Auburn Tigers: Nick Marshall

Three keys: Auburn vs. Samford

November, 21, 2014
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For 27 Auburn seniors, Saturday will be the last time they play a game inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. It won’t be quite as dramatic as last year’s home finale, but this senior class will be extra motivated to finish strong in front of their fans.

“This is a very good group of seniors that has done a lot of great things for Auburn,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “So I’m really hoping our fans will show up, be loud and send these guys off on the right track.”

Auburn is 26-0-1 all-time against Samford and 91-47-2 against teams from the state of Alabama.

Key player: C Reese Dismukes

Dismukes, recently named a semifinalist for the Outland Trophy, has started more games (47) than any other player on Auburn’s roster. Saturday will be his 29th and final start at home. No player has meant more to the program over the last four years. He’s snapped the ball to six different quarterbacks. He’s blocked for four separate 1,000-yard rushers. And the last player other than Dismukes to start at center was Tunde Fariyike, who started in October 2012 against Ole Miss. Enjoy him while you can Auburn fans.

Key question: Which running back will gain the most yards?

There are four running backs who might have more than 100 yards on Saturday. Cameron Artis-Payne, the SEC’s leading rusher, is almost a lock to hit the century mark. He’s done it in seven of Auburn’s 10 games this season. Fellow senior Corey Grant has been quiet for much of the season, but he could see more touches against Samford and he’s liable to break one at any time. Then there’s freshmen Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber. It all depends on how many carries they get, but both are averaging more than 5 yards a carry this season.

Key stat: On runs outside the tackles, Auburn had its fewest carries (8) and yards (32) in a game under Malzahn last week against Georgia per ESPN Stats & Info.

How does a team that has scored 20 or more points in 23 straight games score only seven points last weekend? The stat above will give you the answer. Auburn was averaging nearly 150 yards per game on runs outside the tackles this season, but Georgia took that away. Why does that matter this week? It doesn’t really, not against Samford, but it’s important for Nick Marshall and the offense to find its rhythm before next week’s Iron Bowl. Also, Marshall needs only 78 rushing yards to become Auburn’s all-time leading rusher at quarterback.

Three keys: Auburn at Georgia

November, 14, 2014
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Saturday marks the 118th meeting between Auburn and Georgia in what is known as the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. The two schools have played 117 games, and Auburn holds a one-game edge (55-54-8) thanks to last year’s memorable win and the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare" to add to the rivalry's already substantial lore.

“It’s one of the better rivalries in college football,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “It’s the oldest rivalry in the South, so it’s going to be a big one.”

[+] EnlargeRicardo Louis
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsRicardo Louis answered the "Prayer at Jordan Hare" in last year's game against Georgia, adding another epic chapter to the oldest rivalry in the South.
“It’s always meant a lot to me,” added Georgia coach Mark Richt. “It hits at a time of year where usually it’s going to decide somebody’s fate when it comes to playing for the SEC championship.”

This year is no different. If Georgia wins and Missouri loses Saturday, the Bulldogs would clinch the SEC East. Auburn’s road to Atlanta is a bit more treacherous, but there’s still a chance of winning the West if the Tigers can win out.

Key player: QB Nick Marshall

The return of Todd Gurley might have been a blessing in disguise for Auburn, or at least for Marshall. The former Georgia defensive back turned Auburn quarterback has flown somewhat under the radar this week with Gurley grabbing most of the headlines. But Marshall is returning to the place where he started his career and the same place where he reportedly stole from his teammates. He’s typically a cool customer, but how will he handle the hostile atmosphere this Saturday? The Tigers need him at his best if they want to return home with a win.

Key question: Can Auburn’s offense keep up without its top wide receiver?

Though Malzahn has yet to officially rule out D'haquille Williams for Saturday’s game, we can go ahead and assume he’s not going to play. That’s a big blow considering how important he was to this offense, but don’t forget that Auburn beat Georgia last year without him. In that game, fellow wide receiver Ricardo Louis had maybe his best game as a Tiger. He rushed for 66 yards and caught four passes for 131 yards, including the game-winning touchdown. He’ll likely play a key role Saturday, and as always, expect a heavy dose of Cameron Artis-Payne.

Key stat: Auburn has allowed 36.2 points per game in its last four games (2-2) after giving up only 14.4 in its first five (5-0), according to ESPN Stats & Info

What happened to this Auburn defense? The competition has been better, no doubt, but it still feels like the unit has regressed since the beginning of the season. It doesn’t get any easier this week against a Georgia team which is averaging an SEC-best 43 points per game, even with Gurley missing the last four games. Now he’s back to pair with freshman phenom Nick Chubb in the backfield, and quarterback Hutson Mason is playing as well as he has all season. The Tigers better hope they can either force turnovers or get stops in the red zone.

Three keys: Auburn at Ole Miss

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

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

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

Key player: RB Cameron Artis-Payne

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

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

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

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

The last time Auburn went on the road, it turned the ball over on its first two possessions. The Tigers were down 21-0 before they knew what hit them. This offense can't afford to turn the ball over like that again and Nick Marshall in particular has to be careful against an Ole Miss defense that has an FBS-high 17 interceptions. It will be important for the Tigers to establish a running game and grab an early lead because they don't want to throw unless they have to, not against a secondary that includes Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson.
Before the season, Saturday’s Auburn-South Carolina matchup looked like one of the best we’d see all year. Two top-10 teams, two great offensive minds and a rare cross-division game that hasn’t been played since 2011.

Despite losing its last time out, Auburn held up its end of the bargain. The Tigers are ranked No. 5 in the latest AP poll. The same can’t be said for South Carolina, though. The Gamecocks are nowhere to be found in the Top 25 after a 4-3 start. It doesn’t help that Gus Malzahn is a perfect 12-0 at home since becoming the Auburn head coach prior to last season.

Key player: RB Cameron Artis-Payne

Everybody is talking about freshman running back Roc Thomas after his short but impressive stint at Mississippi State -- the coaches have even said that he’ll have a bigger role in the second half -- but don’t forget about Artis-Payne. He’s fifth in the SEC with 664 yards rushing, and he’s had over 100 yards in four of Auburn’s first six games. He’s also the type who plays better with a chip on his shoulder. He’s heard all the Roc Thomas hype, too. Saturday will be his chance to go out and prove that he is still the team’s No. 1 running back.

Key question: How much will Jermaine Whitehead play?

We know that Whitehead has been reinstated to the team after missing the last four games due to suspension. Malzahn announced the news Tuesday. But what the Auburn coach didn’t specify was how much the senior would play Saturday against South Carolina. All he said was that Whitehead would have to earn back his playing time. There have been reports that the former starting safety will play special teams for the immediate future, but for how long? When will he crack the defensive back rotation? The Tigers could sure use him next week.

Key stat: South Carolina has allowed opponents to complete 50 percent of its passes thrown 10 yards or longer this season (38-of-76), worst in the SEC according to ESPN Stats & Info.

This stat should make Nick Marshall’s eyes light up. The Auburn quarterback has always been criticized about his accuracy throwing downfield. He can throw a great deep ball, but his completion percentage on longer passes doesn’t always reflect that. Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will likely try to take a couple of shots Saturday, looking to exploit the Gamecocks’ secondary which has been prone to giving up the big play. That also means that D'haquille Williams and Sammie Coates could both be in for a big night.

Auburn midseason overview

October, 16, 2014
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It's the midway point for Auburn and for most of the teams in the SEC. Earlier in the week, we looked at the conference as a whole in our SEC midseason overview. Now it's time to break down the Tigers after the first six games.

Offensive MVP: C Reese Dismukes

[+] EnlargeReese Dismukes
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIAuburn center Reese Dismukes makes Gus Malzahn's offense run smoothly.
After missing the first half of the season opener, Nick Marshall has been great. Cameron Artis-Payne is third in the SEC with 664 rushing yards. Even D'haquille Williams, the junior college transfer, can make a case. But the player who makes it all go is Dismukes. He's been the constant for this Auburn offense since Gus Malzahn arrived. When the Tigers are running the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, Dismukes is the one getting everybody set and making the calls. That's no easy task. His experience is simply irreplaceable.

Defensive MVP: DB Johnathan Ford

Nobody saw this coming before the season, but Ford, a running back in high school, has played as well as anybody on Auburn's defense. He leads the team with 41 tackles, and he also has two interceptions, one fumble forced and half a sack. The sophomore is doing it all for the Tigers, and it's his first year playing safety. It's safe to say he's found a home. In Saturday's loss to Mississippi State, Ford finished with nine tackles, one interception, one fumble forced and one quarterback hurry. How's that for a stat line against the No. 1 team in the country?

Newcomer of the year (not named D'haquille): DE Davonte Lambert

Since Duke Williams is our SEC newcomer of the year at the midway point, we're going to go a different route and take Lambert. The junior college transfer didn't have the luxury of going through spring practice, but it's easy to see why Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner was raving about Lambert once he got on campus. He cracked the starting lineup after the third game, and he leads the team with five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He's not Dee Ford. He's not Carl Lawson. But he's filled in admirably, exceeding expectations.

Biggest surprise: Ellis Johnson's defense

In August, everybody was asking if Auburn score enough points again this season to make up for an average defense. Well, the Tigers took exception to that. The defense has played much better in Johnson's second year as coordinator. Before Saturday, they had allowed 21 or fewer points in each of the first five games, the longest such streak since 2007-08. Even in the loss, Auburn forced four turnovers and allowed only 10 points in the second half. If not for shortcomings on offense, it might have been a different game.

Room for improvement: Consistency on offense

Speaking of those shortcomings, it's been a struggle at times for Auburn's offense. They never really got going at Kansas State; they started slow against Louisiana Tech; and they turned the ball over twice on the first two plays in Saturday's loss to Mississippi State. The talent is there. The coaching is there. They've even shown glimpses of last year, but they have been way too inconsistent. To reach that level, that standard that Auburn set for itself last year, this offense needs to improve on the little things.

Biggest game of the second half: Nov. 1 at Ole Miss

Take your pick. The Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa obviously stands out. A trip to Georgia in November will be difficult regardless of whether Todd Gurley plays. And Auburn can't overlook home games against South Carolina and Texas A&M. But the most meaningful game left on the schedule is in Oxford against Ole Miss. The Rebels are undefeated, having already beaten Alabama and Texas A&M, and a win against Auburn could make it mighty difficult to keep them out of the playoff. On the flip side, every game is a must-win now for the Tigers, and that one is no different.
Auburn has dominated this series as of late, winning 11 of the last 13 games, but take a closer look and you’ll see that it’s not as lopsided as it looks. Five of the last seven games have been decided by a touchdown or less, and three of the last four came down to the final drive.

Don’t be surprised if Saturday’s game in Starkville, a matchup of No. 2 vs. No. 3, comes down to final drive yet again.

Key player: C Reese Dismukes

In a game like this, experience is critical, and nobody on Auburn has more experience than Dismukes. He’s started 42 games. He’s been to Mississippi State. He’s played in big games, bigger games than this even. (Remember last year’s Iron Bowl?) He simply knows what it takes to win. It doesn’t matter that All-SEC freshman guard Alex Kozan is out for the season or that the offensive line has had to reshuffle in recent weeks since Patrick Miller went down. What matters is that the Tigers are winning games, and that’s in no small part thanks to their captain. The offense will once again be following his lead on Saturday.

Key question: How does Auburn handle the cowbells?

Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah hates going to Mississippi State because of the cowbells. “Those things are awful,” he told the media Tuesday. And who can blame him? That constant ringing throughout the game? Brutal. So what’s the best way to take the crowd and the cowbells out of it? Score early and often. If the Tigers can get off to a fast start, similar to what they did against LSU last Saturday, then the noise won’t be a problem. If they fall behind, it’s a different story. The only ringing Auburn wants to hear is from its own fans’ cowbells.

Key stat: Auburn is 14-0 in the last two seasons when it runs for at least 250 yards and 3-2 when it does not, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

So as long as the Tigers rush for 250 yards, they’re going to win. Easy, right? Not so fast. It’s been well documented all week that Mississippi State held Auburn to 120 yards rushing last season, its fewest ever under Gus Malzahn. Sure, it was only Nick Marshall’s third game and he probably knew about 25 percent of the offense, but give credit where credit is due. The Bulldogs have a big, physical front seven, and Benardrick McKinney is as good a linebacker as you’ll find in the SEC. Auburn isn’t going to just run over Mississippi State. Expect Malzahn to get a little creative with his play calling and pull out a few tricks on Saturday.

Three keys: Auburn vs. LSU

October, 3, 2014
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Oh, how the tables have turned since last year. Auburn is now the top-10 team favored at home against a young LSU team that's starting a new quarterback. But this is still LSU. The only time Auburn has beaten the Bayou Bengals in the last seven years is when a guy named Cam was playing quarterback. Nothing will be easy.

Key player: WR D'haquille Williams

Shocker, right? Well, Williams would have been on here even if he wasn't playing the school where he was one committed. With Sammie Coates banged up and inconsistent play from Ricardo Louis and Quan Bray, it's been Duke who has picked up the slack. Quarterback Nick Marshall is completing 62.5 percent of his passes when targeting Williams and just 53.1 percent when targeting any other player. The matchup is a difficult one for Williams, but expect the Louisiana native to come up with at least one big play against LSU.

Key question: How many of Auburn's injured players will play Saturday?

Auburn might have come away with a win against Louisiana Tech last Saturday, but it didn't come without a cost. Four starters -- Montravius Adams, Kris Frost, Cassanova McKinzy and Patrick Miller -- all left the game due to injury and only Adams returned. The sophomore defensive tackle looks good to go Saturday, but the other three remain day-to-day. If both Frost and McKinzy are out, it would leave the Tigers extremely thin at linebacker and force freshman Tre Williams into action. Auburn remains hopeful that all three will play.

Key stat: LSU is allowing the third-most rushing yards per game in the SEC and has allowed two opponents to rush for at least 250 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The Tigers did not allow any team to reach that mark in 2013.

This isn't the LSU defense we've grown accustomed to seeing. Mississippi State dominated the Tigers up front two weeks ago, rushing for more than 300 yards. That's not a good sign heading into a matchup with Auburn, the No. 1 rushing team in the country a season ago. However, through the first four games, Auburn is missing key pieces like Greg Robinson, Tre Mason and Jay Prosch more than they anticipated. The offense hasn't looked as sharp. Maybe this LSU defense will be the perfect remedy to get Auburn going on the ground.
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

September, 17, 2014
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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

August, 29, 2014
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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.

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SEC SCOREBOARD

Monday, 12/22
Saturday, 12/20
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
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Saturday, 1/3
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Monday, 1/12