Auburn Tigers: Jay Prosch

SEC lunchtime links

April, 11, 2014
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Spring games galore this weekend! Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt will be in action on Saturday. But news isn't just on the field; there's plenty off the field, too:
This is Part III of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Room to improve: Running back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are four players in Auburn’s 2014 class who could do just that:

S Markell Boston: Prior to his senior season, Boston had a handful of offers from smaller schools but nothing major. In fact, he originally committed to East Carolina last month because it was his best option at the time. However, he turned heads as a senior with 105 tackles and four interceptions and he received offers from Auburn, Indiana, Nebraska and UCF in the final week before signing day. Alabama also came close to offering, but in the end, he signed with Auburn, giving Gus Malzahn and the Tigers a player on the rise.
Malzahn’s take: “A very good tackler, a physical guy that we got on fairly late. He got better and better his senior year. We really feel like he’ll provide some depth for us.”

[+] EnlargeRaashed Kennion
Derek Tyson/ESPNRaashed Kennion flew below the radar until late, but his frame suggests that he has a lot of potential at defensive end.
DE Raashed Kennion: Similar to Boston, Kennion was a guy who didn’t receive much interest from the major schools during the recruiting process. He committed to Cincinnati back in May because just like Boston, it was his best option at the time. Then he visited Auburn over the summer and turned heads at their camp. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound defensive end showed flashes of brilliance, and that, combined with his size, was enough to convince Auburn’s Rodney Garner to offer him a scholarship. Kennion committed a month later.
Malzahn’s take: “A very, long athletic guy. Coach Garner had him in camp, offered him in camp. We recruited him hard, and we really think that he has a lot of potential moving forward.”

TE-H Jakell Mitchell: There was a time when Mitchell was ranked in the ESPN 300. He had offers from the likes of Alabama, Florida, Florida State and LSU and when he committed to Auburn, it was a huge coup for the Tigers. Then, shortly after his commitment in May, Mitchell tore his ACL during a 7-on-7 competition, and everything changed. He dropped out of the rankings and became just another member of Auburn’s class. Now he’s fighting his way back -- he says he's 100 percent -- and if all goes well, he could be in line to replace Jay Prosch in the Tigers’ offense next season.
Malzahn’s take: “He’s a guy we identified when he was a junior. He runs a very similar offense. He can block. He can catch the ball. He’s got running back skills -- he played a little bit of Wildcat when he was a junior. We really feel like the sky is the limit for this guy.”

RB Kamryn Pettway: It’s easy to forget about Pettway. He’s coming to Auburn alongside ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas, the top-ranked commitment in the Tigers’ 2014 class. However, Pettway rushed for 1,402 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior at Prattville (Ala.) High School against top competition. Because of his size and strength, Pettway is also a candidate, along with Mitchell, to replace Prosch at fullback, or "3-back" as Auburn calls it. He might not be as talented as Thomas, but he can still make an impact.
Malzahn’s take: “A big, physical, hard-nosed guy. We feel like he has great potential. He’s a big man. He can run. He’s got very good ball skills. He’s going to give us a lot of versatility.”

SEC lunchtime links

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
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Hope everyone is staying safe and warm out in SEC country with all the strong winter storms affecting the region. Stay inside and read up on the interesting nuggets from around the league, of which there are plenty today:
Editor's note: This is Part IV in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Auburn faces this offseason.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Sammie Coates served as the "go-to" wide receiver for Auburn this past season, and though he exceeded expectations at times, he’d be the first to tell you the Tigers didn’t have a true No. 1 receiver.

“It's one thing I like about our team,” Coates said. “We really don't have that go-to guy. We have so much talent that you can't really depend on one guy.”

Coates led the Tigers with 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns, but he had five or more catches in just two games and his season-high was only six catches. He could be better described as the team’s deep threat, its home run hitter. Coates was an integral part of the offense and arguably the most important pass-catcher on Auburn’s team, but a go-to wide receiver? Not so much.

Nobody ever emerged in that role for the Tigers.

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Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsSammie Coates emerged as a deep threat as a sophomore and will likely assume a larger role in the Auburn offense next season.
An argument can be made that because Auburn had the nation’s No. 1 rushing offense, there was never a need for a true No. 1 receiver. Quarterback Nick Marshall was busy running all over teams, therefore he didn’t have to pass.

However, the 2014 team won’t have Tre Mason, the SEC’s leading rusher. It won’t have Jay Prosch, the league’s best blocking fullback. And it won’t have left tackle Greg Robinson, a potential top-10 draft pick who was as good a run-blocker as there was in the conference.

In Gus Malzahn’s first season, Auburn ran it on more than 70 percent of its plays, the highest percentage for any non-triple-option offense in the FBS. But that hasn’t always been the case in Malzahn’s offense, and it likely won’t going forward.

“Well, this year [Auburn ran the ball more], but if you look back, we’ve had years where we’ve thrown it a lot, and we are going to get more and more balanced next year,” Malzahn said.

If Auburn plans to throw it more, the Tigers need to find a true No. 1 receiver.

Coates is better suited as a deep threat, but he could still be the guy. He went from six catches as a freshman to 42 as a sophomore. He blossomed under his position coach, Dameyune Craig, and the chemistry between Coates and Marshall seemed to grow with every game.

“Sammie can really run,” Malzahn said before the BCS title game. “Coach Craig has done a wonderful job with him. He’s improved each game. Obviously, he gives us a deep threat. Any time you’ve got a guy who can run as tall as him and can jump, that’s a threat. When his time has come and when his number has been called, he’s delivered this year.”

Another option is Ricardo Louis. He had his moments, including a four-catch, 131-yard performance against Georgia, but there was never any consistency. Still, he might be the top true playmaker on the roster.

Freshman Marcus Davis, who played beyond his years, is also a candidate, along with senior-to-be Quan Bray. Each finished with 23 catches.

Another name to watch is junior college transfer D’haquille Williams, the No. 1 player in the ESPN JC 50 rankings. He’s 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, and he gives Auburn a combination of size and talent that it lacked last year.

“He is a dynamic player that can run, catch and do all of the things it takes to be a great receiver,” Malzahn said.

Williams is already on campus as an early enrollee, and the nation will get its first glimpse of him in an Auburn jersey when spring practice begins in March. There’s no telling if he’ll live up to the hype and become a go-to wide receiver, but the Tigers need to find that guy if Marshall wants to take the next step as a passer.
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.

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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.

Video: Auburn FB Jay Prosch

January, 7, 2014
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Chris Low talks with Auburn fullback Jay Prosch about what was said in the locker room following the Tigers' loss to FSU in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

Auburn goes from agony to ecstasy

January, 4, 2014
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NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs can joke about it now.

“It was a tough year last year, but not as tough as three-a-days under Pat Dye,” quipped Jacobs, who played for Dye at Auburn in the early 1980s. “It was pretty close, though.”

And about as ugly as it gets.

Auburn senior H-back Jay Prosch took it a step further.

“It was completely degrading,” he said about the 2012 season.

But in the same breath, Prosch beamed, “This year has been amazing.”

[+] EnlargeJordan-Hare Stadium
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesThe victory over Alabama and an SEC championship seemed to come out of nowhere, a delight for Auburn fans after a dismal 2012.
It’s been the equivalent of football nirvana for the Auburn community.

Let’s face it: Nobody expected this, not after the way things unraveled on the Plains a year ago, which has made the Tigers' turnaround all the more remarkable and equally soothing for everybody associated with Auburn.

It’s one thing to have the bottom fall out and go 3-9 (0-8 in the SEC) only two years removed from a national championship. But try doing that when your bitter rival across the state is in the midst of back-to-back national championships.

In a lot of ways, being an Auburn fan in the state of Alabama the last couple of years was a lot like being a 20-handicap golfer in a foursome that also included Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy.

“We’ve been through some tough times here with other issues,” Jacobs said. “But as far as on the field, there’s never been a more difficult year to navigate. And then being in the same state with another SEC school that beats you handily and wins two straight national championships makes it even more difficult.

“Not that it wouldn’t have been difficult by itself, but I think everybody in the Auburn family was looking at it and wondering, ‘How far apart are we, and will we ever get back to where we were in 2010?'" Jacobs added. "But here we are now playing for a national championship. They’ve won two in the last four years, and we have a chance to win two.

“We’re excited about what we’ve got going at Auburn. We’re going to keep our foot on the accelerator, and we’re not slowing down.”

No team in the last decade has won as many SEC championships as Auburn (three), but that might get lost in the shuffle when Alabama reels off three national titles in a four-year span.

Not only that, but Alabama obliterated Auburn by a combined 91-14 margin in the two games before this season.

“It was really hard,” Prosch said. “A lot of my friends are Alabama fans, and even though they’re not saying anything about it, you can feel it. It’s not a good feeling. You always want to be a competitor, at least.

“And last year, we weren’t even competitive with them.”

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AP Photo/Dave MartinGus Malzahn has led Auburn to one of the biggest turnarounds in major college history, from 3-9 to 12-1.
Phillip Marshall has covered Auburn for more than 30 years and knows the program inside out. He’s not sure he’s ever seen it teetering the way it was toward the end of last season, when the Tigers lost their last two SEC games by a combined 87-0 margin, leading to Gene Chizik’s firing and the return of Gus Malzahn as head coach.

“I think that’s what has made this year so special for Auburn fans,” said Marshall, who now works for Auburn. “They’d almost lost hope, and then to see this kind of turnaround in one year, when Alabama had been so dominant, is something nobody saw coming -- not this quickly, anyway.”

Junior center Reese Dismukes joked this week that blood pressures were down across the board this season among Auburn fans, who dreaded the thought the last two years of crossing paths with Alabama fans.

And in that state, it’s common for families to be split right down the middle, so there’s really no getting away from the rivalry.

“It’s good to have taken the state back,” Dismukes said. “I was as tired of hearing people talk about Alabama as anyone else was.”

Junior running back Tre Mason said it’s gratifying to see the pride back among the entire Auburn family.

“Putting them through what we did last year, we owed them a season like this,” Mason said. “It makes me happy as a player to see our fans happy and them walking around with a smile on their face.”

Malzahn’s quiet confidence has been infectious from the outset. He’s not a guy who seeks out the cameras and doesn't provide a lot of soundbites. But soon after getting the job, he worked hard to connect with Auburn fans.

Obviously, when you win an SEC title, beat Alabama and earn a chance to play for a national title, you’re going to connect with your fan base.

It’s a fan base that was splintered when Malzahn arrived. A little more than a year later, it’s a fan base that’s having to pinch itself to make sure this is all real.

“Regardless of what happens Monday night, and we’re looking forward to playing Florida State, but this has been a season for the ages, one that will always be remembered,” Jacobs said. “It’s been such a joy for the Auburn family and has comforted the Auburn family.

“Really, it came out of nowhere, and we’re just excited to see where it all ends.”

So in a season that started with Alabama chasing history, it’s Auburn that can make history Monday night against Florida State.

The Tigers are already the first team in history to play in the national title game on the heels of a losing season the year before. A victory over the Seminoles would complete the greatest improvement from one season to the next in major college history.

“Adversity is what’s made this team what it is right now, and we’re just going to keep fighting,” Auburn senior defensive end Nosa Eguae said.
1. Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight came of age Thursday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, which is more than anyone can say about anyone in Alabama’s secondary. A young group of defensive backs, riddled with injuries, cost the Crimson Tide on a big stage. Knight threw for four touchdowns in the No. 11 Sooners’ stunning 45-31 upset. Oklahoma got seven sacks against an Alabama offensive line that allowed only 10 all season. You can’t blame all of those on the absence of injured right guard Anthony Steen.

2. Anyone still think Bob Stoops has lost a step? Oklahoma finished the season with consecutive wins over top-six teams, one on the road against an in-state rival (No. 6 Oklahoma State) and this one on a neutral field against a two-time defending national champion (No. 3 Alabama). And Oklahoma did it by scoring the most points a Nick Saban team has allowed in seven seasons at Alabama. Saban is 4-0 in BCS Championship Games at LSU and Alabama, and 1-2 in BCS bowls that don’t involve a crystal football.

3. Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt called Auburn senior fullback Jay Prosch “the guy that makes them go.” Pretty impressive for a guy with no carries and five catches all season. Prosch, a Mobile native, went unrecruited by SEC schools. When a family illness two years ago compelled him to try to transfer near home, Auburn offered a scholarship. “It was a huge opportunity for me, and an honor,” Prosch said. “Now that I’ve played in this conference and had a year of success, I really feel great about it.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- Since losing to LSU early in the season, Auburn has won nine straight games and knocked off three top-10 teams in the process. The Tigers were supposed to lose at No. 7 Texas A&M. Nobody gave them a chance against No. 1 Alabama. And some even picked against them when they played No. 5 Missouri in the SEC championship game.

All Auburn did was win each of those games and prove the critics wrong time and time again. Now the Tigers are preparing to face No. 1 Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game and to nobody’s surprise, they are once again the underdogs.

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USA TODAY SportsAuburn can lay claim to being in several more tightly contested games this season than Florida State.
“I don’t care who they talk about as the favorite especially when you have two weeks to prepare,” Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said. “Honestly, if you’re a top caliber team -- I think any top-five team could play with two weeks to prepare. Once the ball is rolled out, it’s time to play football. It really doesn’t matter about any rankings.

“I could care less about people not believing or saying, ‘This is the time they’re going to fall.’ We prepare for this.”

If anything, Auburn is more battle tested than Florida State heading into next Monday’s title game. The Seminoles have dominated their schedule, winning every game by at least 14 points and having an average margin of victory of 43 points. But they played four top 25 teams, two of which are no longer ranked.

Meanwhile, Auburn played six top 25 teams, four in the top 10, and nine of its 13 opponents are playing in a bowl game.

“I think if you look at our entire schedule, I would like to think we are battle tested,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “We’ve been in some true dogfight games. We’ve been in some games where the pressure was on -- on the road, at home -- and our guys have responded. In big games, I know they are not going to panic, so I’ve got to believe that will help us moving forward.”

It’s not just the caliber of opponents they have played this season. It’s how they’ve won. “Dogfight games” doesn’t even begin to describe some of their victories.

It took a game-winning drive in the final minutes to knock off both Mississippi State and Texas A&M. Against Georgia, Auburn connected on a 73-yard Hail Mary with less than a minute left to hold off the Bulldogs. And how can you forget the field-goal return by Chris Davis to take down Alabama in the Iron Bowl?

“There were times that things didn’t look good at all,” Malzahn said. “I’d always look on the sidelines and didn’t see anybody defeated, didn’t see anybody with their head down. They really believed, and they found a way to do it.”

“We know how to fight and we know how to battle and to push through and win a football game even when it’s tough,” fullback Jay Prosch said. “I think that’s a huge benefit. There’s always ups and downs in football games, and you have to know how to overcome that.”

It has been a miraculous run for this Auburn football team. The Tigers leave for California this week, and regardless of the point spread or what the outside world is saying, they will be confident and prepared when they take the field next week.

This is the type of game, the type of moment, Auburn lives for.

"It's just something that we embrace, embrace the moment of being in the spotlight and playing big teams,” quarterback Nick Marshall said. “We just know we have to keep doing what we're doing, and we'll be all right. We're going to find a way to win the game."
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Gus Malzahn stood at the podium during his introductory press conference last December, he said his goal was to ‘play championship football like Auburn expects.’ It sounded great, but how realistic was that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player of the week: SEC

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
4:00
PM ET
Was there any doubt?

Tre Mason was easily the most impressive player in the SEC, if not the country, over the weekend when he almost single-handedly beat Missouri to win the conference championship for Auburn.

Against a defensive front Alabama coach Nick Saban called the best in the league, Mason had his way. He left the Georgia Dome with a record 304 yards and four touchdowns. He was a workhorse, too, carrying the ball 46 times without a single fumble.

SEC and Auburn legend Bo Jackson looked on from the sideline and had to be impressed.

"He was like, 'You're probably one of the best players to ever put on an Auburn helmet,'" Mason said of Jackson. "He just was thanking me for being here. I was thanking him for being a mentor to me."

If one game can win the Heisman Trophy, Mason did as much anyone could to sway voters his way against Missouri. In fact, you could argue he did it in back-to-back weeks after gashing Alabama for 164 yards and a touchdown in the Iron Bowl.

Auburn senior defensive end Dee Ford thinks Mason deserves all the recognition he can get.

"Tre for Heisman," a giddy Ford said as he walked away from a brief session with reporters on Sunday. "It's going viral."

"I see a performance like that out of Tre every week," Auburn fullback Jay Prosch said a day earlier. "He runs hard, and he's the same runner every time. I love the guy."

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn checked in with Mason during the course of the game against Missouri and asked if he needed a break.

"He had that look on his face," Malzahn explained. "He said, 'Coach, keep giving it to me.'"

And what he did in Atlanta convinced Malzahn that he has a special player on his hands.

"He's proved he's one of the best running backs in the country, if not the best."

For at least one week, and probably a few more, he's shown he is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We're able to run the ball on just about everybody, I guess," tight end C.J. Uzomah said. "Numbers don't lie at all."
Auburn fullback Jay Prosch respects Missouri's defensive line and its rush defense, but he also loves what his own team's offense can do.

"We're really good at what we do offensively," Prosch said. "I think no matter what, whoever we play, we're going to find a way to move the ball no matter what, where their strengths are. … Missouri has a very good defensive line and a very good defense, but overall I think that we're going to find a way to move the ball no matter how we have to do it."

You can't knock his confidence. The Tigers finished the regular season with the SEC's No. 1 rushing attack, averaging 318.25 yards per game. They average 6.3 yards per carry and have 39 rushing touchdowns on the season.

What's more is that Auburn averaged 286.3 rushing yards in eight conference games. In those games, the Tigers failed to rush for 200 yards just once (120 against Mississippi State). They rushed for 323 yards against Georgia, 379 against Texas A&M and 444 against Tennessee. In last week's epic win over Alabama, Auburn rushed for 296 yards on a defense allowing just 91 rushing yards per game before the Iron Bowl.

While Auburn runs a variation of the spread offense, its running game is very multiple with some power, read-option and triple-option.

[+] EnlargeAuburn
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsNick Marshall and Tre Mason put stress on a defense on every play.
"We're going to have to draw from some experience of other running teams, some of the running philosophies that they have that maybe some other teams had that didn't run the ball as much, be able to apply those lessons to this," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said of defending Auburn's running game.

But Missouri shouldn't feel overwhelmed by what those other Tigers can do on the ground. They have their own stout rush defense.

Mizzou is allowing just 119.1 rushing yards per game, 3.6 yards per carry and has given up 11 rushing touchdowns. Mizzou allowed a league-low 120.8 rushing yards per game in SEC games.

Mizzou linebacker Donovan Bonner has been proud of his defense's production, but he understands the major challenge Auburn's running game presents. After all, this is the same running game that dominated Alabama a week ago. The SEC's best rush defense was pounded and pounded again, allowing a season-high 5.7 yards per carry.

Bonner said stopping Auburn's run game takes discipline and filling gaps. It also means everyone has to be spot-on with their assignments for every player who could run the ball while on the field.

"If you mess up one gap, you go for a big run," Bonner said.

"It's not an easy offense to stop. They do a lot of motion.

"They can pull it out and run with the quarterback. Sometimes they can raise up and pass it. It's really a triplethreat offense, man. You just have to be conscious of what's going on around you and not get caught up in all the other stuff and just focus on what's in front of you. You have to trust your keys as a linebacker and also the safeties, too. So if they scream downhill, and it's play-action, that could be a pass also. So we're just going to focus on trusting our eyes."

Auburn has four players with more than 500 rushing yards, but the stars of the show are Tre Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall, who have combined to rush for 2,239 yards and 28 touchdowns.

Mason is a home run threat and a bruiser. Marshall is slippery, fast and deceptive with the read-option. Twice this season, both rushed for at least 100 yards in the same game, and in the last three games they have combined to run for 798 yards and 10 touchdowns.

You know you're going to take one on the chin when Mason has the ball, but watching Marshall's movements is a little tougher to read.

"You have to stay with the quarterback," Bonner said.

"Marshall is obviously a great runner, probably the best runner other than [Johnny] Manziel that we faced this year. "

But has Auburn faced a defensive line like this? This team hasn't seen a Michael Sam (10.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss), and fellow Mizzou ends Kony Ealy and Markus Golden have combined for 13 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss.

Auburn's running game likes to test players on the edge, but Bonner thinks Mizzou's ends have the ability to contain runs to the outside.

"It can kind of neutralize that, but our defensive ends are pretty athletic, physical guys," Bonner said. "They can get to the ball also I mean, really, if they keep doing what they've been doing all year, we should be fine."

It should be a fun matchup between Auburn's running game and Mizzou's defense. Neither unit has faced the kind of consistency and talent they'll see Saturday, but that hasn't hindered one side's confident nature.

"Offensively, from what we do, I think it will work in our favor," Auburn running back Corey Grant said.

"With us running the ball, we'll find a way to move the ball and get out on the edge and run our zone reads and things like that. So either way, our offense, we've gotten better each week throughout the season. I believe we'll find a way."

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