Auburn Tigers: Chris Davis

Editor’s note: This is Part 5 in a weeklong series looking at five position battles to watch when Auburn opens spring practice in two weeks.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Cornerback was an area where Auburn struggled at times last year, and it didn’t help that both Chris Davis and Jonathan Jones missed time with injuries. Davis is gone, but Jones is healthy and ready to compete this spring.

Still, it was a position of need for the Tigers, and the coaches addressed it on the recruiting trail. Auburn’s 2014 class included five defensive backs -- three ranked in the ESPN 300 -- and height clearly was a priority as all five players are listed at 6-feet or taller.

“We feel like we have guys that can cover, and also if you look at this group, they’re long,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “Their length is very good. They all can run. They’re good tacklers. They’ve got very good ball skills and give us some versatility.”

It’s an impressive group, but outside of junior college safety Derrick Moncrief, it’s a group that won’t arrive until the summer. That means highly touted cornerbacks Kalvaraz Bessent and Nick Ruffin, who are both expected to push for time next season, won’t get the chance to do so until the start of fall camp.

That opens the door for a handful of players already on campus to make an impression this spring before the reinforcements arrive.

The contenders
[+] EnlargeDorial Green-Beckham
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsJonathon Mincy is expected to be Auburn's top cornerback in 2014.
Jonathon Mincy (senior): He started in all 14 games as a junior and finished with 56 tackles, 14 pass breakups and one interception. If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that Mincy will be starting at cornerback next season. He’s expected to move over and claim the No. 1 role occupied by Davis last season, meaning he’ll draw the assignment of covering the opposing team’s top wide receiver every game. Although most remember him for giving up a 99-yard touchdown to Amari Cooper in last year’s Iron Bowl, he’s still a solid option.

Jonathan Jones (junior): As mentioned above, Jones missed the first four games last season after he broke a bone in his ankle during fall camp. He then suffered a separate leg injury his first game back that basically kept him out through the end of October. It was a trying season for Jones, who started in three games in 2012 and was expected to play a major role for the Tigers before the injuries derailed his season. He’s healthy now and looks like the early favorite to start opposite Mincy if he has a good spring.

Johnathan Ford (sophomore): When Davis and Jones were injured, Ford took advantage. The freshman came to Auburn as a running back but moved to cornerback in fall camp to help with depth. He eventually moved up on the two-deep depth chart and appeared in 12 games. The coaches haven’t said which side of the ball Ford will play this spring, but if he stays on defense, he’ll be in the mix for a starting role.

Kamryn Melton (sophomore): He’s another player who was affected by the injuries last season. If it were up to Auburn, they would have redshirted Melton, but the injuries forced him to appear in three games and waste the redshirt. On the bright side, he now has game experience that will help him this spring, his first with the team.

T.J. Davis (sophomore): Time is running out for Davis. The redshirt sophomore has yet to carve out a niche in Auburn’s secondary, and with all of the talent coming in this summer, it’s now or never.

Spring forecast
Barring injury, Mincy will start at one cornerback spot, but that’s all we know. The other spot is up for grabs and could be one of the more intriguing battles this spring. Jones has the upper hand, but both Ford and Melton will be given the opportunity to win the job. It’s an important spring for Jones, not only for him to hold off the other two candidates, but to impress the coaches and lock down the position before Bessent and Ruffin arrive this summer.
AUBURN, Ala. -- At last month’s NFL combine, all eyes were on Auburn’s Greg Robinson and Tre Mason. Robinson blew away scouts by running a 4.92 40-yard dash and bench pressing 225 pounds 32 times. Mason didn’t disappoint either with a time of 4.5 in the 40. The performances were strong enough that both opted not to work out at the school’s pro day on Tuesday.

The attention quickly turned to defensive end Dee Ford, who wasn’t cleared to work out at the combine because of a back procedure he had in 2011.

“They said they looked at some MRIs, and they just saw some things that they didn’t want to chance at the combine,” Ford said Tuesday. “I was definitely surprised. I had no clue that I wouldn’t be able to [work out]. It kind of knocked my training off a little bit because everything is timed when you’re training.”

Ford, known for his confidence and charisma, still made headlines in Indianapolis when he claimed he was better than top defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, comparing the former South Carolina star to a “blind dog in a meat market.” He finally got his chance to back up those comments at Tuesday's pro day.

"People can compare, but the combine is the combine," Ford said. "You’re just showing your athleticism. I think I did great. I think he did great."

The day started in the weight room where the 6-foot-2, 244-pound Ford put up 29 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press. It wasn’t quite the number Robinson had, but it was still eight more reps than Clowney had. He also had a 35 inch vertical jump and a 10-foot-4 inch long jump before moving to the indoor facility for the 40-yard dash.

With NFL scouts looking on and his future in the balance, Ford ran a 4.59 in his first attempt and improved to a 4.53 with his second attempt.

“I’m very pleased,” Ford said. “I put in a lot of work.”

It’s still too early to tell if Ford’s performance will move him into the first round, but it certainly didn’t hurt his chances. More importantly, the back issue was not a problem, and his knee, which he injured last August, held up just fine.

“It was never an issue,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said regarding Ford’s back. “He hadn’t been limited in any way. He’s done what we’ve asked in the weight room -- working out, conditioning. He looked very good and performed very well.”

The next step for Ford is individual workouts with teams.

Former Auburn cornerback Chris Davis also had a good day, running a 4.51 40 and jumping 40 inches in the vertical jump. In all, 14 players worked out on AU’s campus including former safety Demetruce McNeal, who was dismissed from the team in August.

“It’s real exciting to watch these guys workout,” Malzahn said. “They performed very well today, got a real good response.”
Editor’s note: This is part four in a weeklong series looking at five Auburn players to watch this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- It’s not often that a player makes a tackle and runs for a touchdown in the same game, but that’s exactly what freshman Johnathan Ford did in Auburn’s 62-3 rout over Western Carolina back in October.

When Ford arrived at Auburn, he was tabbed as a running back. That’s the position he wanted to play, and that’s where the coaches were going to put him. However, in the middle of fall camp, he was moved to cornerback because of an injury to Jonathan Jones and an overall lack of depth in the secondary.

It wasn’t a completely new position for Ford. In fact, a number of college coaches, including new Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, an assistant at Alabama at the time, felt that the three-star prospect projected better as a cornerback at the next level.

They were right. Ford embraced his new role and quickly ascended up the depth chart. By the middle of the season, he was listed on the two-deep depth chart and wound up participating in 13 of Auburn’s 14 games. Two months earlier, he was looking at a possible redshirt had he stayed at running back.

The coaches didn’t forget about his former position, though. He still took reps at running back in practice, and against Western Carolina, he broke loose for a 38-yard touchdown on the second run of his career. He finished the game with two carries for 45 yards.

“I think you can see he’s a phenomenal player,” head coach Gus Malzahn said afterwards. “We moved him to corner this year, and we’ll see after the year what happens. The fact that we have three experienced backs obviously has something to do with that, but he’s a threat, no doubt.”

As Ford enters his second season, the big question is whether he stays on defense or moves back to his original position. There’s an obvious need at cornerback this spring with Chris Davis gone, and the top signees not arriving until the summer. But there’s no clear cut favorite at running back either with Tre Mason leaving early for the NFL.

The more likely scenario is that he stays at cornerback and battles Jones for the starting role opposite Jonathon Mincy, but don’t be surprised if he still takes some reps at running back this spring.

Where does Ford want to play?

“It doesn’t matter,” he said this past season. “I just want to help the team as much as I can this year. That comes first. Everything else is just a bonus.”

With that kind of attitude, the coaches will find a role for him somewhere. He’s too talented and too versatile not to make an impact for the Tigers this fall.

Room to improve: Secondary

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Editor’s note: This is the first part in a weeklong series looking at Auburn's top five position groups with room to improve.

AUBURN, Ala. -- The SEC is typically known as a defensive league, but offenses that dominated play last year. The conference featured the likes of Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray and James Franklin at quarterback, and defenses paid the price.

[+] EnlargeJoshua Holsey
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsA healthy return by Joshua Holsey from a mid-October ACL tear would bolster the secondary.
Auburn had to face all of the quarterbacks above and allowed 7.3 yards per game in those contests. The season stats don’t do any favors to the Tigers’ defense, especially the secondary, but they made enough plays on the back end to win 12 games and play for a BCS title.

“The [secondary] is really a picture of what our defense has been,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said before the Florida State game. “They've been inconsistent, given up cheap plays, [but] they have made some unbelievable plays. When they make the kind of plays that they made at critical times, you have to trust them.”

The good news for SEC defenses is that all five of those quarterbacks have moved on. In fact, six of the eight league games on Auburn’s 2014 schedule will feature teams with a first-year starter at quarterback. However, the Tigers will be without top cornerback Chris Davis next season, as well as safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White.

The balance of power in the SEC is expected to shift back to the defenses, and if Auburn hopes to follow suit, it must have better play in the secondary. Who will step up?

Battling for No. 1: With Davis no longer in the picture, Jonathon Mincy is expected to slide over and take his role as the No. 1 cornerback. The senior to be finished with 56 tackles last year and has started 28 games in his Auburn career. The other cornerback spot is up for grabs, and the early favorite to win the job is Jonathan Jones. He has made three starts in his first two seasons, and when healthy, he’s one of the better defensive backs on the team. At safety, the Tigers get Jermaine Whitehead back, and they hope to have Joshua Holsey back from injury. Holsey tore his ACL in practice just days before the Texas A&M game, but he was the glue that held the secondary together before he went down. A combination of Whitehead and Holsey could make safety a strength heading into next season.

Strength in numbers: Depth in the secondary was an issue for Auburn last year, and it could be again this year. Freshman Johnathan Ford came to Auburn as a running back but moved to cornerback in fall camp because of the lack of players at the position. There has been no word yet on which side of the ball Ford will be on this spring. If Holsey is still out, the team’s next best option at safety is senior Trent Fisher. He has played in 32 games, starting two, and should get plenty of first-team reps this spring. Another candidate could be Robenson Therezie, who started every game at Star this past season. If the coaches go a different direction at the Star position, Therezie could make an impact in the secondary, at cornerback and/or safety. Therezie’s backup, Mackenro Alexander, also could provide help at safety if needed.

New on the scene: With depth a concern, Gus Malzahn and his staff made defensive back a priority in the 2014 recruiting class. They added three ESPN 300 cornerbacks, a late bloomer in Markell Boston and the nation’s No. 1 junior college outside linebacker Derrick Moncrief, who could help at both the Star and safety positions. The most intriguing player of the group is Stephen Roberts, a former Alabama commitment. The in-state product is listed as a cornerback, but Auburn plans to use him at safety where he can contribute immediately. On signing day, Malzahn tabbed Roberts, along with fellow ESPN 300 cornerbacks Kalvarez Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin, as guys who have a chance to come in and contribute early.
Editor's note: This is Part III in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Auburn faces this offseason.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Ellis Johnson is known for turning around SEC defenses quickly. He did it at Mississippi State in 2004. He did it at South Carolina in 2008. And it was no different this season at Auburn, his first as defensive coordinator.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsCarl Lawson will be called upon to step up as a pass-rusher in 2014.
Through the first 12 games, the Tigers were ranked No. 31 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 22.5 points per game. That was up 35 spots from a year ago when they gave up 28.3 points per game. The improvement can be attributed to a number of things, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Auburn’s defense did a good job of keeping teams out of the end zone, but it wasn’t keeping them off the field. It wasn’t preventing the big plays, or "trash plays" as Johnson calls them. In reality, it wasn’t stopping anybody.

“We have really given up way too much yardage to think that we have played extremely well this year, but we have played extremely well in some key situations,” Johnson said prior to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

Heading into its matchup with Florida State, Auburn was ranked No. 94 in yards per play (5.96) and against the likes of Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger and James Franklin, the Tigers were allowing 7.3 yards per play. Based on yards per play, they had the worst defense of the 144 teams that had ever participated in a BCS game.

When it came time for the BCS title game, Johnson had his team ready, though. Auburn came out prepared and shut down Florida State through the first three quarters. It was arguably the Tigers’ most impressive performance of the season.

However, the fourth quarter belonged to the Seminoles, and it was a ‘trash play’ on the final drive -- a quick slant to Rashad Greene that went for 49 yards -- that set up the game-winning touchdown.

One stop and Auburn would’ve been national champions. Now it’s a distant memory that can be used as motivation going forward.

When the Tigers return to practice this spring, it’s safe to assume that Johnson will put a point on emphasis on the yardage problem and specifically the trash plays. It won’t be easy, however, with five starters gone from last year’s team including its top pass-rusher Dee Ford and its top cover corner Chris Davis.

How do you replace a player like Ford who led the SEC in sacks per game?

The answer is you can’t, but it helps to have a pair of former ESPN 300 prospects like Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel coming up behind him. They both showed potential as freshmen, but they will have to be more consistent next season.

The secondary will be an even bigger challenge. The staff has to not only replace Davis but also safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White.

If Auburn wants to get back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, it’s up to the defense. The offense, despite losing two key pieces in Tre Mason and Greg Robinson, returns eight starters and should be among the SEC’s best next year. But the defense has to take another step forward, and it starts with taking out the trash.

Final SEC Power Rankings

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We're done with the 2013 college football season, so it's time to see how all 14 SEC teams finished the year in our final set of conference power rankings. It was a collaborative effort on our side, and we think it jibes pretty well:

1. Auburn (12-2, 7-1 SEC; last ranking: 1): The Tigers lost a heartbreaker to Florida State in the Vizio BCS National Championship, but they did exactly what Gus Malzahn predicted: make the biggest turnaround in college football. Auburn had the nation's best running game behind Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason and a championship attitude that grew all season. The future looks very bright on the Plains.

2. South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC; LR: 3): With a 10-point victory over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, South Carolina became only the fourth team in the country to win at least 11 games in each of the past two seasons. The Gamecocks made a fun, end-of-the-year run at Atlanta but fell short with a loss to Tennessee and an equally as fun Missouri run.

3. Missouri (12-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 4): These Tigers also had a magical 2013. After rebounding from a five-win 2012 season, Mizzou won the SEC East Division, displayed one of the conference's best, most explosive offenses and ended the season with a back-and-forth victory over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Gary Pinkel went from the hot seat to beloved by erasing an ugly SEC debut with a stellar encore.

4. Alabama (11-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 2): The Crimson Tide's SEC and BCS title game chances ended on a miraculous "Kick Six" by Auburn's Chris Davis in the Iron Bowl. With no national championship at stake for the first time since 2010, Alabama failed to match Oklahoma's toughness and intensity in its 45-31 Allstate Sugar Bowl loss. Despite another impressive regular season, the Tide's chance to make a case as the nation's best team ended inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

5. LSU (10-3, 5-3; LR: 5): We never really knew what we were going to get from these Tigers (so many Tigers!), but after their loss to Alabama on Nov. 9, they closed the season on a tear with three straight wins. Even without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (ACL) for their bowl game, the Tigers grinded out a 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa on the back of running back Jeremy Hill and his 216 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Texas A&M (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 6): Of course Johnny Manziel went out in style. A month after ending the regular season on a two-game losing streak, Johnny Football helped orchestrate a comeback win after a 21-point halftime deficit to Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. Texas A&M outscored the Blue Devils 35-10 in the second half to win 52-48. What a Johnny Football way to say goodbye.

7. Vanderbilt (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 7): For the first time in school history, Vandy won nine games in back-to-back seasons and consecutive bowl games. The Commodores went undefeated in November for the second straight year and beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season for the first time ever. Their reward? Saying goodbye to coach James Franklin, who left to become Penn State's head coach.

8. Georgia (8-5, 5-3 SEC; LR: 8): The Bulldogs started the season as the favorite to win the East, but injuries and a young, struggling defense knocked Georgia out of contention late. Even with how poorly the defense played at times, you have to wonder what might have been had injuries to receivers and the loss of Todd Gurley for a month not happened. The Bulldogs ended the season with a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

9. Mississippi State (7-6, 3-5 SEC; LR: 9): What looked like a disaster of a season ended with three consecutive wins. The first two were overtime victories and the last one was a 44-7 blowout of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Dan Mullen's popularity level in Starkville took a hit, but he enters his fifth season with much higher expectations with a solid offense and defense returning.

10. Ole Miss (8-5, 3-5 SEC; LR: 10): What started as a promising season hit a bit of snag in October before the Rebels reeled off four consecutive victories to turn things around. Ole Miss lost to Missouri and Mississippi State to close the regular season but bounced back with an impressive, 25-17 victory over Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Eight wins, despite injuries and depth issues, was impressive for Hugh Freeze in his second season.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LR: 11): For the third year in a row, the Vols failed to make it to a bowl game, but you can tell that the attitudes are different in Knoxville. There's a bit more excitement with Butch Jones in town, especially after that upset win over No. 11 South Carolina. The next step is development on both sides of the ball. Tennessee struggled with quarterback play all season and owned the SEC's No. 11 defense, allowing 418.4 yards per game.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LR: 12): For the first time since 1979, the Gators had a losing season. For the first time in more than 20 years, Florida failed to make a bowl game. The Gators suffered 15 season-ending injuries, 10 to starters, including quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Florida ranked 113th nationally in total offense, lost to Football Championship Subdivision foe Georgia Southern (at home) and said goodbye to offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis after the season.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LR: 13): The first year of the Bret Bielema era was a dud on the field, as the Razorbacks lost a school-record nine straight games to close the season. Arkansas owned the SEC's worst passing offense (114th nationally) but had quite the spark in freshman running back Alex Collins. The next step for the Hogs is getting the right players on both sides to fit Bielema's system.

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LR: 14): It was a tough first season for Mark Stoops in Lexington, but he really was behind from the start. This team struggled with positive consistency, and it didn't help that the staff had to rotate quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow all season. Kentucky was 13th in the SEC in both total offense and total defense.

Season wrap: Auburn

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It wasn't the Hollywood ending Auburn was hoping for, but first-year coach Gus Malzahn and his team enjoyed a season that screenwriters couldn't have scripted better if they tried. The Tigers' season was full of comebacks, miracles and moments that will live on forever.

The Tigers, who were 3-9 a season ago, nearly pulled off the greatest turnaround in college football history. They finished 12-2, upset No. 1 Alabama, won the SEC championship and earned a trip to Pasadena, Calif., for the Vizio BCS National Championship.

The magical run came to an end in the title game as Florida State scored a late touchdown to upend the Tigers, but it was quite a debut for Malzahn and his staff. What could the Auburn coach possibly have in store for Year 2?

Offensive MVP: Auburn led the nation in rushing (328 yards per game), and though the emergence of quarterback Nick Marshall played a key role, it never would have happened without running back Tre Mason. The junior ran for a league-best 1,816 yards, topping Bo Jackson’s single-season school record, and played his best in the biggest games. He rushed for 195 yards and a touchdown in the BCS National Championship.

Defensive MVP: After missing the first two games due to injury, Dee Ford returned with a chip on his shoulder. The senior defensive end recorded seven sacks in his first seven games back and finished second in the SEC with 10.5 sacks on the season. He sacked Johnny Manziel twice in the final minute to preserve a win over Texas A&M and wreaked havoc on the likes of Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron and Jameis Winston in crucial games down the stretch.

Best moment: Auburn provided two of the most memorable moments in college football this season. First, it was the 73-yard Hail Mary caught by Ricardo Louis to stun Georgia in the final minute. Then, just two weeks later, Chris Davis returned a field goal 109 yards on the game’s final play to knock off No. 1 Alabama. Because of the rivalry and the stakes at the time, the edge goes to the field goal return, but both plays will go down in Auburn lore and will be talked about for years to come.

Worst moment: Davis went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. His field goal return against Alabama propelled Auburn to the national championship game, but he was also the one responsible for a missed tackle and critical pass interference penalty on Florida State’s game-winning drive in the BCS title game. The Seminoles went 80 yards in seven plays, and Kelvin Benjamin caught the go-ahead touchdown over Davis with just 13 seconds left.

SEC's best of 2013

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The SEC’s national championship streak is over, but the memories from the 2013 season will endure.

It was a wild ride, for sure.

No team in the league finished unbeaten. The team that won the SEC championship and played for the national championship (Auburn) didn’t win a single SEC game in 2012. Nine of the league's 14 teams averaged 30 or more points per game, and there were 11 SEC matchups in which both teams scored 30 or more points.

And for the third consecutive season, at least four SEC teams finished in the top 10 of the final polls.

Here’s a look back at the 2013 season with our annual Best of the SEC:

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesTre Mason saved his best games for last, including a record 304-yard outburst in the SEC championship game.
Best offensive player: Offense stole the show this season in the SEC, and Auburn junior running back Tre Mason was in a class by himself, particularly when it counted. The Tigers’ Heisman Trophy finalist finished with an SEC-best 1,816 rushing yards, breaking Bo Jackson’s school record, and also scored a league-high 25 touchdowns. In his last three games, against Alabama, Missouri and Florida State, Mason rushed for 663 yards and scored seven touchdowns.

Best defensive player: Of all the great players Alabama has had on defense under Nick Saban, senior linebacker C.J. Mosley is the only one to record 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. He finished with 108 this season, including nine for loss, and also led the Crimson Tide with 10 quarterback hurries. What set Mosley apart was his ability to do a little bit of everything. He was one of the surest tacklers in the league, equally outstanding in coverage and as a blitzer and cleaned up the mistakes of those around him.

Best coach: There's no question that Auburn's Gus Malzahn deserves this honor. He helped take a team that went a humiliating 3-9 in 2012 to 12 wins, an SEC championship and berth in the VIZIO BCS National Championship. The Tigers beat five ranked teams, including their final three opponents leading up to their 34-31 loss to Florida State in Pasadena, Calif. Malzahn also was named the AP Coach of the Year.

Best freshman: There was some stiff competition for this one, but the nod goes to Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. All the talk coming into the season was about the Gators' veteran cornerbacks, Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, but Hargreaves wound up leading the Gators with three interceptions and was fourth in the SEC with 11 pass breakups. He was a first-team All-SEC selection by The Associated Press, becoming the first Florida true freshman to earn first-team All-SEC honors from the AP since Emmitt Smith in 1987.

Best performance in a win: Was anyone better than Mason in a win this year? In the SEC championship game victory over Missouri, Mason rushed for an SEC championship record 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries. He carved up a Mizzou rush defense that entered the game ranked second in the league and made punishing runs in Auburn's 59-42 victory.

Best performance in a loss: Johnny Manziel wasn't perfect in Texas A&M's 49-42 loss to Alabama on Sept. 14. He had a couple of costly interceptions. But he also put the Aggies on his shoulders in the second half and nearly pulled off an improbable comeback. Manziel finished with 562 yards of total offense (464 yards passing and 98 yards rushing) and threw five touchdown passes. He threw three TD passes in the fourth quarter to rally Texas A&M from a 42-21 deficit.

Best comeback: An ailing Connor Shaw came off the bench in the third quarter to bring South Carolina back from the dead in a 27-24 double-overtime victory on the road against Missouri. The Gamecocks trailed 17-0 when Shaw entered the game. He was 20-of-29 passing for 201 yards and three touchdowns and led South Carolina to points on five of the six possessions he was on the field.

[+] EnlargeMarquez North
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIMarquez North's incredible catch set up the winning field goal in Tennessee's upset of South Carolina.
Best catch: Alabama's Kevin Norwood had two or three sick catches this season, and South Carolina's Bruce Ellington had a one-handed, bobbling gem in the bowl game. Auburn's Ricardo Louis had the most-talked-about catch with his Hail Mary to beat Georgia, but top prize goes to Tennessee freshman Marquez North. His 39-yard catch on a third-and-10 play with less than three minutes remaining set up the game-winning field goal in the Vols' 23-21 victory over South Carolina. North, with the defender draped all over him, somehow managed to pull the ball between his face mask and shoulder pads with his left hand.

Best block: Easily the most talked about block of the year came when Florida wide receiver Quinton Dunbar and Florida center Jon Harrison blocked each other during a play in Florida's embarrassing home loss to Georgia Southern. The block drew laughs from plenty of folks inside and outside of Gainesville and pretty much summed up Florida's disastrous 4-8 season.

Best moment: Auburn's Immaculate Deflection against Georgia was amazing, but Chris Davis' Kick Six -- an improbable 109-yard touchdown return on a missed Alabama field goal to close out the Iron Bowl -- was simply divine. Who would have ever thought that a Nick Saban-coached team would give up such a crazy play with one second (which Saban asked for) remaining? The play, in which Davis was barely touched, catapulted Auburn into the SEC championship game and eliminated Alabama from contention for its third consecutive national championship.

Best finish: How about the way the Mississippi State Bulldogs ended the 2013 season? With all due respect to Missouri's bounce back after that loss to Auburn, the Bulldogs were on the brink of postseason elimination before winning their last two regular-season games in overtime, including a victory over archrival Ole Miss, to become bowl eligible. The Bulldogs then pummeled Rice 44-7 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Best under-the-radar star: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out of nowhere to steal the defensive spotlight for most of the season. He was a terror off the edge, had three games in which he recorded three sacks and led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Pretty good replacement for Sheldon Richardson.
Let's take a look at the best and worst from the SEC during this year's bowl season:

Best game: This had to be Texas A&M's 52-48 comeback win over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Right when we thought Johnny Manziel was going out on a low note, he put his team on his shoulders to erase a 21-point deficit. He struggled to get on the same page with his receivers early but finished in style with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. The Aggies outscored Duke 35-10 in the second half.

Worst BCS bowl team without a national title at stake: Alabama has been money under Nick Saban in BCS National Championship games. But the Crimson Tide have laid a pair of eggs now in the Sugar Bowl, the latest coming in an ugly 45-31 loss to Oklahoma last week that saw Alabama turn it over five times and give up 429 yards of total offense. It was reminiscent of Alabama’s 31-17 loss to Utah in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel put on quite a show in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in what turned out to be his final game.
Worst tackle: Though Auburn's defense played very well for the better part of the Tigers' heartbreaking 34-31 loss to Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, the dagger came on a fumbled defensive effort. Chris Davis and Ryan Smith cost Auburn a big play on the Seminoles' game-winning scoring drive when they both attempted to tackle Rashad Greene after a first-down catch just to the right of the middle of the field. They hit each other more than Greene, who then sprinted down the right sideline for a 49-yard gain to help set up the final score.

Best catch: Not only was Bruce Ellington’s bobbling, one-handed catch in South Carolina’s 34-24 win over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl a gem, but it also changed the complexion of the game. The 22-yard gain came on fourth-and-7 and set up a 22-yard touchdown catch by Ellington late in the third quarter that put the Gamecocks ahead for good.

Best quote: “I was in a zone I haven’t been in before -- ever. I just wanted this game.” -- Manziel

Best grind-out performance: LSU running back Jeremy Hill, who helped keep LSU out of the upset column against Iowa with his 28 carries for 216 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead 37-yarder with two minutes remaining.

Best multi-purpose performance: About the only thing Connor Shaw didn’t do in his farewell performance for the Gamecocks was intercept a pass. He passed for three touchdowns, ran for a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass.

Worst defensive breakdown: Big pass plays haunted Georgia’s defense this season, and the 99-yard touchdown pass the Bulldogs gave up in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl was perhaps the worst of the bunch. Nebraska was facing third-and-14 from its own 1 in the fourth quarter when Quincy Enunwa took advantage of a bust in the Georgia secondary and streaked 99 yards to give the Huskers a 24-12 lead. Nebraska finished with just 307 yards of total offense, and 99 came on that one play.

Worst timing: Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch has always been rock solid for the Bulldogs, but his crucial drop on a fourth-and-3 at Nebraska's 16-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining ended any chance of a Georgia comeback. Lynch would have given the Dawgs a first down inside the 10.

Best individual performance: Manziel delivered a performance for the ages (and a performance that turned out to be his final one at the collegiate level) in rallying the Aggies from a 21-point deficit to beat Duke 52-48 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Manziel was 30-of-38 passing for 382 yards and four touchdowns, and he also rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown.

Best team performance: How about those Mississippi State Bulldogs? Left for dead in late November, the Bulldogs won two straight in overtime to make a bowl game. After getting bumped up to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Mississippi State crushed a Rice team that entered the game winners of nine of their last 10 with a 44-7 showing. Quarterback Dak Prescott had arguably his best game, throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 78 yards and two more scores. The defense also allowed a season-low 145 yards.
Dee Ford has seen it all during his time at Auburn -- the highs and the lows.

As a freshman, he won a BCS national championship. Two years later, he endured a 3-9 season and the coaching change that ensued. But the senior defensive end stuck around and finished his career as a part of this year’s Auburn team that came a play or two away from winning a second national championship in the last four years.

[+] EnlargeWinston Sacked
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNosa Eguae ended his senior season in the same way he ended his freshman season in 2010 -- starting for Auburn in a BCS championship game.
“It's been a big roller coaster,” Ford said prior to Monday’s title game. “There's a message behind it. Things aren't going to work out when you expect it to. It’s really revealed who we are as individuals and who we are as a team.”

Things didn’t work out for the Tigers in Pasadena. They ultimately fell short of the ultimate goal, losing to Florida State in the national championship, but it was still a season to remember for Ford and the rest of that senior class. After everything, they went out on top.

“It means a lot for me to go out (like this) my last year,” Ford said after the game. “In the entire time, we set a goal to have the biggest turnaround in college football history, and it was an amazing journey for me. I'm definitely proud to be an Auburn Tiger right now. We didn't win, but at the end of the day, I'm still proud of my team.”

It was the same sentiment shared by all 15 seniors. The majority of them were there for the 2010 national championship. They all went through last year’s difficult season and finished this season on top, despite the loss to the Seminoles.

It was a journey that brought them closer together.

Ford’s partner on the defensive line, Nosa Eguae, is also a senior. In fact, he was the only starter from the 2010 team still on the roster. On Tuesday, Eguae addressed his fellow seniors in an open letter to the fans that he shared with multiple media outlets.

“This is the last time my brothers and I will get to spend a day with each other,” Eguae said. “For tomorrow, we will go our separate ways and pass the torch to the next group of seniors that will lead and fight for the greater good of the family. From tragedy to triumph, I could not ask for a better group of men to ride off into the sunset with.”

In addition to Eguae and Ford, the senior class that has grown so close together includes the likes of Steven Clark, Chris Davis, Jake Holland, Cody Parkey, Jay Prosch, Ryan Smith and Ryan White -- all who started or made an impact at some point during the season.

It’s a group that could have won two national championships during their time at Auburn but will still leave behind a legacy that will affect the program for years to come.

“There will be a lot of great things and great memories that our seniors have led us to be,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We were just on the brink of making it one of those magical seasons, but there's so many great things that we'll take. I just told the seniors they laid the groundwork for our program moving forward, and our program is very bright right now.”

With nine starters returning on offense, pending Tre Mason's decision, and seven starters returning on defense, the Tigers should be among the nation’s elite teams again next season. They’re ranked No. 5 in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2014. But it will be up to the seniors-to-be to provide the leadership.

Center Reese Dismukes, a three-year starter, knows he’ll be counted on as a leader again next season, but he showed his appreciation to the departing seniors after Monday’s game.

“Proud of my teammates and coaches,” the Auburn captain tweeted. “We fight and fight til the end. Thanks seniors for all you’ve done for this program.”

The torch has been passed.

Auburn runs out of miracles

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
3:34
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PASADENA, Calif. -- There were no miracles this time, only heartache.

And for the longest time, it didn’t look like Auburn would need a miracle Monday night after building an 18-point lead on a VIZIO BCS National Championship stage that not even the most die-hard fan on the Plains would have dreamed the Tigers would be playing on back in August.

But Florida State came storming back with a little late-game magic of its own to win a 34-31 thriller at the Rose Bowl, leaving a lump in the Tigers’ collective throats and bringing to an end the SEC’s national championship streak.

“We’ve been in this position all season long,” Auburn senior cornerback Chris Davis said. “We believe that if the game’s close, we’re going to win. It didn’t go our way tonight, and it’s going to take a long time for this hurt to go away.”

[+] EnlargeDee Ford
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesDee Ford had two sacks for Auburn.
The truth is that Auburn was never supposed to be here, not after going winless in the SEC a year ago, firing Gene Chizik as its head coach and starting over with Gus Malzahn.

But Malzahn’s message to his team in his very first meeting was that the Tigers were going to engineer the biggest turnaround in college football history.

And, boy, were they close, which made Monday night’s loss all the more nauseating for them.

“I apologize to the Auburn family and the rest of the fans that we didn’t finish,” said Auburn running back Tre Mason, who rushed for 195 yards on 34 carries and surpassed Bo Jackson as Auburn’s single-season rushing leader.

“We didn’t finish what we started. That’s a great team [Florida State] and they deserved to win. They found a way to win at the end.”

Mason had given Auburn a 31-27 lead with 1:19 to play on a tackle-breaking, 37-yard touchdown run.

“We knew we were going to take it down and score there,” Mason said. “Even after they returned that kickoff, you could just feel it on our sideline.”

It’s the same script Auburn had followed all season, whether it was Davis’ kick-six touchdown against Alabama, Ricardo Louis’ Hail Mary touchdown catch against Georgia or Nick Marshall’s late touchdown pass to beat Mississippi State.

“Right now, I’m kind of at a loss for words,” Auburn center Reese Dismukes said. “No one gave us a chance at the beginning of the season. We won the SEC championship in the best league in the country. Obviously, it was a successful season, but you’d like to win one more game.”

If not for a handful of plays, Auburn could easily be taking the final BCS crystal trophy back to the Plains.

Jameis Winston’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds to play won it for the Seminoles. But a play earlier, Davis was flagged for pass interference in the end zone when Winston tried to hit Rashad Greene on a third-and-8 play.

“I didn’t think it was pass interference. The ref called it, so it is what it is,” Davis said.

As costly as that pass-interference penalty was for the Tigers, the real back-breaker was Greene’s 49-yard catch-and-run to set up Benjamin’s touchdown. Auburn was in a zone and had a chance to tackle Greene for a modest gain, but he split Davis and safety Ryan Smith and was off to the races.

“We just didn’t come up with a stop when we needed to, and we usually do that as a defense,” said Davis, who was also covering Benjamin on his game-winning touchdown.

Auburn’s defense deserved better. The Tigers pressured Winston repeatedly, sacked him four times and held the Seminoles to three offensive touchdowns.

But Kermit Whitfield’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to put Florida State ahead 27-24 late in the fourth quarter was a killer. Likewise, the Tigers had another breakdown on special teams late in the second quarter when they gave up a fake punt leading to Florida State’s only first-half touchdown.

“They just executed at the times they needed to,” said Auburn defensive end Dee Ford, who had two sacks. “We played great for 3½ quarters. It just came down to that one possession. We had some calls that didn’t go our way, and it just didn’t work out. It’s unfortunate, but we have nothing to hang our heads about.

“Those same guys who were out there on that field were the same guys that helped get us here. We went out and fought. We just came up short. We’re not going to hang our heads.”


NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Florida State receiver Kenny Shaw was posing for photos while wearing “Google Glass.” Auburn players were dancing and jumping into interview shots, even joining the ESPNU crew on stage. Players from both teams took turns getting their pictures taken with the Vizio BCS National Championship trophy.

But don't be fooled -- they're ready for Monday night.

Saturday’s media event at the Newport Beach Marriott was chaotic, with every player and coach from both teams available to reporters. Florida State was the first team in the spotlight, followed by Auburn, and while the stars and head coaches for each team were seated at individual podiums, the rest of their teammates and staff members were seated around tables in a huge ballroom, swarmed by reporters with microphones and television cameras, working to preview the sport’s biggest game.

[+] EnlargeNCAA BCS National Championship
AP Photo/David J. PhillipAll of FSU and Auburn's players faced the media throng Saturday before the BCS title game.
In spite of all of the distractions and attention this week, those within both programs agreed they are focused and ready for Monday night’s stage.

“Preparation has been great,” FSU receiver Rashad Greene said. “So I feel like it's been one of the best all year. So we're doing a great job at handling our business, handling the situation, and when it's time to prepare, we have done a great job and when it's time to have fun, we're doing a great job at having fun as well. So we're definitely mature enough to handle our business and know there's a time and a place to do everything.”

Auburn cornerback Chris Davis said the Tigers have had the same approach.

“In the SEC, that's the best conference in college football,” Davis said. “And I just got to say, we're going to be well prepared for Monday. We're just ready to play our best and represent the great state of Alabama.”

For Auburn, Monday’s game is a chance to extend the SEC’s streak of national titles to eight, and give the conference 10 of the 16 BCS championships. For Florida State, which is making its first appearance in the national title game in 13 years, it’s a chance to elevate the ACC and most likely finish in the top five for the first time since the program’s historic run from 1987-2000. Saturday’s media event was a also rare opportunity for reporters to speak with Florida State assistant coaches, several of whom are former players now basking in the program’s return to the top.

Both teams have been here since Dec. 31, when they were welcomed at Disneyland. Sunday morning’s news conferences with FSU coach Jimbo Fisher and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn will be the final media availability before Monday’s 8:30 p.m. ET national title game.

For the players, it’s all business now.

“Our team has done a very good job this year of not getting distracted by anything,” Malzahn said. “This week has been no different, even though the schedule has been a little bit chaotic at times. Once we got in our meetings, once we got to the practice field, the guys have been locked in, trying to get better and focus.”

Fisher and Greene both said that the Noles haven’t played their best game yet.

“I feel very confident we're ready,” Fisher said. “I think we've practiced extremely well and I like our mindset and our attitude right now. I think we're very confident in what we do but we're not arrogant. I think our kids believe in the system, and the team we have, there's not a lot of arrogance where they're ignoring things and not preparing at the same time, and I think that's very critical.”
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- The hits just keep coming for Texas, which can’t seem to find a coach to replace Mack Brown.

Well, here’s some good news: If the Longhorns hire Jimbo Fisher, they’ll get a two-for-one deal, scoring the Heisman Trophy winner, too.

The odds of that happening don’t look good, of course, especially because Fisher recently signed a new contract with Florida State. And Texas already had its chance at quarterback Jameis Winston.

“Through the whole recruiting process, I said to my coach, ‘We got to get Texas on the phone,’ ” Winston said.

Winston even tried to get Brown on the phone himself.

“I tried to call him a couple times because I really like Texas,” he said.

It’s probably better it didn’t work out. After all, Winston said he was an Oklahoma fan.

SWINGING FOR THE STARS

Who says Winston can’t play both baseball and football at the next level?

“You can do anything you put your mind to,” the two-sport star said. “A lot of people are going to say, ‘No way, he’s a quarterback.’ Bo Jackson was a running back. The one thing I always seem to do is gain the trust of my teammates. Even being in the NFL, if I can convince those guys I can be your quarterback, I can go play baseball for the Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees. I can’t talk about that, because I’m living in the moment right now.”

On Tuesday, he’ll be ready to talk baseball again.

“Right now I got one thing on my mind, win the national championship on Monday. Tuesday comes, I’ll be ready for it then. I’m pretty sure [Florida State baseball] coach Mike Martin, he’ll talk to me about it then. I know he’s not saying nothing about baseball to me right now.”

HAPPY RETURNS

Prior to this season, Auburn's Chris Davis had not returned any punts or kicks during his college career, but it wasn't because he didn't try.

"I'd been asking. I never got the opportunity," said Davis, who led the SEC in punt return average this season and also returned the missed field goal against Alabama 109 yards for a touchdown.

Asked what reason the previous coaching staff at Auburn gave him for not giving him a shot to return kicks, Davis said, "They didn’t have an answer for me."

Auburn's current special teams coach, Scott Fountain, was the director of player personnel on the previous staff and made it known when the new regime arrived that Davis was plenty capable as a return man. Davis had excelled as a return specialist in high school.

The rest, as they say, is history.

"I’d mention it every year. I’d go back and catch punts and kicks at the beginning of the season, but I never got the opportunity," Davis said. "I thank Coach Fountain and Coach [Gus] Malzahn for the opportunity."

NOT BACKING DOWN

Florida State's receivers, led by 6-foot-5, 234-pound sophomore Kelvin Benjamin, are big, physical and explosive.

Benjamin has 14 touchdown catches entering Monday's Vizio BCS National Championship, which presents quite a challenge for an Auburn pass defense that ranked last in the SEC this season.

But the Tigers are adamant they're not going to all of a sudden change it up.

"We’ve mixed it up, but man[-to-man coverage] is our base," Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. "We’re going to play man. LSU had great receivers. Georgia had good receivers. Missouri’s got bigger receivers than Florida State’s got. We’ve seen all types. We’ve seen some of the best. At all times, we haven’t stopped them, but you can’t just give up on something.

"I think a lot of people have been intimidated out of man coverage against them early in the game because they can’t score on them. If we score on them and hold the ball on them a little bit, we’ll have a chance to be more aggressive. If we don’t, we’re going to have a hard time."

GETTING DRAFTY

Florida State junior running back Devonta Freeman said he turned his papers into the NFL draft evaluation board but hasn’t heard back from it yet. Freeman said when he does, he will talk to Fisher about possibly entering the draft.


NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Way back before Chris Davis had even dreamed about making the play of the year in college football (maybe the play of the decade), his head coach knew how important Davis would be to this Auburn team.

“One of the keys to our season is Chris Davis staying healthy because of all the different ways he can impact our team,” Auburn’s Gus Malzahn said.

Malzahn made those comments back in late July, just weeks before the start of preseason practice.

Not even he knew how prophetic he would be.

[+] EnlargeL'Damian Washington
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsChris Davis (right) has been Auburn's best defender as well as a prized special teams player and the Tigers' leader.
Davis’ improbable 109-yard touchdown return of a missed field goal to beat Alabama is just a part of the story. He’s been the Tigers’ best cover cornerback. He leads them in total tackles (69) and pass breakups (14) and also leads the SEC in punt return average (20.1 yards per game), which includes an 85-yard touchdown against Tennessee.

“He’s not a guy of many words, but he’s our captain for a reason,” Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “He goes out there and leads by example. And when it comes to needing a big play to be made, you know No. 11 is the guy who will make that play.”

Perhaps the best perspective on what Davis has meant can be traced to a conversation after the season among Malzahn and all three of the Tigers’ coordinators. They were discussing the different team awards, and Davis’ name kept popping up in every category.

“We didn’t know whether to give him most valuable player, most valuable special teams player or most valuable defensive player,” said Ellis Johnson, Auburn’s defensive coordinator.

“He made so many big plays. If you take Chris Davis out, does somebody make those plays? I don’t think they make all of them. The play at the end of the Alabama game was one of them, but he made a lot of them. He matched up most of the time on the best receiver, and he’s given up some balls, too, but he can play with anybody in the country one-on-one and has shown that most of the time.”

Davis’ plight since arriving on the Plains, in a lot of ways, has mirrored Auburn’s incredible turnaround this season. Coming out of Birmingham, Ala., he wasn’t very highly recruited and has had an injury-plagued career.

In fact, he suffered a high ankle sprain on the opening kickoff of the 2011 BCS National Championship win over Oregon and missed the rest of the game. Even this season, he missed the Mississippi State and LSU games with an ankle injury.

“Growing up, this is what I dreamed of, to be in these types of situations,” Davis said. “I had my ups and downs here, fighting injuries every year, but I never gave up. That’s kind of how we came into this season because we were going to face adversity.

“We stuck together through it all, and this is a season to remember, especially coming off last year. It’s one of the biggest turnarounds in college football, and now we’re trying to finish it off with this game.”

Davis, a senior, became a household name following his stunning touchdown return against Alabama. He jokes that he can’t get away from that play no matter how hard he tries. When he returned to class that next week at Auburn, he received a standing ovation.

“That was one play, one I’ll always remember, but we have more to do,” Davis said.
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 Florida State’s wide receivers and Auburn’s secondary.

Florida State’s wide receivers: It’s not a deep group, but there may not be a more dynamic set of receivers in the country than what Jameis Winston has at his disposal at Florida State.

[+] EnlargeBenjamin
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsFSU WR Kelvin Benjamin is a physical presence who can also break free and make big plays.
Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw are all within striking distance of 1,000 yards. Greene is one of the nation’s most consistent threats, and while he’s not imposing physically, he runs precise routes and rarely drops a pass. Shaw is the lone senior in the group, and he’s averaging 18 yards a catch and has topped 89 yards receiving seven times. But it’s Benjamin who should keep Auburn defenders awake at night.

At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Benjamin is as physical a receiving threat as there is in college football. He excels at jump balls, is physical at the line of scrimmage, and loves blocking downfield. His career has been marked by inconsistency, but he was red hot to end the regular season, with 17 catches for 458 yards and eight TDs in his last four games.

Even if Auburn manages to corral all of Florida State’s deep threats, tight end Nick O’Leary is a wild card. O’Leary has 33 catches for 557 yards and seven touchdowns this season and is one of Winston’s favorite targets. As the big three receivers draw attention downfield, O’Leary provides a dangerous weapon underneath and is capable of picking up big chunks of yards after the catch.

And, of course, the key to all of it is Winston, the Heisman winner and one of the country’s most aggressive quarterbacks. Winston completes 55.8 percent of his passes of 15 yards or more (second only to Baylor’s Bryce Petty among AQ QBs) and has 19 TDs without an INT in the red zone this season.

Auburn’s secondary: In the last three games, Auburn has had a difficult time defending the pass. Aaron Murray threw for 415 yards and two touchdowns. AJ McCarron threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns. And in the SEC championship game, James Franklin threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns. Now, the Tigers are about to face the Heisman Trophy winner and the nation’s leader in opponent-adjusted QBR (90.8).

It’s a group that remains confident in their ability, but they know they have a steep challenge ahead of them.

The most notable name is cornerback Chris Davis, but that’s more because of his field-goal return to beat Alabama than his pass coverage. Still, he’s the No. 1 cornerback and the team’s best chance of shutting down an opposing wide receiver. It’s the cornerback opposite Davis, Jonathon Mincy, who teams have been able to pick on this season.

Mincy was defending Amari Cooper when the Alabama wide receiver hauled in a 99-yard touchdown pass in the Iron Bowl. He also had no answer for Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who finished with six catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns against Auburn. If he draws the assignment of defending Benjamin, which is what he wants, it could be a long day for the Tigers.

The X-factor could be Robenson Therezie who plays the Star position in Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 defense. He leads the team in interceptions (four) and is fourth in tackles (55). He’ll primarily focus on covering the slot receiver, but he might also be asked to cover O’Leary at times or even blitz from time to time. Auburn isn’t going to stop Winston, but Therezie could make life a little more difficult for the Florida State quarterback.

Hale: Big edge Florida State

Ostendorf: Edge Florida State

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