game than ever before.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 15

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

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

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

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

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

Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri: Did anyone else watch Green-Beckham take that screen pass 37 yards for a first down in the second half and see shades of NFL All-Pro Calvin Johnson? The speed. The size. The graceful stride. It was all there when Green-Beckham ran over the middle and past the Auburn defense for the big gain. Auburn's secondary had no answer for the 6-foot-6, 225-pound former five-star receiver, who wound up going off for 144 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions.

Player of the week: SEC

November, 4, 2013
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Growing up, Tre Mason said he was always looked at as an underdog. Those days are over. The Auburn running back rushed for 168 yards and a career-high four touchdowns in the Tigers’ 35-17 win at Arkansas on Saturday.

It was obvious early on that it was going to be one of those days for Mason. He picked up 15 yards on his first carry, and he had 59 yards and a touchdown on the first two Auburn drives. The coaches knew it, too. They kept giving him the rock, and by the end of the game, the junior had a career-high 32 carries. He scored a touchdown in every quarter.

Before the season, it was Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Georgia’s Todd Gurley who were first-team All-SEC nominations, but through nine games, Mason has surpassed both of them and is on par with South Carolina’s Mike Davis as the league’s best running back.

He leads the SEC (third nationally) with 13 touchdowns, and he’s third in the conference (13th nationally) with 921 yards.

More importantly, he has become a workhorse for this Auburn team. Early in the season, he split carries with Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, but that changed when the Tigers began their SEC slate. The coaches put the offense on Mason’s back, and he has delivered. He’s averaging a league-best 23.2 carries per game in the team’s five conference games.

The 5-foot-10, 205-pound back rushed for 132 yards and two touchdowns at LSU. He had 178 yards and a touchdown at Texas A&M. And he put together maybe his performance yet with 168 yards and four scores Saturday at Arkansas.

Auburn is ranked No. 9 in the latest BCS standings, and with three games still to play, the Tigers control their own destiny in the SEC West.

“Our goal is the national championship,” Mason said. “It’s a team goal. And it’s not going to change.”

The bar is set pretty high for a team that finished 3-9 a season ago, but if Mason keeps running this way, who is going to stop them? Next up is another road game with Tennessee, and you can bet Mason’s name will be called early and often against the Volunteers.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn knows a thing or two about winning.

As a high school coach, he led seven teams to the state championship game in 14 years, winning three of them. From 2006 to 2011, he was offensive coordinator at Arkansas, Tulsa and Auburn and never endured a losing season. He won the national championship with the Tigers in 2010. And last season, his first as a college head coach, he led Arkansas State to the Sun Belt championship.

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
AP Photo/Butch DillExpectations are rising for Auburn, but Cameron Artis-Payne says the Tigers are focused on the next game.
The record speaks for itself, but when Malzahn returned to Auburn prior to this season, nobody expected him to turn the program around in just one year. The Tigers were 3-9 a season ago, and most thought they’d be lucky just to make a bowl game in 2013.

But after eight games, Auburn is already bowl eligible, and Malzahn’s team has higher aspirations now. They’re 7-1, ranked No. 11 in the latest BCS standings and four wins away from claiming the SEC West title.

"We’ve got some great players," safety Jermaine Whitehead said. "I most definitely saw us competing in a lot of games. I felt like we had one of the oldest teams coming back, and it was about time that we make our mark."

The national perception has changed, too. Auburn was the underdog in three of its four SEC games, but after wins against No. 24 Ole Miss and No. 7 Texas A&M, the Tigers are now the favorite Saturday against Arkansas and will likely remain that way until they host No. 1 Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

But the players don’t care about being the favorite. They don’t care that Auburn is on the verge of cracking the BCS top 10. They’re taking the same approach.

“It doesn’t change the mindset,” first-year running back Cameron Artis-Payne said. “We’re just going to keep moving forward. We’re going to do the things that got us here. Coach Malzahn and the coaching staff definitely keep us grounded anyway, so there’s no way we’re going to lose what we’re doing.”

“You don’t want to think about rankings,” Dee Ford added. “That got a lot of teams in trouble early on in the year. You don’t think about rankings at all. You think about the task at hand. You really just want to focus on executing and playing football. At the end of the day, no matter what ranking you are, you have to play football.”

Still, with every win, Auburn is a team that is growing more and more confident. Beginning on Saturday, it has back-to-back road trips to Arkansas and Tennessee before finish the season at home with Georgia and Alabama. There’s not a game left on the Tigers' schedule that they don’t think they can win.

“We’re definitely gaining confidence,” Artis-Payne said. “We feel like we can beat anybody. We’re just going to keep working, and we’re going to see what happens when the smoke clears at the end of the season.”

It’s fun to look ahead to a potential top-10 matchup in the Iron Bowl, but the Tigers are focused only on their next opponent, a mindset that stems from their head coach.

“I feel like I’m saying the same thing every week, but it’s about Arkansas, and it’s about going on the road,” Malzahn said after Saturday’s win over Florida Atlantic. “It’s about trying to play our best football, and we’re not worried about all the underdogs or favorites. That’s our mindset.

“Any time you’re winning, you’re playing pretty good football. You have some things you can build upon. But every week is different.”

Auburn has lost five of the past seven meetings with the Razorbacks, but the Tigers are hoping to change that Saturday and keep the wins coming for their first-year head coach.

What we learned: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
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AUBURN, Ala. -- There was no hangover from Auburn's win over Texas A&M last weekend. The Tigers jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first eight minutes and cruised to a 45-10 win over Florida Atlantic on Saturday. Here's what we learned from the game:

Johnson better be ready: It might not be Saturday against Arkansas, but freshman quarterback Jeremy Johnson needs to be prepared, because there is a strong possibility his number will be called in a meaningful situation down the stretch. Starter Nick Marshall left Saturday's game in the second quarter with a shoulder injury, and it was up to Johnson to take the reigns. The game already was getting out of hand, but based on Marshall's track record and his desire to run the football, it wouldn't be shocking to see him go down again at some point this season. Also, depending on the severity of Marshall's injury, Johnson still very well could get the start when the team travels to Fayetteville next weekend.

Running wild: Auburn entered the week as the SEC's top rushing offense, and after 422 yards on the ground against Florida Atlantic, it's safe to say the Tigers still will be on top heading into next weekend. It was Auburn's third straight game with more than 300 yards rushing and the fourth of the season. Cameron Artis-Payne led the way with 93 yards on 13 carries, but 10 different players got a carry Saturday. Although nobody reached the century mark, the team averaged 7.2 yards per carry, and four players had runs of more than 30 yards. Artis-Payne, Marshall, Corey Grant and Tre Mason all scored touchdowns for the Tigers.

Secondary gets a boost: It has been just more than a week since Auburn lost starting safety Joshua Holsey for the season with a knee injury, but the Tigers welcomed back sophomore cornerback Jonathan Jones on Saturday against Florida Atlantic. Jones had played in only one game this season due to various injuries, but he looked healthy against the Owls. On his first series, Jones made a tackle for loss and broke up a pass on the very next play. He also energized the crowd with a huge hit on special teams later in the game. When healthy, Jones will serve as the third cornerback behind Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy. His presence makes it easier for Auburn to keep Ryan White at safety for the foreseeable future.

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