Auburn Tigers: Gus Malzahn

Price of playing good defense going up

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

How is that possible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Everybody keeps talking about Les Miles' 46-4 record at home in night games, but how about Gus Malzahn’s record at home? Auburn is a perfect 13-0 at Jordan-Hare Stadium since Malzahn took over prior to last season, winning by an average of average score of 41.5-19.0.

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

Key player: Right tackle Avery Young

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

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

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

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

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

Three keys: Auburn at Ole Miss

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

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

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

Key player: RB Cameron Artis-Payne

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

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

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

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

The last time Auburn went on the road, it turned the ball over on its first two possessions. The Tigers were down 21-0 before they knew what hit them. This offense can't afford to turn the ball over like that again and Nick Marshall in particular has to be careful against an Ole Miss defense that has an FBS-high 17 interceptions. It will be important for the Tigers to establish a running game and grab an early lead because they don't want to throw unless they have to, not against a secondary that includes Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson.
We continue our "most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved.

Today, we take a look at Auburn.

Most important game: Nov. 29 at Alabama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are plenty of difficult games and potential road blocks on Auburn's schedule, but none hold the same kind of weight as the Iron Bowl. Even if the Tigers lose a game or two along the way, a win against Alabama could put them right back in the playoff picture or it could ruin the Tide's chances of winning it all, which can be just as rewarding for AU fans.
An early signing period can’t get here soon enough.

In fact, a number of SEC teams are recruiting as if it already exists.

On Tuesday, Auburn played catch-up with its league brethren by gaining its 16th and 17th total commitments of the 2015 class in four-star offensive lineman Tyler Carr and three-star tight end Jalen Harris. Still, Gus Malzahn’s group trails Alabama (19), South Carolina (19), Mississippi State (18), Tennessee (18) and Texas A&M (18) in terms of its total verbal pledges.

And to think, SEC rules permit only 25 signees per class, per year.

So what’s the rush then? It’s hard to say. In recent years we’ve seen the recruiting calendar steadily accelerated by both the coaches and the players. More and more prospects are committing early, in part to get the process over with but also to secure a spot at their desired school. If you’re a middle-of-the-pack recruit, Alabama offers you a scholarship and you see there are only six spots left in the class, you better act fast.

It’s important to note, however, that without an early signing period in effect, we’re still talking tentative numbers. A verbal commitment is still nonbinding -- on both ends. Players will continue to look elsewhere and other programs will keep trying to poach other schools’ recruits. Coaches will make the scholarship numbers fit, one way or another.

South Carolina’s 19 current commitments may not be the same 19 recruits in a few months time. Ole Miss, on the other hand, has only eight commitments to date and could see that number double by the start of the season. Just look at Auburn, which has gone on a tear since mid-April by nagging 11 total commitments.

Compared to the other big five conferences, the SEC is wasting no time recruiting. The ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 each have only one school in their respective conferences with 16 or more commitments. The Pac-12, meanwhile, has none and is led by Arizona’s 14 commitments.

Other conferences might be clinging to a recruiting era gone by, one where prospects waited until signing day to put pen to paper and decide. An early signing period might change that in the future, but for now the SEC is living in the present, getting while the getting is good.

By last count, 152 of ESPN’s top 300 prospects have already committed. There’s no time to waste.
If you’re just now jumping on board our little road trip, we at the SEC Blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations for each week of the season. So far we’ve been to spots like Athens, Auburn, College Station, Tuscaloosa, Houston and Norman, Oklahoma.

We’ve knocked out eight weeks of trips in all, which means we’ve got only six more to go. The clock is ticking. You know as soon as Halloween arrives, we’ve hit the home stretch.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the best options for Week 9:

Oct. 25

Alabama at Tennessee
UAB at Arkansas
South Carolina at Auburn
Mississippi State at Kentucky
Ole Miss at LSU
Vanderbilt at Missouri

Alex Scarborough’s pick: South Carolina at Auburn

We’re eight weeks into our hypothetical season, so anything could have happened by now. But there’s a pretty good chance that this game will be a top-25 matchup with significant postseason implications.

Plus, it’s as good an East-West crossover game as you’ll find on the schedule. These two teams have met just five times since 2000, and three such contests were decided by 8 points or less.

It’s got a pretty good storyline to build around, too. Think about it: Steve Spurrier, the 69-year-old author of the Fun ‘N’ Gun, up against Gus Malzahn, the 48-year-old hurry-up no-huddle perfectionist. It’s the visor against the sweater vest. Well, they both wear visors, but still. In fact, there’s another storyline for you!

Outside of the head coaches and their fashion choices, the game on the field could be a good one as well.

The Auburn offense should be even better in 2014, with Nick Marshall progressing under center and D'haquille Williams added on the outside at receiver. The defense, meanwhile, has nowhere to go but up, and should have some momentum after a relatively strong showing in the BCS National Championship Game.

South Carolina, despite losing Connor Shaw and Jadeveon Clowney, should match up well. Dylan Thompson has experience at quarterback, and he’s got plenty of weapons to work with. The receiving corps has some burners in Damiere Byrd and Pharoh Cooper, and the running backs are led by an All-American candidate in Mike Davis. The secondary might be a major question mark on defense, but the linebackers are solid and the defensive line has some depth.

Edward Aschoff’s pick: Ole Miss at LSU

This might not be Alabama-Auburn or even Ole Miss-Mississippi State, but this is a very important and heated rivalry. Just ask Ole Miss fans what they think of LSU when it comes to singing the National Anthem. It's a rivalry that stretches as far back as 1894, with LSU holding a commanding 58-40-4 record.

But all-time records will mean absolutely nothing when these two meet. It's actually been one of the more fun SEC rivalries of late, as four of the last five games in this series have been decided by seven points or less. A year after losing a heartbreaker in Baton Rouge, the Rebels bounced back to shock LSU with a 27-24 win at home last season, so you know the Tigers will be looking for revenge inside of Death Valley.

This game has some exciting storylines, and we haven't even gotten to Week 1 of the regular season. Ole Miss is a dark horse to take the SEC West, while LSU is a relative unknown with so many questions on both sides of the ball. Who's going to be LSU's quarterback? Who's going to step up at wide receiver? What we do know is that Ole Miss should have a potent offense with veteran quarterback Bo Wallace back and some quality athletes at receiver and running back to take some pressure off of star receiver Laquon Treadwell. But can LSU's defense stop it?

The Tigers have some budding stars, especially in the secondary and at linebacker, but defensive line could be an issue. Ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter have experience, but who's going to step up at tackle? Ole Miss is not a team that you don't want to struggle in rushing the passer against, and the Rebels plan to use their running backs even more in the passing game.

If Ole Miss is going to take the next step in its quest to becoming an elite SEC team, it needs to get wins like this one in hostile environments. If LSU wants to prove that it's still a contender in 2014, it needs to beat an up-and-coming, dangerous team like this. Drama, excitement and the possibility of a lot of points await in Tiger Stadium.

The West could be on the line for both teams when they meet, but so will the ultimate SEC tailgating challenge. Baton Rouge and Oxford own arguably the SEC's -- and nation's -- best tailgating spots, which means you're going to be in absolute heaven dining on gumbo under a tent with a chandelier.

Even if your team doesn't win, you'll eat well, and you'll see a pretty exciting game. Sign me up.
Auburn is all about giving players second chances, and Gus Malzahn took another chance this weekend when he agreed to bring on former Georgia defensive back Tray Matthews just weeks after Matthews had been dismissed by the Bulldogs.

The move drew criticism from rival fans who called Auburn names like “Thug University” or “college football’s rehab center,” but the Tigers have had success bringing in players with checkered pasts and who have needed a second chance.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesGus Malzahn has had some major successes with transfers (see Nick Marshall), but accepting Tray Matthews has brought a lot of attention.
Quarterback Nick Marshall is a perfect example. He, too, was dismissed from Georgia, in February 2012. After spending a year in junior college, he signed with Auburn and led to the Tigers to a 12-2 record, winning the SEC championship.

Going back to Malzahn’s days as offensive coordinator, Auburn took a chance on another quarterback named Cam Newton, and all he did was win a national championship.

Matthews might not have that type of impact when he’s eligible to play in 2015, but he has the talent to compete for a starting job right away. The former ESPN 300 prospect started six games as a freshman in Athens and finished with 36 tackles, one interception, one fumble forced and four passes broken up.

The question isn’t what he can do on the field. It’s whether can he stay out of trouble off it.

At Georgia, Matthews was one of four players arrested this spring and charged with multiple accounts of theft by deception. Basically, they received double payments for stipend checks that were issued by the Georgia athletic department.

But that wasn't the lone reason for his dismissal. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, it was a classroom disruption earlier this month that ultimately led to the end. It was the last straw for head coach Mark Richt.

“We are trying to make room for guys who want to do things right,” Richt said in a statement following Matthews' dismissal.

Now it’s Auburn’s turn to deal with Matthews. Malzahn and his staff obviously they think they can make an impact on the troubled safety and help him to do right, but there’s still a high level of risk that goes into it, a risk that Tigers fans know all too well.

Auburn is just four years removed from a national championship, but between 2010 and 2013, the program fell apart. The rapid decline began with off-the-field incidents -- four players arrested on robbery charges and dismissed from the team and star running back Michael Dyer transferring after he was suspended for the bowl game -- and it escalated from there.

This program can’t afford to go down that same path, and taking on Matthews and keeping cornerback signee Kalvaraz Bessent, who was arrested in February, increases the chances of that happening.

With that said, the coaching staff now is very different from the coaching staff then. Malzahn has shown that if a player is out of line, he’s not afraid to kick him out of the program. Last August, he dismissed starting safety Demetruce McNeal and former ESPN 300 tight end Ricky Parks just weeks before the season opener.

Parks returned on probationary status after spending last fall at junior college, but once spring practice wrapped up, Malzahn announced that he was no longer with the program.

Matthews will likely be on that same short leash when he arrives at Auburn, and while the fans and coaches alike are hoping for a story similar to Marshall’s, there’s still a risk that it goes the other way. Is it worth it?
We might not be able to enjoy college football for a few months, but today marks the beginning of the world's greatest sporting event: The World Cup.

Unfortunately, I can't be there with my fellow American Outlaws, but my eyes will be glued to my TV for the next month, watching some pretty compelling games all day long. So in honor of the World Cup, I thought it would be a good idea to see how all 14 SEC teams stack up to 14 World Cup teams. Who are their futbol counterparts?

I had some help from two of my fellow soccer nut friends, Konrad and Dan, so here are your 14 SEC World Cup teams:

ALABAMA

Brazil: Alabama claims something like 100 national titles and Brazil has five World Cup titles of its own. Every year, Alabama is a heavy favorite, just like Brazil. The Crimson Tide play near-perfect football, and Brazil plays the beautiful game. Though neither team is perfect, Brazil has been picked by most to win this year's World Cup, while Alabama is a national championship contender even with a new quarterback and questions on defense. Spain was a possibility, but from a historical standpoint, it didn't work. We'll leave Spain and Florida State to hang out.

ARKANSAS

South Korea: Neither is expected to go far this year, but there are a couple of good players spread out on both rosters. Could they be dangerous? Maybe. Can this year be a good starting point for the future? It's possible. Honestly, it's tough to say what either can do this year, but they won't lack heart in the way they play. Wins? That'll be tough.

AUBURN

Germany: A team that has the talent to compete year in and year out, but has had some rough spots in its history. They've had great success and tradition, but also dropped off before getting back to prominence. A coach has always helped resurrect things. Gene Chizik was the man for the job at one time, and now it's Gus Malzahn. These teams aren't perfect, but they're teams to be feared with so much offense, and could be better this year than the last time they played for a title.

FLORIDA

France: Like Florida, the French have the talent to be contenders, but they've also been underachievers of late. There is a lot of history with these two, and both should never be void of talent. France and Florida have no excuse for not being in contention. The SEC should always be in reach in some fashion for the Gators, and France shouldn't be viewed as underdogs in early rounds, but both have struggled to get back to elite status in the last few years. Argentina would have worked because, well, Will Muschamp and his cousin Lionel Messi.

GEORGIA

Belgium: Here's a team that could make a run and take it all, just like Georgia. But are we ready to say that either can really do it? Both can play offense just fine, but they have questions on defense and just haven't been able to get over the championship hump. Belgium is a nice sleeper pick this year, and the Dawgs could be one too, but there are just so many unknowns with a team that has to figure out so much on defense.

KENTUCKY

Australia: Not going to make a championship push this year, but won't go down -- or out -- without a fight. Mark Stoops is building, and building well, so he knows how tough it's going to be to make any sort of run during his second season with the Wildcats, but this team is better than last year's. An SEC win is on the table, and Kentucky could frustrate the big boys, like Australia, but there's still a ton of work to do.

LSU

Italy: Year in and year out, these two teams have a chance to win it all. They might have holes, which both squads certainly do, but the talent and athleticism out there is something no one wants to deal with. Both teams have, um, interesting figures as the faces of their teams. Italy has Mario Balotelli and LSU has Les Miles. Fear the quirkiness!

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Mexico: A strong finish to World Cup qualifying has Mexico as a threat, just like the Bulldogs after how they ended last season. Mexico is fast and furious, just like Mississippi State figures to be, especially with so much experience coming back on both sides. While Mississippi State isn't banged up like Mexico, an injury or two to this squad could be devastating.

MISSOURI

Netherlands: Teams that have surprised us recently. How did the Netherlands get into the finals of the last World Cup? How did Mizzou make it to last season's SEC championship game? Well, because they were better than we thought they were. Now, they both have some good players to lean on, but there are a lot of new guys at key positions, and these teams are trying to build on past successes.

OLE MISS

Colombia: Like sneaky good Colombia, the Rebels have a lot of fire power on offense, a few stars and some youngsters who could eventually bring a title to Oxford. But also like Colombia, there are a lot of questions for Ole Miss. The offensive line is thin, Bo Wallace has been an injured and inconsistent quarterback, and we don't know if the defense is ready to be a real threatening unit. However, no one wants to play them, and they're both title darkhorses.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Uruguay: It's a team that you've heard of and you know is good, but you have trouble naming a lot of players. You know that they are dangerous, but you just don't know a ton about them. Both of these teams have stars spread out, like Mike Davis for the Gamecocks and Luis Suarez for Uruguay. Both teams have made runs, and could do it again, but winning it all? Just don't see it happening this year.

TENNESSEE

England: So much history and tradition and a great and enthusiastic fan base. But winning just hasn't been there of late. Tennessee won its last national championship at the end of the 1998 season. England hasn't won the World Cup since 1966 -- it's only title. Tennessee boasts five more titles than England, but both should be contenders each year. The fall of both has been rough for both of these teams.

TEXAS A&M

USA: Both have a lot of young talent and could have potent offenses. They both own very, very loud fan bases, and I'd like to think that the USA's following has grown more like that of the Aggies'. Defense is a major question for both and could wreck any sort of run for either. Both teams have a chance to sneak their way through for a successful run, are building for the future after, lost the faces of their teams in Johnny Manziel and Landon Donovan, but could be a tricky team to beat.

VANDERBILT

Cameroon: Past success by both teams has them as trendy picks to pull an upset or two. But can either get back to where they once were during their magical runs? Vanderbilt might not have a Samuel Eto'o-type player on its team, but it has the talent to be a frustrating opponent for other SEC East teams. Like Cameroon, being in a tough group doesn't bode well for another special run in 2014.

SEC's lunch links

June, 9, 2014
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How was your weekend? If you were out on the lake, you might have seen Alabama coach Nick Saban taking his players around on a boat. If not, you can still see it here. For more news and notes around the SEC, be sure to read Monday’s lunch links.

Second-year stars: Auburn

June, 4, 2014
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In 2013, the freshmen of the SEC were truly fabulous.

Hunter Henry and Alex Collins were impact players at Arkansas. Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche were spectacular for Ole Miss. And who can forget the play of Vernon Hargreaves III, Chris Jones and A'Shawn Robinson?

[+] EnlargeMontravius Adams
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMontravius Adams burst onto the scene early last season but failed to produce much the rest of the 2014 campaign.
But standout rookies aren’t easy to come by. More often it takes some time to make a transition from high school to college, and in Year 2 we generally see the biggest jump in production from players.

With that in mind, we’re taking a team-by-team look at the players who didn’t quite break through as freshmen but could see their stock skyrocket with as sophomores.

Next up: Auburn

Class recap: Before Gene Chizik was fired, he and his staff had put together a strong recruiting class at Auburn. It was up to Gus Malzahn, who was hired in December, to try and keep it intact. The new staff saw in-state stars Reuben Foster and Dee Liner flip to Alabama, but they were able to keep defensive end Carl Lawson, the nation’s No. 2 prospect, and the majority of other recruits who had already committed. Malzahn also picked up a late commitment from junior college quarterback Nick Marshall who turned out to be a critical piece to Auburn’s turnaround this past season.

Second-year star: DT Montravius Adams (6-foot-4, 306 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Ranked No. 13 overall in the ESPN 300, Adams just missed out on five-star status. The Vienna, Ga., product was the No. 3 player in the Peach State and the No. 2 defensive tackle nationally.

2013 in review: Nobody will forget Adams running onto the field for the first time against Washington State and sacking the quarterback on his first-ever play. It ignited a defense that looked slow and stagnant before that, and it instantly created lofty expectations for the freshman star. However, that turned out to be Adams’ only sack of the season. He played in 13 games but finished with just 20 tackles, 1.5 for loss and that lone sack.

2014 potential: Maybe Adams wasn’t ready for the rigors of a college football season. His playing time decreased as the year went on, and with it, so did his impact on the game. He now has been at Auburn for almost a full year, and he had a chance to go through spring practice for the first time. Everybody is talking about Lawson as a breakout star for 2014, but what’s stopping Adams from becoming a dominant force up front? The talent is there, and with Nosa Eguae moving on, there’s now an opportunity, too. He has had star written all over him since he arrived on the Plains, but it’s up to him when he fulfills that potential.

Also watch out for: Adams and Lawson are both in line for huge sophomore seasons, but don’t sleep on fellow defensive lineman Elijah Daniel. He was fourth on the team in sacks (2.5) as a freshman and should get a boost in playing time. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson showed he was more than capable of filling in for Marshall when needed last year, and the coaches might try and use him even more this year. Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens are both expected to contribute to one of the deeper wide receiver corps in the SEC. Davis made some clutch catches last year while Stevens hauled in two touchdowns in the spring game. And knowing that both the starting kicker and punter were going to be seniors, Malzahn addressed each position in the 2013 class with Daniel Carlson at kicker and Jimmy Hutchinson at punter. The two redshirt freshmen are expected to start for the Tigers this fall.
Auburn's miraculous, last-second "Kick Six" against Alabama was a sinfully sweet ending to the Tigers' 2013 regular season.

Well, Chris Davis' phenomenal play literally got even sweeter for one couple, as Auburn fan Billy Gilley received an amazing "Kick-Six" groom's cake for his wedding.

Alabama fans might want to avert their eyes, but this really is a thing of beauty by Cobalt Connections. The cake is complete with thousands of tiny orange-and-blue clad fans, an autograph area for Gus Malzahn and a scoreboard featuring the 28-28 score with one second remaining on the clock from last season's Iron Bowl.

I don't know what all the fillings were for this cake, but the inside looked delicious once everyone dug into it. (To my future wife: A miniature, chocolate-filled Godzilla cake is the way to my heart.)

The details are good enough that even Nick Saban would take a bite out of that bad boy!

When I was little, I had plenty of awesome cakes, thanks to my incredibly creative parents and the talented folks at Deanna's Confections in Oxford, Miss. My cakes featured, Godzilla, Ninja Turtles, killer whales, and dinosaurs, but never had this detail.

But while Auburn had the Homer drooling effect on people, Alabama touched everyone's heart with cuteness explosion of the kitten variety.

Green Bay Packers fan Stephanie Van Groll might even get a hug from Malzahn with the new addition to her family: Ha Ha Kitten-Dix. Yes, this little bundle of fur is named after former Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who was drafted by the Packers in the first round of this year's NFL draft.

As a proud cat owner, I fully understand that cats are far superior to dogs, and a kitten will tug at everyone's heart.
We’ve officially hit the home stretch in our season-long road trip as the calendar turns to October.

So turn down the air conditioning and pack a light jacket for the night games.

The leaves won’t be the only things changing colors around this time, though. Contenders and pretenders will begin to separate themselves as we get into the meat of the conference schedule.

If you’re just now jumping on board, we at the SEC blog have been getting ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations every week. So far we’ve been to Georgia, LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, Houston, Vanderbilt and Oklahoma. We’ve got five weeks down and nine more to go.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 6:

Oct. 4
Alabama at Ole Miss
LSU at Auburn
Florida at Tennessee
Vanderbilt at Georgia
South Carolina at Kentucky
Texas A&M at Mississippi State

Alex Scarborough’s pick: LSU at Auburn

Nothing approaches Alabama and the Iron Bowl when you’re talking about Auburn’s most significant rivalry game. But Auburn’s annual matchup with LSU is darn close. When these Tigers hook up, it’s appointment viewing.

I'm talking about the 1988 earthquake game. I'm talking about 1996, when a fire broke out. I'm talking abut 2004, when John Vaughn needed two shots at a game-winning extra point. And I'm definitely talking the 2006 slugfest that was one of the best displays of SEC defense in recent memory.

A 10-point game? Yeah, I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Not as long as Gus Malzahn is putting the pedal to the metal offensively at Auburn.

But this year’s Auburn-LSU game is appealing for that same reason: It pits one of the most prolific offenses in college football against one of the most physical defenses. Nick Marshall and the Auburn offense like to get out in open space and run. John Chavis wants his LSU defense to hit you in the teeth and suffocate you with speed. It’s strength vs. strength.

Man is it fun to watch when both teams are clicking, too. And at a venue such as Jordan-Hare Stadium in early October, you can’t ask for much more.

David Ching’s pick: Alabama at Ole Miss

You’ve made a good pick there, Alex. The craziest game I’ve attended was the 1994 LSU-Auburn game, when Auburn rallied to a miraculous win by returning three interceptions for touchdowns. That series probably doesn’t get the attention it deserves nationally, considering how many ridiculous things have happened when they’ve met in the last couple decades.

At any rate, I nearly allowed nostalgia to overcome me with my pick, which would have led me to select Florida-Tennessee. I’m a child of the early 1990s and there was no more important annual SEC rivalry in those days than when Phil Fulmer’s Vols took on Steve Spurrier’s Gators. For that reason alone, I’d enjoy watching those teams meet at Neyland Stadium, simply to soak in a bit of that history.

But both of those teams missed out on the postseason last year, and even if I think at least one of them -- if not both -- will return to bowl contention this season, Alabama-Ole Miss feels like it will be a more appealing game this fall.

Ole Miss’ solid 2013 recruiting class is coming of age, and the Rebels might be good enough to challenge the Crimson Tide -- particularly because this game will be played in Oxford, Mississippi. Second, there’s the lure of The Grove and the sights and sounds that come with tailgating around campus.

I’ve covered a couple of games in Oxford but haven’t been able to enjoy all that Oxford has to offer. If I’m picking a game to attend for fun, the social aspect would definitely figure into the equation as I choose what might also be a key game in the SEC West race.

SEC lunchtime links

May, 29, 2014
May 29
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The SEC spring meetings in Destin, Florida, are winding down, but college football news from around the conference continues to roll out. As always, we've got you covered.
AUBURN, Ala. -- It was a busy weekend on the Plains as the rest of Auburn’s highly regarded 2014 recruiting class arrived on campus, and it’s a group that’s more than capable of coming in and making early contributions for the Tigers.

“We’ve got some signees that we feel like are very talented that could be in the mix, and they’ll hit the ground running,” head coach Gus Malzahn said after A-Day.

This week, we’ll take a look at the summer enrollees who have the best chance to play early this fall, beginning with the offense.

[+] EnlargeRacean Thomas
Tom Hauck for Student SportsRB Racean Thomas has the ability to come in and make an instant impact for the Tigers.
RB Racean "Roc" Thomas: Auburn already has a crowded backfield with three capable running backs, but the staff believes Thomas will make an immediate impact because well, he’s just that good. As a senior, he rushed for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns, averaging an astounding 9.8 yards per carry. He was ranked No. 28 in the ESPN 300 and had his choice of where to go to school. Will he come in and take the starting job from day one? Probably not, but the opportunity is there. Either way, he’ll get his chances. He’s too good to keep off the field. They key this summer will be to learn the playbook, hit the weight room and get acclimated to the offense. If he wants to play early, he’ll need to gel with his fellow teammates.

TE-H Jakell Mitchell: If you don’t think the H-back position is an important piece to Malzahn’s offense, go back and look at what Jay Prosch provided for this team a year ago. He was vital to Auburn’s rushing game. Now he’s gone, and the Tigers are still searching for a replacement. That’s where Mitchell comes in. The 6-foot-3, 213-pound prospect might not be the highest ranked player in this class, but he’s an ideal fit at the H-back spot. From his scouting report: “A true TE-H who needs to add size, but plenty to like and a prospect a bit underrated in this TE class.” He missed his senior season with a torn ACL and his ability to contribute early will hinge on his health, but he says he’s 100 percent and ready to go.

OL Braden Smith: There’s not a stronger player in this class, and Smith might have the most impressive bench press on the whole team. He recently did two reps at 585 pounds. He played at or around 290 pounds as a senior, but his father says he was up to 305 when he arrived at Auburn over the weekend, which was a pleasant surprise to the coaches. The offensive line is one of the deeper positions on the team and it won’t be easy for Smith to crack the rotation, but his strength and versatility give him a chance. Auburn fans won’t like the comparison, but think Grant Hill at Alabama. The freshman offensive lineman never started, but he played all over for the Crimson Tide last year. Smith could have a similar impact in his first year.

SEC's lunchtime links

May, 28, 2014
May 28
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With the SEC spring meetings in full swing in Destin, Florida, there is plenty of league-related reading material floating around the Internet. Let's take a look at some of the headlines coming out of Destin.

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Impact Will Muschamp could have at Auburn
SEC Nation looked at the impact of Auburn hiring Will Muschamp as the Tigers' defensive coordinator.
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