Auburn Tigers: Nick Marshall

Auburn didn’t look overly impressive in its win over Kansas State last week, but road wins in hostile environments such as the Little Apple are hard to come by. On Saturday, the Tigers return home in search of their 300th win at Jordan-Hare Stadium when they face Louisiana Tech. The stadium opened in 1939.

Key player: DB Nick Ruffin

Auburn will be without starting safety Jermaine Whitehead for the second straight week, which means another start for Joshua Holsey and more playing time for the younger players such as Ruffin and Stephen Roberts. Holsey didn’t miss a beat moving from boundary safety to free safety against Kansas State -- he was named the SEC defensive player of the week -- but I’m more intrigued with how the freshmen play, especially Ruffin. He’s played some this season at both star and safety, and he’s growing more confident with every game.

Key question: What will Jeremy Johnson's role be?

We all saw Johnson line up at wide receiver for a couple plays against Kansas State, right? And then when it looked he might get a snap as the quarterback, there was some confusion and Nick Marshall came right back in the game. The plan, the timing of it, the execution -- everything about Johnson’s appearance was odd. I expect the sophomore to have a more prominent role this Saturday against Louisiana Tech. The coaches want to use him going forward, and this is the perfect opportunity to give him more game experience.

Key stat: Auburn has not allowed a third-quarter touchdown this season.

The Tigers have only allowed three touchdowns in the last 10 quarters combined after giving up three touchdowns to Arkansas in the first half of the season opener. To me, this says two things. First, the defense is much improved in Ellis Johnson’s second year as coordinator. They’re still lacking that dynamic pass rusher off the edge, but they’ve been solid against the run and they’re forcing turnovers. Second, whatever the coaches are telling the players at halftime must be working because Auburn’s second-half adjustments have been very good.

Three keys: Auburn at Kansas State

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Auburn is ranked No. 5 in the country, but nobody’s talking much about the defending SEC champs. Alabama is currently ranked higher in the polls, and after Week 1, everybody was raving about Georgia and Texas A&M. The Tigers need a sexy win to really make a statement. How about a road win at No. 20 Kansas State on national television?

Key player: QB Nick Marshall

Marshall
Think Marshall won’t be a little extra amped for this one? Think again. He’s returning to the state where he revived his career as a quarterback, and he’s going against the program that he nearly signed with out of junior college. Bill Snyder knows him well, but that doesn’t mean Kansas State will be able to stop him. Marshall has scored a rushing touchdown in seven straight games, and the return of his favorite wide receiver, Sammie Coates, will make him even more dangerous as a passer, a part of his game he’s worked hard to improve.

Key question: How will Auburn handle its first road test?

Remember last season? Auburn opened with three straight home victories before travelling to Death Valley to face a top-10 LSU team. The atmosphere was hostile, it poured down rain, and by halftime, Auburn was trailing 21-0. Gus Malzahn’s squad played much better in the second half, but at that point it was too late. They lost 35-21. This year’s team is more experienced and more battle-tested, and they’re going to need that as they play in front of what Kansas State is expecting to be the biggest crowd in school history.

Key stat: Kansas State has won 40 straight games when leading at the half, which is currently the third-longest active streak in the country.

A slow start killed Auburn in Baton Rouge last year, and it could cost them again Thursday in the Little Apple. Kansas State is clearly very good when it gets a lead, and the Tigers have struggled in the first half this season, especially on defense. In two games, they have allowed 31 points and 447 total yards in the first 30 minutes. With the game on the road, it’s critical that Auburn start fast and try to neutralize the crowd early because the longer Kansas State hangs around, the better chance there is for an upset.
Winning at Jordan-Hare Stadium has proven difficult over the years. For non-conference teams, it's proven to be almost impossible. Auburn has won 23 straight non-conference home games dating to 2007, which means San Jose State will have its hands full in the first meeting between the two teams.

Key player: WR Sammie Coates

[+] EnlargeCoates
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsLook for a rebound week from Auburn's Sammie Coates against San Jose State.
Remember him? The guy who led Auburn with 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns just a season ago? Well, Coates caught just one pass Saturday for 13 yards. He was quickly forgotten with the debut of D'haquille Williams, the junior college transfer who caught nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown against Arkansas. Coates might not be as big or as gifted as Williams, but look for him to bounce back this week, especially considering Nick Marshall will be back under center for the Tigers.

Key question: How many true freshmen will play?

San Jose State isn't as much of a pushover as, say, Florida Atlantic or Western Carolina from last year, but the Tigers should still win this one with relative ease. Assuming that's the case, it's always fun to see which true freshmen get to play. In Week 1, Tre Williams, Nick Ruffin and Stephen Roberts were the only three to land on the participation report, and all three should see the field again Saturday. Others to watch include Racean ‘Roc' Thomas, Braden Smith, Stanton Truitt and Jakell Mitchell.

Key stat: Auburn averaged 8.5 yards per play against Arkansas last week, the most against a Power Five conference opponent since 2004. – ESPN Stats & Info

What happened to Auburn's offense taking a step backwards this season? The early departures at running back and left tackle, coupled with the loss of an All-SEC freshman at guard, were supposed to make the Tigers human again. That wasn't the case Saturday. And to think, they did it with the backup quarterback playing the entire first half. The arrival of Williams helped, along with the emergence of Cameron Artis-Payne, but as long as Gus Malzahn is running the show, Auburn will have one of the more prolific offenses in the SEC.

Three keys: Auburn vs Arkansas

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Winning the SEC championship isn’t easy, but winning it two years in a row has proved nearly impossible as of late. The last team to repeat in the SEC was Tennessee in 1998. But that is the goal for Auburn this season, and the quest begins Saturday at home against Arkansas.

Key player: Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy

Injuries, suspensions and ineligible players have left a lot of questions marks on this Auburn defense, but McKinzy is one player you can count on. He led the Tigers with 75 tackles a year ago, and that number should increase this season with his move to middle linebacker. The junior will be especially important on Saturday against a physical Arkansas team that features a trio of talented running backs, and he also might get his feet wet as an edge pass-rusher, a spot where the coaches want to use him on third-down-and-long situations.

Key question: How will Jeremy Johnson play in his first SEC start?

The big question is obviously how long it will take before Nick Marshall comes into the game, but I’m curious to see how Johnson responds to the opportunity. He played well against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic last year, but those weren’t SEC opponents. All eyes will be on him this Saturday. How will he handle the pressure? If he struggles early and Marshall replaces him, he is a forgotten man. However, if he puts on a show in the first quarter, he might force the coaches to play him more this coming season.

Key stat: Arkansas allowed opponents to convert 43 percent of their third downs last season, 13th in the SEC and 94th best in the FBS -- ESPN Stats & Info

The key to slowing down this Auburn offense is to keep them off the field, and to do that, you have to make stops on third down. In last season’s game, the Tigers converted 6 of their 11 third-down attempts en route to a 35-17 victory. How do you make life easier on third down? By creating negative plays on first and second down. That will be a major part of the Razorbacks’ game plan for Saturday, so it’s important for Auburn, regardless of who plays quarterback, to get positive yardage on every play.
Another week, another off-field incident. That is the way it has been this offseason in the SEC, and this past week was no different.

Texas A&M suspended cornerback Victor Davis after he was arrested and charged with shoplifting, and defensive end Gavin Stansbury, who was arrested in April, left the team for personal reasons.

At Georgia, Mark Richt dismissed yet another player a day after defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor was arrested for aggravated assault.

These incidents are just the latest in what has been a troubling offseason for the SEC. With media days behind us and fall camps about to begin, we want to know which team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions for this season.

SportsNation

Which SEC team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions this coming season?

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    12%
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    13%
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    42%
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    8%
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    25%

Discuss (Total votes: 14,133)

In Tuscaloosa, the media's pick to win the SEC has had its fair share of off-field incidents. Dillon Lee and Jarran Reed were both arrested for driving under the influence, Altee Tenpenny was caught with marijuana, and Kenyan Drake was arrested for disobeying a police officer. None of the players involved has been dismissed, but this is becoming both a problem and a distraction for Alabama.

Across the state, Auburn is still trying to figure out what to do with quarterback Nick Marshall. The potential Heisman Trophy contender was given a citation for possession of marijuana this month, but will he miss any time as punishment? To make matters worse, teammate Jonathon Mincy was arrested for the same thing, possession of marijuana, just two weeks prior.

The school that has been in the news the most this offseason is Georgia. Four players were arrested in March for theft by deception. Two of those four, Taylor and Tray Matthews, were later dismissed for separate incidents. A third, Uriah LeMay, opted to transfer. Back in February, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons also was dismissed from the program following multiple violations of team rules.

At Missouri, it was three strikes and you're out for star wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. The sophomore was arrested for the second time on drug-related charges in January, and after being involved in an altercation with his girlfriend in April, he was dismissed from the team. Green-Beckham has since joined Oklahoma.

Lastly, there is Texas A&M, which has not seen any decline in off-field distractions since quarterback Johnny Manziel left. Quarterback Kenny Hill was arrested in March for public intoxication. Two months later, head coach Kevin Sumlin dismissed a pair of key defenders -- Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden -- after they were arrested and charged with aggravated robbery. Then the news broke this week with Stansbury’s departure and the suspension of Davis.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Welcome to SEC media days!

It didn't seem as if we'd ever get here, but in a couple of hours, the inside of the Wynfrey Hotel will be transformed into a circus. The arrival of SEC media days brings us ever closer to the start of the 2014 season. Remember, this is the first season in which we'll be seeing an actual playoff end the season. That right there might be too much to digest.

But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the season, we're turning our attention to SEC media days. It's where you can have 1,000 media members all together -- along with a lobby jam-packed with ravenous fans (usually Alabama ones) -- crowding around kids and coaches.

It really is a beautiful thing, and here are 10 things to keep an eye on this week in Hoover:

1. Life without Marshall: Monday was supposed to be a chance for Auburn to truly introduce quarterback Nick Marshall to the world. Sure, we've all seen what he can do with a football in his hand, but this was where we were supposed to hear Auburn's quarterback talk about all he does with a football. After all, Marshall could be a Heisman Trophy candidate this fall. But after Marshall was cited for possession of a small amount of marijuana Friday, he's out for media days. Tight end C.J. Uzomah will take his place. Marshall should be here to own up to his mistake. He should be here to take responsibility, but he isn't. Now his coach and teammates have to do that.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama may be picked for the fourth time in five years to win the SEC.
2. Bama talk: For the first time since the 2011 SEC media days, Alabama did not arrive as the defending national champs. The Crimson Tide didn't even make it to the SEC title game. But that won't matter. Alabama still will steal the show. Everyone is here to see coach Nick Saban and ask questions about why Alabama couldn't get it done last season. We'll hear questions about the present and future for Alabama. And with so much talent returning, Alabama will likely be picked to win the SEC for the fourth time in five years.

3. Mason's debut: Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is headed to the big leagues, but his first official stop as the man in charge of the Commodores is in Hoover. This ain't Stanford, and it definitely isn't the Pac-12. He'll meet a throng of media members inside a gigantic ballroom. He'll be bombarded with questions about replacing James Franklin, and we'll all wonder if he has what it takes to keep Vandy relevant. Will he wow us during his introductory news conference? Or will he take the businesslike approach and just try to get through such a long day?

4. Muschamp's hot seat: After a 4-8 season that saw an anemic offense and a loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp is feeling the heat under his seat. While he has been very collected about the pressure he should be feeling, he knows that this is the most important season of his tenure. To be fair, Florida dealt with an unfair amount of important injuries, but that means nothing now. Muschamp has yet to take Florida back to the SEC title and is 0-3 against archrival Georgia. Muschamp knows he has to win, and he and his players will be grilled about it all day today.

5. Sumlin dealing with distractions: Johnny Manziel might be gone, but Texas A&M is still dealing with distractions away from the football. Before Kevin Sumlin could even get to media days, he had to dismiss two of his best defensive players in linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery earlier this year. One of his quarterbacks -- Kenny Hill -- also was arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. Once again, Sumlin will have to talk about more than just football this week.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri's Maty Mauk threw for 1,071 yards with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in place of the injured James Franklin.
6. Quarterback composure: A lot of talented quarterbacks left this league after last season, but we'll get our fill this week. Marshall might be absent, but we'll hear from Jeff Driskel, Dak Prescott, Dylan Thompson, Bo Wallace and Maty Mauk. All these guys could have big seasons and will be crucial to their respective teams' success. Can Florida's Driskel rebound after his early, season-ending injury? Is Thompson ready to replace Connor Shaw at South Carolina? Can Wallace of Ole Miss finally find some consistency? And can Prescott (Mississippi State) and Mauk (Missouri) prove their 2013 success wasn't just a flash in the pan?

7. Mauk's composure: Speaking of Missouri's quarterback, he's an incredibly interesting character to watch. He went 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured James Franklin last season, and has the right attitude and moxie that you want in a quarterback. Is he ready to be the guy full time? Is he ready to lead without a stud like Dorial Green-Beckham to throw to or Franklin to help him? A lot of veteran leadership is gone, so all eyes are on Mauk. He's also a very confident person who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Let's hope he's on his game.

8. Players and the playoff: This is the first season of the College Football Playoff, and we've received just about everyone's opinion on the matter. Well, almost. We haven't heard much from the people who might be playing in it. What do players think about it? Are there too many games now? Not enough? Do they care about the bowl experience? Do they even care about the playoff?

9. What do players think about getting paid? With the Power Five a real thing and autonomy becoming more of a reality, what do the players think about it all? What are their thoughts on the prospect of getting some sort of compensation from their schools? Are they getting enough now? How much is enough?

10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!
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.
Can you believe it? We're already into the final month of the SEC regular season.

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 some of the usual spots (Athens, Auburn, College Station, Tuscaloosa), and a few outside of the SEC footprint in locales such as Houston and Oklahoma.

We've knocked out nine weeks of trips in all, which means we've got only five more to go. The conference title game in Atlanta is right around the corner.

So without further pause, let's take a look at the best options for Week 10:

Nov. 1
Arkansas at Mississippi State
Auburn at Ole Miss
Georgia vs. Florida (in Jacksonville)
Kentucky at Missouri
Tennessee at South Carolina
Louisiana-Monroe at Texas A&M
Old Dominion at Vanderbilt

Alex Scarborough's pick: Georgia vs. Florida

Man, it sure was tough passing up those high-profile nonconference games featuring Old Dominion and Louisiana-Monroe.

(Pardon me while I try not refer to the Warhawks as being from La-Monroe. Apparently they don't care for the abbreviation.)

Yes, we're steadily seeing better out-of-conference scheduling. Georgia's agreement to play Notre Dame is a huge step in the right direction. Even though Mississippi State-Arizona won't happen until the polar ice caps finally melt, it's a welcomed sight. But the league's athletic directors and head coaches are nothing if not calculated, which means that the late cupcake nonconference games we'll see this November aren't going away. Teams will risk tough games early in the season, but never late. It's all about protecting your standing in the College Football Playoff.

Oh well.

I'll step off my soapbox at some point and hopefully find myself in Jacksonville on Nov. 1 for the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Or whatever they want to call it these days.

If you care about SEC football, this is a game you have to get to at least once in your life. Most neutral site games lack that certain festive college atmosphere, but this one is different. Huge crowds show up and there's plenty of tailgating. The pregame atmosphere definitely lives up to the series nickname.

Then there's the game itself -- and it's seemingly mandatory instances of trash talk, cheap shots and excessive celebration. Who can forget Mark Richt sending his entire team on the field to celebrate Georgia's first touchdown in 2007? Brandon Spikes' attempted eye-gouge in 2009? What about Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler getting into it last year? These two teams just don't seem to care for each other.

It all makes for appointment viewing.

Greg Ostendorf's pick: Auburn at Ole Miss

Before you say anything, I know. The ultimate SEC road trip saw both Auburn and Ole Miss last week and though it would be nice to check out some different teams and venues, how do you pass up a game like this? Two teams jockeying for position in the West, two offenses engineered to go fast and put up points, and a tailgating atmosphere that will rival even the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. What's not to love?

For Ole Miss, it's not a stretch to say that this is the most important game on the schedule. We're at the point in the season where we'll already know whether the Rebels are legitimate contenders or not, but either way, this is the type of signature win they need if they want to take that next step as a program.

Auburn has already taken that step -- as evidenced by last year's run to the BCS title game-- but this game is just as important for the Tigers if they want to get back to the top. It's sandwiched in between home games against South Carolina and Texas A&M, and waiting for them on the other side are road trips to Georgia and Alabama. Let's just say they can't afford to lose this one.

For those still questioning my pick, consider seeing stars such as Nick Marshall, Laquon Treadwell and Sammie Coates running up and down the field and making plays. And don't forget about sophomores Robert Nkemdiche and Carl Lawson (if healthy), the nation's top two recruits in 2013.

The rivalry pales in comparison to Florida-Georgia, but the game should be just as good if not better, and the party on the Grove will do more than hold its own.
Here's a good way to survive the dog days of summer -- relive the glory of last year's best college football games.

ESPNU will count down the top 25 games and air all but four of them July 21-Aug. 3. Of course the SEC is well-represented. Game Nos. 6-25 have already been determined. Here's a look.

No. 23 -- Alabama 49, Texas A&M 42
Re-airdate: July 22, 7 p.m. ET
This Week 3 contest was a much-anticipated grudge match after Johnny Manziel and the upstart Aggies had upset the mighty Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2012. The return engagement had fireworks from the start, as A&M's 628 yards were the most given up in Alabama's history.

No. 20 -- Georgia 44, LSU 41
Re-airdate: July 23, 10 p.m. ET
Two teams ranked in the top 10 slugged it out to the tune of nearly 1,000 combined yards, as the quarterback performances by Georgia's Aaron Murray and former teammate Zach Mettenberger were among the best of their careers.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Ray
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsNick Marshall & Co. were involved in four of the season's top 25 games, including three within the top 4.
No. 17 -- Auburn 45, Texas A&M 41
Re-airdate: July 25, 7 p.m. ET
Looking back, this huge upset on the road might have fueled Auburn's amazing season. One year after being beaten 63-21 by the Aggies, the Tigers roared back to national prominence behind QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason. The Auburn defense gave up more than 500 yards to Manziel but came through in the end to preserve the win.
No. 15 -- Georgia 34, Tennessee 31 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 28, 7 p.m. ET
Just think of how differently we would have viewed UT's season had the Vols pulled off this upset. Georgia withstood injuries and a determined Tennessee team, and rallied to tie the game with five seconds left when Murray found Rantavious Wooten for a touchdown. UT's Alton Howard fumbled a sure touchdown in overtime, which set up UGA's game-winning field goal.
No. 11 -- Ole Miss 39, Vanderbilt 35
Re-airdate: July 29, 10 p.m. ET
The opening game of the season set a clear tone for high-scoring offense and thrilling late-game heroics. Vandy raced to a 21-10 halftime lead and then gave up 29 points, including a back-breaking 75-yard touchdown run by Jeff Scott with just over a minute to play.
No. 7 -- South Carolina 27, Missouri 24 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 31, 10 p.m. ET
Gamecocks QB Connor Shaw came off the bench to score 17 fourth-quarter points to send this one into overtime, where the teams traded touchdowns before USC won it with a kick. Missouri was slapped with its first loss of the season, but the Tigers won the rest of their games and the SEC East crown.

Now we need your help choosing a top five, and again the SEC is prominent with four choices available. Voting ends Monday. If you need help deciding, here's how I would rank 'em.

No. 5 -- Texas A&M 52, Duke 48
Manziel penned a memorable swan song in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, as the Aggies and Blue Devils piled up more than 1,200 yards of offense. Manziel passed for 382 yards and four touchdowns, ran for 73 yards and one TD, and led his team back from a 21-point halftime deficit.

No. 4 -- Florida State 34, Auburn 31
The Tigers' miracle season came crashing down when FSU rallied from an 18-point deficit, the largest ever overcome in a BCS championship game. A thrilling fourth quarter closed with Heisman winner Jameis Winston leading the Noles 80 yards in 66 seconds for the win.

No. 2 -- Auburn 43, Georgia 38
Any time a game evokes a nickname it has also earned a place in college football lore. This game got two of them -- "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare" and "The Immaculate Deflection" -- thanks to a 73-yard Hail Mary touchdown that Bulldogs safety Josh Harvey-Clemons tipped to Auburn's Ricardo Louis.

No. 1 -- Auburn 34, Alabama 28
Is there any doubt which game transcended the 2013 season into the history books? With his improbable, last-second, missed field-goal return, Chris Davis' 109-yard touchdown run -- the "Kick Six" -- was forever branded on the sport's collective consciousness.



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?

Ranking the SEC quarterbacks

June, 9, 2014
Jun 9
1:00
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Earlier, we ranked all 14 quarterback groups in the SEC. Now, we'll look at who we think will be the top 10 quarterbacks in the league this season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesWith his experience and talents, Nick Marshall is the SEC's top QB heading into the 2014 season.
1. Nick Marshall, Sr., Auburn: With a spring practice under his belt and a year in Gus Malzahn's offense, Marshall gets the nod as the top quarterback in the league. His athletic ability is off the charts, and even though he was erratic throwing the ball at times last season, he's improved in that area and has some big-time playmakers around him. Marshall also seems to thrive with the game on the line, which is perhaps the best quality a quarterback can possess.

2. Dak Prescott, RJr., Mississippi State: Prescott's upside is tremendous. He's a bullish runner with an equally strong arm and showed some real courage last season playing through injuries and his mother's death. The challenge is for him to become a more polished passer. But in Dan Mullen's offense, Prescott is a perfect fit and should have an All-SEC type of year.

3. Bo Wallace, RSr., Ole Miss: The dean of SEC quarterbacks, Wallace seems to finally be healthy after battling shoulder issues each of the past two seasons. If he stays healthy, he could easily shoot up to the top of these rankings. He needs to cut down on his 27 interceptions over the past two seasons, but he's also accounted for 54 touchdowns during that span.

4. Maty Mauk, RSo., Missouri: Even though the Tigers are losing a ton of firepower at receiver, look for Mauk to be one of the more improved players in the league. He got a taste of it in critical situations last season while filling in for the injured James Franklin, and he delivered. He has the athleticism, arm strength and toughness to be an elite quarterback.

5. Jacob Coker, RJr., Alabama: Every year, it seems, a quarterback comes out of the shadows in the SEC to have a huge year. Cam Newton did it in 2010, Johnny Manziel in 2012 and Marshall last season. Coker could be that guy in 2014 after transferring in from Florida State. His former coach, Jimbo Fisher, says Coker will be the most talented quarterback Nick Saban has had at Alabama.

6. Jeff Driskel, RJr., Florida: The Gators and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper are building what they do offensively around Driskel's strengths. He's a super athlete (and trimmed down some by nearly 15 pounds) and is throwing the ball with renewed confidence. Coming off a broken leg, Driskel has the physical skill set to flourish in Roper's system as he enters his fourth season of college ball.

7. Dylan Thompson, RSr., South Carolina: There wasn't a better reliever in the SEC over the past couple of years than Thompson, who came off the bench in several pressure situations and led the Gamecocks to big wins. With Connor Shaw gone, Thompson now gets a chance to prove that he can get it done as an every-game starter. His forte is throwing the ball from the pocket.

8. Hutson Mason, RSr., Georgia: Mason has waited his turn while sitting behind the record-setter Aaron Murray and even redshirted in 2012 to get this opportunity. He's an accurate passer and knows the offense inside and out. He played late last season after Murray was injured, which should help the transition. Mason's another one who could easily shoot up this list.

9. Justin Worley, Sr., Tennessee: The best news for Worley is that he'll have more guys around him who can make plays. The Vols played their best football last season before Worley injured his thumb. They nearly knocked off Georgia and upset South Carolina with Worley at the helm. He's improved his arm strength and has worked hard this offseason. His senior season should be his best yet.

10. Brandon Allen, RJr., Arkansas: Not much of anything went right with the Hogs' passing game last season, and much of that centered around Allen never really being healthy. To his credit, he continued to fight through injuries and is looking forward to showing what he can do now that he's back to 100 percent. If he stays healthy, Allen could be one of the league's top bounce-back players.
We're less than three months from the kickoff to the 2014 college football season, which means it's time to start examining every SEC team a little closer.

Today, we start unveiling our annual position rankings.

It's a task that seemingly gets harder every year, especially when so much is unknown and so much can change between now and the actual season.

We’ve talked to people we trust around the league in coming up with these rankings, but there are always going to be epic whiffs. For instance, Nick Marshall wasn't on a lot of people's radar at this point a year ago, and neither was Marshall's chief protector on the left side of the Auburn line -- Greg Robinson.

Anyway, we’ve based our 2014 rankings on having a true game-changer (or game-changers) at the position as well as having experience and depth. Past performance is weighted heavily, but we also take into account what help is on the way and project the impact newcomers will have.

After unveiling the position rankings each day, we’ll come back later in the day and rank the top players in the league at the various positions.

We'll start with the quarterback position.

1. Auburn: Marshall emerged from the junior college ranks last season to win the job and lead Auburn to the national championship game. He’s one of the most explosive athletes in the country at the quarterback position and an improved passer. Behind him, the Tigers also like sophomore Jeremy Johnson, who has a big arm and played some last season when Marshall was banged up. Junior Jonathan Wallace also returns after starting the final four games in 2012 as a true freshman.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDak Prescott showed signs of being a star at quarterback late last season for Mississippi State.
2. Mississippi State: Junior Dak Prescott could be poised for a breakout season after showing his vast potential in flashes a year ago and finishing with a bang. If he becomes a more polished passer, look out. Sophomore Damian Williams is another dual-threat guy who played in six games last season, while true freshman Nick Fitzgerald brings some depth to the position after enrolling early and going through the spring.

3. Ole Miss: Bo Wallace enters his senior season ranked second in school history in total offense (7,085 yards) and passing yards (6,340). It’s always nice to have that kind of experience, and Wallace should also be healthier after playing through shoulder pain each of the last two seasons. It’s a three-man race for the backup job. DeVante Kincade is an exceptional athlete, Ryan Buchanan is more of a pocket passer. Both are redshirt freshmen. Don’t forget about 6-foot-3, 296-pound sophomore Jeremy Liggins, who originally signed with LSU before going to junior college. Liggins could be a beast in short-yardage situations.

4. Missouri: It’s Maty Mauk’s show now at Missouri after he filled in more than capably a year ago as a redshirt freshman for the injured James Franklin. Mauk has all the tools to have a big year. Junior Corbin Berkstresser also has starting experience after subbing for the injured Franklin two years ago, while redshirt freshman Eddie Printz split the second-team reps with Berkstresser this spring.

5. Alabama: Jacob Coker hasn’t played a down for Alabama. For that matter, he hasn’t participated in the first official practice with the Crimson Tide. But already he’s the heir apparent to AJ McCarron, and the Tide are counting on him coming in and being their quarterback in 2014. He played behind Jameis Winston at Florida State last season and is extremely gifted. If Coker takes a little longer to develop, Alabama will likely turn to senior Blake Sims, who still needs to prove that he can beat teams throwing the ball.

6. Florida: As last season illustrated, an injury at quarterback can be devastating. The Gators need Jeff Driskel to stay healthy and develop into the kind of do-it-all quarterback he was billed as coming out of high school. Now a fourth-year junior, Driskel would seem to be poised to take that step after breaking his leg in the third game a year ago. Tyler Murphy has transferred, which means redshirt sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and true freshmen Will Grier and Treon Harris would be next in line if something happened to Driskel.

7. South Carolina: Fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson has experience on his side, not to mention a penchant for delivering in clutch situations. Now, with Connor Shaw gone, Thompson has to prove he can get it done on a weekly basis. The Gamecocks will be a little different with Thompson at quarterback. He’s a pocket passer and not nearly the runner Shaw was. Redshirt freshman Connor Mitch is the most talented of the Gamecocks’ backups, although third-year sophomore Brendan Nosovitch also returns.

8. Georgia: It’s hard to imagine a Georgia team without Aaron Murray under center. After four record-setting seasons in Athens, Murray has moved on, and fifth-year senior Hutson Mason gets his shot to lead the Bulldogs. He played at the end of last season after Murray injured his knee and has the confidence of his coaches and teammates. Redshirt freshman Brice Ramsey might be the Dawgs’ quarterback of the future, but third-year sophomore Faton Bauta had the more consistent spring of the two.

9. Tennessee: The Vols have three quarterbacks returning who have started games for them, but there’s still some uncertainty surrounding the position after redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson decided to leave the program following the spring. Senior Justin Worley was solid before an injury ended his season a year ago, and Josh Dobbs was then forced into action as a true freshman. With better playmakers around him, Worley could end up being one of the surprises of the league.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsTrue freshman Brandon Harris might be LSU's starting quarterback by the time the Tigers get into the heart of SEC play.
10. LSU: True freshman Brandon Harris was good enough this spring that several on the Bayou think he will be the Tigers’ starter at some point this season. Sophomore Anthony Jennings filled in at the end of last season when Zach Mettenberger was injured and might be the odds-on favorite to open the 2014 season as the starter. Either way, the Tigers will be lean on experience at the quarterback position.

11. Vanderbilt: Preseason camp should be interesting for the Commodores, especially with Stephen Rivers transferring in from LSU and being eligible to play right away. It was already a close race between third-year sophomore Patton Robinette and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. Robinette started in three games late last season, including the win at Florida and the BBVA Compass Bowl victory over Houston.

12. Texas A&M: Life after Johnny Manziel won’t be easy, but Kevin Sumlin has proven that his offenses can score points with different styles of quarterbacks. Sophomore Kenny Hill is probably the guy to beat despite his off-the-field issues this spring. True freshman Kyle Allen also has a big future ahead of him, but it might be asking a bit much for him to take the reins right out of the gate on the road against South Carolina. With Matt Joeckel transferring, the Aggies will be short on experience.

13. Arkansas: In his defense, Brandon Allen was injured for much of last season and did his best to gut it out. Now a junior, Allen needs to stay healthy and could use some help from his receivers. He’s backed up by his younger brother, redshirt freshman Austin Allen, and true freshman Rafe Peavey. The Hogs need to be a better passing team, period, this season, and that’s not just on the quarterbacks.

14. Kentucky: Sophomore Patrick Towles was once the forgotten man at Kentucky. But after redshirting last season, he enters preseason practice as the Wildcats’ likely starter. Towles shortened his release and was one of the team’s most improved players this spring. No matter who wins the job, he won’t have much in the way of experience. Redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and true freshman Drew Barker are the other two in mix after Jalen Whitlow transferred.

Preseason accolades in the SEC

June, 6, 2014
Jun 6
4:00
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The SEC's 14 football sports information directors have offered their prognostications for the 2014 season as part of AL.com's annual SEC spring football report, and there were some interesting choices.

Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall was selected as the league's Most Valuable Player, and Marshall was also picked as the SEC's top Heisman Trophy candidate.

South Carolina offensive guard A.J. Cann was tabbed as the league's most underrated player, and it's tough to argue with that choice.

The best passer in the SEC next season, according to the SID's, will be Missouri's Maty Mauk. Marshall was second.

Also of note, Texas A&M's Jarvis Harrison was picked as the top offensive lineman, which will raise a few eyebrows around the league. One of Harrison's teammates, tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, has been mentioned as a top-5 pick in next year's NFL draft.

Below is the entire rundown:

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

QB Nick Marshall, Auburn

Next: RB Todd Gurley, Georgia

TOP HEISMAN CANDIDATE

QB Nick Marshall, Auburn

Next: RB Todd Gurley, Georgia

MOST VERSATILE

Christion Jones, Alabama

Next: Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia

MOST UNDERRATED

OL A.J. Cann, South Carolina

Next: QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State

BEST ATHLETE

QB Nick Marshall, Auburn

Next: WR/KR Christion Jones, Alabama

BEST LEADER

LB Ramik Wilson, Georgia

Next: LB Curt Maggitt, Tennessee

BEST OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

Alvin Dupree, Kentucky

Next: Kwon Alexander, LSU

BEST INSIDE LINEBACKER

Ramik Wilson, Georgia

Next: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee

BEST DEFENSIVE LINEMAN

Dante Fowler, Florida

Next: Trey Flowers, Arkansas

BEST CORNERBACK

Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida

Next: Jalen Mills, LSU

BEST SAFETY

Landon Collins, Alabama

Next: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss

BEST OFFENSIVE LINEMAN

Jarvis Harrison, Texas A&M

Next: Reese Dismukes, Auburn

BEST RECEIVER

Amari Cooper, Alabama

Next: Sammie Coates, Auburn

BEST RUNNER

Todd Gurley, Georgia

Next: Mike Davis, South Carolina

BEST BLOCKING BACK

Jalston Fowler, Alabama

Next: Mike Davis, South Carolina

BEST PASSER

Maty Mauk, Missouri

Next: Nick Marshall, Auburn

BEST KICK RETURNER

Christion Jones, Alabama

Next: Andre Dubose, Florida

BEST PLACEKICKER

Marshall Morgan, Georgia

Next: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU

BEST PUNTER

Drew Kaser, Texas A&M

Next: Devon Bell, Mississippi State

Second-year stars: Auburn

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
2:30
PM ET
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.

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