Auburn Tigers: Nosa Eguae

The Iron Bowl rivalry never ends. Just listen to "The Paul Finebaum Show." Alabama and Auburn are never not at each other’s throats. They’re never not being compared to each other.

Here at the SEC Blog, we embrace the debate. Alabama and Auburn are forever intertwined for good reason. Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn go head to head on and off the football field 365 days a year, whether it’s during the season or on the recruiting trail.

Along that same vein, it’s time for a Take Two: Iron Bowl Edition. With spring football well in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to see who enters the offseason in better shape, Alabama or Auburn?

Alex Scarborough: I won’t even make this about Alabama at first. We’ll get to that later. What I’d like to hit on is how little we actually know about Auburn. I’ll concede that Malzahn is a good coach and maybe the best offensive playcaller in the country. But the program, top to bottom, is a mystery to me. The last time Auburn went to the BCS, the following two seasons didn’t end so well. I’m not going to call last season a fluke, but good luck capturing lightning in a bottle twice.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn and Nick Marshall
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsGus Malzahn and Nick Marshall have a tough challenge ahead in 2014 -- and they can't sneak up on anybody this time around.
Nick Marshall is undoubtedly one of the premier playmakers in the SEC, but can he take the next step? He can make a man miss in the open field, but can he make all the reads from the pocket? Defenses will go all in to stop the run next season. He’ll be forced to look for his second, third and fourth options. Is he ready? And how will his protection hold up without Greg Robinson at left tackle and Tre Mason shouldering the load at tailback?

All that goes without mentioning the defense, which was downright mediocre for most of last season. The secondary was porous and the linebackers weren't athletic enough to run Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme (ninth in scoring, 13th against the pass in the SEC). Carl Lawson looks like a budding star, but can he make up for the loss of veterans like Dee Ford?

Auburn’s roster is in better shape than Alabama’s at first blush, but a closer examination shows cracks. Yes, Saban’s missing a starting quarterback, but Jacob Coker is on the way. And besides, since when has Saban needed a star QB to win? Alabama’s secondary has holes, but is it worse than Auburn’s? One five-star cornerback is already on campus and another is coming soon. Landon Collins might be the best DB at the Iron Bowl this year. Based on pure talent (three consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting classes) and a history of sustained success (two losses was a bad season), I feel more confident about the Tide’s chances.

Greg Ostendorf: Do we really not know about this Auburn team? They came out of nowhere last season; I won’t argue that. But the Tigers won 12 games and came 13 seconds from a national championship. Eight starters are back from that offense, including four O-linemen and a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback. Remember how good Marshall was down the stretch? He was still learning the offense. This fall he’ll be more comfortable, and if he continues to improve as a passer, which SEC defense will stop him? An Alabama team that has shown time and time again that it has no answer for the spread?

I remember when Johnny Manziel shocked the Tide in 2012, and all offseason Saban & Co. were supposedly devising a game plan to stop him the following season. What happened in the rematch? Manziel threw for 464 yards, rushed for 98 and scored five touchdowns. Marshall is not Manziel, but I’m also not betting on Alabama to stop him.

The defense remains a question mark. I’ll give you that. And the injuries this spring did nothing to ease my concern. But Johnson has a proven track record, and despite losing key players such as Dee Ford, Nosa Eguae and Chris Davis, he’ll actually have a deeper, more talented group in Year 2. There might not be as many five-star recruits, but there’s still plenty of talent, with 10 former ESPN 300 prospects on the defense alone.

The Iron Bowl is in Tuscaloosa this year and Saban is one of the best at exacting revenge. But what happens if Coker isn’t the answer at quarterback? What if the true freshman expected to start at left tackle plays like a true freshman? What if Marshall develops as a passer and torches a lackluster Tide secondary? Too many questions, if you ask me.

Scarborough: I’m glad you brought up the Iron Bowl being in Tuscaloosa this year, because that leads me to an even bigger point than the talent and potential of both Alabama and Auburn. In the words of Steve Spurrier, “You are your schedule.” And have you looked at Auburn’s schedule? Auburn could be better than Alabama and still lose more games.

If going on the road to Kansas State was easy, everyone in the SEC would do it. Survive that and October sets up brutally with LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Ole Miss. Think last season’s “Prayer at Jordan Hare” and “Got a second?” finishes were a blast? Try recreating that with games against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama in November.

Alabama’s schedule, on the other hand, isn’t murderer’s row. A so-so West Virginia team starts things off, followed by cupcakes Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss. Auburn gets South Carolina and Georgia from the East, while Alabama lucks out with Florida and Tennessee. On top of that, Alabama's two most difficult games aside from the Iron Bowl are at home and set up nicely with Arkansas before Texas A&M and a bye before LSU.

Ostendorf: There’s a brutal four-game stretch for Auburn with South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia in consecutive weeks, but the first six games actually set up nicely for the Tigers. If they survive the trip to the Little Apple against Kansas State, there’s a strong possibility that they start the season 6-0, and we’ve seen how momentum can carry you through a season. This is also a veteran team with the confidence to win on the road.

Meanwhile, when you have a first-year starter at quarterback ... ahem, Alabama ... then every SEC road game becomes a potential pitfall. You might think the Tide lucked out with Tennessee, but don’t be surprised if a much-improved Vols team keeps it close at home. And I don’t care if LSU might be down this year. It’s never fun for a rookie signal caller to play in Death Valley.

Ultimately, it will once again come down to the Iron Bowl, and how can you bet against last year’s winner?
This is Part II of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- There have been plenty of questions surrounding Auburn’s defensive line this offseason. How do you replace a guy like Dee Ford? Who will be the leaders now that Ford and Nosa Eguae are both gone? What should be expected of the rising sophomores? Will any of the newcomers make an impact?

Here’s a bold prediction for the spring: The defensive line will be better in 2014 than it was in 2013.

How can that be when Auburn is losing a combined 20 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks from Eguae and Ford? Three reasons -- star power, experience and depth. The line was the strength of the defense a year ago, and it’s expected be the strength again this season.

The key will be that trio of rising sophomores -- Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson -- who should evolve from promising young rookies to the dominant defensive linemen that Auburn fans have grown accustomed to seeing over the years.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstCarl Lawson showed he could be Auburn's next defensive star after a solid freshman season.
All three came to Auburn as highly ranked recruits, and though they had their moments last fall, it was clear they were still raw. As spring practice approaches, they have had a chance to play in the SEC, and they’ve been able to work out in a major college weight room. They’re ready, both physically and mentally, to take the next step.

Lawson, in particular, could be in line for a huge spring as he looks to replace Ford at one of the defensive end spots.

“That guy is going to be a mammoth player by the time he leaves here,” Eguae said of Lawson, a former five-star recruit.

The talent and star power might be in the sophomore class, but experience cannot be taught, and Auburn has plenty of it. With defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker expected to return for a fifth season, the Tigers will feature five scholarship seniors on their defensive line.

It’s a group that includes LaDarius Owens and Gabe Wright, two starters from the BCS title game. They might not be as good as Eguae and Ford just yet, but the duo still combined for 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last season. Former junior college transfer Ben Bradley is another senior to watch. He played well early in the season but faded late.

Auburn also signed six defensive linemen in 2014 to add even more depth to an already deep unit. The three most likely to contribute next year are juco teammates DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence and ESPN 300 defensive end Andrew Williams, who waited until signing day before choosing the Tigers.

“That was a strength of ours last year,” head coach Gus Malzahn said of the defensive line. “We lost some seniors, but we really feel like we filled our needs there. We got some outstanding impact players that coach [Rodney] Garner is very excited about.”

All four starting spots on the defensive line will be up for grabs, but Garner proved last season that just because a player isn’t in the starting lineup doesn’t mean he’s not going to play. Early in the year, Auburn was rotating eight or nine bodies up front. Garner and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will have plenty of options to choose from as they put together the rotation for the season opener. It’s a pool of players that’s talented, experienced and deep.

Room to improve: Defensive line

February, 19, 2014
Editor’s note: This is Part III in a week-long series looking at Auburn’s top five position groups with room to improve.

AUBURN, Ala. -- The defensive line wasn’t bad in 2013. In fact, it was quite the contrary. The line was considered the strength of the defense, and the rotation of players up front was one of the reasons Auburn won 12 games and made the run it did. However, when you lose two starters and arguably the two most consistent players on the line, there’s still plenty of room to improve.

It starts with defensive end Dee Ford. How do you replace a player who led the team in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (14.5)? The Tigers were without him the first two games this past season, and although they won, there was a noticeable difference when Ford returned to the lineup against Mississippi State.

Carl Lawson, Gabe Wright
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsGabe Wright (90) and Carl Lawson (55) figure to be major cogs in the defensive line rotation in 2014.
The other loss up front, Nosa Eguae, isn’t as talented as Ford, but he was just as valuable in his own way. He started the season at defensive end but moved to tackle midway through the season to help the team. Eguae might not get drafted, but the intangibles and the leadership qualities he provided will be difficult to replace.

The good thing is that defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will have plenty of options to choose from. Auburn’s defensive line is as deep, if not deeper than any other position on the field. But can they sustain success, and more importantly, can they improve on last year?

Battling for No. 1: Seniors to be Gabe Wright and LaDarius Owens were both listed as starters on the depth chart for the VIZIO BCS National Championship game, so they’re obviously the favorites to crack the starting rotation in 2014. Wright led all Auburn defensive linemen with 31 tackles in the 2013 season, and Owens was right behind him with 30. Defensive tackle Angelo Blackson started 10 games as a sophomore in 2012 but lost his job this past season when Eguae moved inside. He’ll be given every opportunity to win it back this spring. Beyond that, it’s a pair of former ESPN 300 prospects who are next in line. Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams just wrapped up their freshman seasons, and they both hope to take the next step in their second seasons. Lawson, who was second on the team with four sacks, has the makings of a star.

Strength in numbers: This is where Auburn thrived last season. The coaches were able to rotate close to seven or eight players up front each game, and the line didn’t miss a beat. That not only provided valuable game experience, but it also kept the starters fresh for the fourth quarter. Junior college transfer Ben Bradley and freshman Elijah Daniel were both thrown in the mix as soon as they arrived on campus, and both responded well. Bradley, who enrolled last January, started in three games in his first season. In reality, they both belong in the above group, as they will both compete with the first group this spring. But regardless of whether or not they start, they will be counted on for depth. There’s not much depth after that. The next-most experienced player, JaBrian Niles, has played in just seven games over the last two seasons.

New on the scene: Auburn put together one of the top defensive line classes in the country a year ago. This year’s class might not rival that, but it’s still a promising group. The two most likely to compete for early playing time are junior college transfers DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence. Unlike Bradley, they weren’t able to enroll early, so they won’t go through spring ball, but they should still be ahead of the other signees physically. Lambert, in particular, has a real chance to make an early impact. He was the top-rated defensive tackle in ESPN Junior College 50 rankings. The Tigers also signed three ESPN 300 defensive linemen, headlined by defensive end Andrew Williams, who committed to Auburn on national signing day. The line should continue to be the strength of Auburn’s defense for years to come.
Dee Ford has seen it all during his time at Auburn -- the highs and the lows.

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

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

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

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

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

It was a journey that brought them closer together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The torch has been passed.
Editor’s note: Each day this week, Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in next Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship. The first matchup is between Florida State’s offensive line and Auburn’s defensive line.

Florida State’s offensive line: The five starters on the line for Florida State are all NFL prospects. The group is led by senior center Bryan Stork, a first-team AP All-America selection. Tackle Cameron Erving and guard Tre' Jackson were first-team All-ACC selections.

The group excels at run-blocking, and Florida State topped 2,600 yards and 40 touchdowns on the ground for a second consecutive season. Factoring out yards lost to sacks, FSU is rushing for more yards per carry against FBS teams this season than Auburn.

The question — if there is one — for Floirida State is in its pass protection. The Seminoles have allowed a sack on 6.7 percent of passing attempts, which ranks 83rd nationally, and 13 of the 29 sacks allowed have came in the last five games.

While those numbers might be a cause for concern against an stout Auburn defensive front (28 sacks, tied for third in SEC), two factors mitigate any perceived struggles.

For one, teams have blitzed Florida State often in hopes of rattling quarterback Jameis Winston, as 36 percent of his throws come against the blitz. Occasionally they’ve gotten to him, with 12 sacks when rushing five or more defenders, according to ESPN Stats & Info. More often, however, he burns them. Winston is completing 71 percent of his passes against the blitz, with 20 TDs and three interceptions.

The second issue is Winston’s desire to complete the deep ball. The redshirt freshman won the Heisman Trophy by being aggressive, but he admits there are times he needs to check down and get rid of the ball quicker rather than asking his line to hold blocks for a few extra seconds. The payoff to the approach, however, has been an array of big plays. Winston leads the nation in yards per attempt (10.9) and only LSU’s Zach Mettenberger has a higher percentage of completions gain 15 yards or more than Winston (43 percent). Winston is tough against pressure, completing 62 percent of his throws when hit or hurried — nearly double the average for a quarterback from a BCS automatic-qualifying conference. Even getting him into third-and-long situations doesn’t help much; he’s an absurd 16-of-21 with 15 first downs on third-and-10 or longer.

Auburn’s defensive line: When Auburn last won the national championship in 2010, it had an above-average defense, but it was a defense that featured a dominant front line with All-American defensive tackle Nick Fairley and veterans Antoine Carter, Zach Clayton and Mike Blanc. The 2010 Tigers also had highly-touted freshman defensive end Corey Lemonier, who is now a rookie with the San Francisco 49ers.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstAuburn freshman Carl Lawson had four sacks this season.
This year’s Auburn team is similar. The defense has struggled at times this season, but its strength is up front on the defensive line.

The star is defensive end Dee Ford, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss and 17 quarterback hurries. A senior, Ford missed the first two games with an injury but has since recorded a sack in seven of Auburn’s last 11 games. He’s a different type of animal than Fairley, but an animal nonetheless.

The rest of the line also has its share of veterans with senior Nosa Eguae and juniors Gabe Wright, LaDarius Owens and Ben Bradley. Eguae, who moved inside to tackle midway through the season, started in the 2010 BCS title game.

And then there are the freshmen. The trio of Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel is as good a collection of young defensive linemen as there is in college football. Lawson, the nation’s No. 2 player coming out of high school in the 2013 recruiting class, leads the group with four sacks.

Fairley was dominant in the 2010 game as Auburn’s defensive line controlled the line against a smaller, quicker Oregon team. That likely won’t be the case this time around against a Florida State offensive line that’s much stronger and much more impressive, but the key to stopping the Seminoles will still begin and end with the front four. Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will rely on his line to get pressure on Winston, knowing how good the Heisman Trophy winner has been against the blitz this season.

Hale: Edge to Florida State

Ostendorf: Toss-up

There's no doubt that Saturday's SEC championship game will feature two of the nation's best teams. To say otherwise about No. 3 Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC) and fifth-ranked Missouri (11-1, 7-1) would be silly. But their roads to Atlanta were improbable at best.

A year ago, both programs were drowning without bowl games or much life. Injuries ravaged a Missouri team making its SEC debut, while two years removed from a national championship, the Gene Chizik-led Auburn Tigers had one of the nation's most inept offenses and slinked through a disappointing 3-9 season that got Chizik fired.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAfter winning just five games in 2012, James Franklin's Missouri Tigers have climbed to the top of the SEC.
Missouri won only five games in 2012, and coach Gary Pinkel entered the 2013 season -- his 13th at Missouri -- on the hot seat.

Fast-forward to right now, and both of these teams are standing tall and looking down at the rest of their conference mates who had higher hopes and expectations for 2013. They both have high-powered offenses and went 4-1 against ranked opponents. Missouri took down Texas A&M to clinch its spot in Atlanta after defeating traditional SEC Eastern Division power Florida and Georgia, while Auburn has had a bit more flare for the dramatic with its nail-biting wins over Georgia and Alabama.

Both rank in the top four of the SEC in total offense and are scoring a little more than 38 points a game. And both teams have a lot of momentum rolling into the Georgia Dome.

This sport can be cruel to its participants, but for Auburn and Missouri, they beat the odds to play in the sport's toughest championship game and are right on the cusp of a trip to the Vizio BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif.

"Last year was our first losing season in the last nine years," Pinkel said. "It was all of a sudden, we're not going to be very good.

"Obviously, coming off of spring football, I thought we were going to be good. I thought it was important to stay healthy.

"It was one of our goals, getting to Atlanta."

Mizzou's offense couldn't leave the infirmary last season. Even before the year began, the Tigers started to see their offensive line crumble to the injury bug. Eventually, only freshman Evan Boehm made it through the entire season healthy on the offensive line.

The most crippling casualty was quarterback James Franklin. He dealt with a shoulder injury, a concussion and a knee injury that kept him on the field for just nine games. With him in and out of the lineup, Mizzou finished the season with the SEC's No. 11 offense.

This year, a healthy Mizzou team ate up SEC defenses. Even with Franklin suffering another shoulder injury that sidelined him for a month, the Tigers still finished the regular season averaging 489.5 yards per game, which is 133 more than last season.

"We knew that last year we didn't handle injuries very well on both sides of the ball," Franklin said. "Lot of frustration. We weren't working together very well, and that helped us for this year when we did have a couple of injuries on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. We worked together as a team, and learned to pull through and not go against each other and be frustrated with each other, but help lift each other up.

"Coming into this season, we knew that if we could do that and stay healthy, even if we did have injuries, still remain positive and have each other's back, then we could have some success this year."

For Auburn, it was left beaten mentally from the storm that was 2012. While Gus Malzahn was a very familiar face on the Plains, the embarrassment and pain that came with last season stuck with this team during the early part of Malzahn's tenure.

There were sluggish spring practices, anger, frustration and sloppy effort, but Malzahn kept pushing guys. His goal from the start was to complete college football's biggest turnaround. Slowly -- and quietly -- the wins started to pile up after a tough loss at LSU. There were thrillers against Ole Miss and Texas A&M before blowouts over Arkansas and Tennessee.

Then, Auburn pulled some magic with unthinkable finishes in wins over Georgia and Alabama to win eight straight.

"For us in January we got together and Coach Malzahn got with us and he said it's going to be a new day," Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae said.

"We just want to make sure that the young guys are playing for us and we're playing for them. We've just got a bunch of guys that are playing for each other. We're hungry. Just from what happened last year, guys learned a lot from it, and they're willing to go out there and fight for one another."

Both of these programs were overlooked as legitimate SEC contenders this season, and both proved everyone wrong. The talent that seemed buried behind injuries and poor execution shined this season. They clawed their way out when trapped against the wall and stunned the country with their special runs.

"Our situations are pretty much identical," Missouri linebacker Donovan Bonner said. "It's really exciting. It's what SEC ball is all about. If you knew the two teams that had the toughest seasons last year would be in the SEC title game, people wouldn't believe that. So it's really just what is so beautiful about SEC football and this conference."

Auburn focused on Missouri, not BCS

December, 3, 2013

Ohio State or Auburn? Auburn or Ohio State? Who deserves to be in the BCS national championship game? Ohio State is undefeated. Auburn, despite one loss, has the better resume -- including a win over the two-time defending national champion.

Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs certainly believes the SEC champion should get a shot at the national title.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsAuburn can't dwell on its latest miracle finish or the BCS race because it will get a tough test from 11-1 Missouri in Atlanta.
“It would be, quite frankly, un-American for us not to get a chance to go to Pasadena if we’re able to beat Missouri, and I believe the same about Missouri,” Jacobs said during a radio interview Sunday.

The Auburn players share the same sentiment as their athletic director, but they still have one more game left to play. If Auburn loses to Missouri on Saturday, their argument goes for naught.

“Anytime a team goes through the SEC conference and wins the SEC championship, it’s big time,” defensive tackle Nosa Eguae said. “It’s something that’s monumental and means a lot. But we’re just worrying about Missouri. We’re worrying about getting better every single day, and Saturday will take care of itself.”

And Auburn should be concerned about Missouri. The SEC East winner’s only loss came in double overtime to South Carolina. Much like Auburn, Missouri has taken the SEC by storm and surprised a lot of people this year.

“When I look at Missouri, they do remind me of our team in a lot of ways,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “Their team has gotten better each week. They play together. They are very confident. They make plays when they have to. They have played in some big games, especially these last two weeks.

“They went to Ole Miss, which is a tough place to play, and they won. They played against the best player in college football in Texas A&M, and they shut him down for the most part. So you are talking about a team that can rise to the occasion.”

Not to mention, Missouri can make just as strong a case for the BCS title game as Auburn if it wins Saturday in Atlanta.

But Auburn knows that. The players know what’s at stake. The hard part won’t be getting up for the game. It will be keeping out the distractions, specifically the BCS talk, as they prepare for Saturday’s showdown.

"I haven't looked at the BCS,” fullback Jay Prosch said. “I can’t speak for the rest of my teammates, but I know that a lot of them have the same mentality as I do and that’s just that we’re thankful to be here and we know that we have a job to do Saturday. That’s our main focus.”

There’s still a chance that Florida State or Ohio State loses this weekend, and Auburn would play its way into the national championship with a win. If not, the Tigers have to hope for another miracle when the final BCS standings are released.

But the first order of business is Saturday’s SEC championship game.

“I’m really not worried about our team at all in that area,” Malzahn added. “This game is big enough. We are playing for the SEC championship, so they are going to be focused on that. There’s no doubt in my mind. We’ll worry about all of that afterward and see what happens.”

Reliving Auburn's miracle return

December, 3, 2013

AUBURN, Ala. -- For a team of destiny, the play that would come to define Auburn's magical season started off in an ironic way as it looked as if luck might not be on its side after all. The clock read all zeroes in Jordan-Hare Stadium as Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon went out of bounds, sending a tie game into overtime. But officials double-checked, reviewed the play and put one second back on the clock -- just enough time for the top-ranked Crimson Tide to run one final play.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' TD return was like something out of a video game, according to Tide QB AJ McCarron.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, staring his own date with destiny and a third straight national championship in the eye, didn't think to throw a Hail Mary pass. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the odds of AJ McCarron heaving a touchdown in that situation were 2 percent. Better to give Adam Griffith a shot at splitting the uprights from 57 yards out, Saban thought. He'd seen his freshman kicker hit it from 60 yards plenty of times, and Cade Foster, Alabama's regular place-kicker, had already missed three field goals.

Disgruntled, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn thought to himself, "You know, we haven't had a whole lot of luck with reviews anyway," as Alabama took the field for its shot at a game-winning field goal. Malzahn toyed with telling his special-teams coach to go for the block, but he knew he wanted to call a timeout to ice the kicker and survey his options anyway. Better go a different route, he decided.

"If they missed the kick, what was the worst that could happen?" said Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead.

"Put CD back there," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford recalled hearing Malzahn say during the timeout, pulling safety Ryan Smith off the return in favor of Chris Davis, a speedy cornerback and part-time punt returner. Malzahn called Davis, a senior who has gone through his fair share of ups and downs, "a champion" in his book. On Saturday night with the wind blowing in his face and a title hanging in the balance, Davis was.

Cody Mandell fielded the snap and dropped the ball into place for Griffith, who swung his right leg through cleanly. The ball floated on line for what seemed like an eternity to the orange-and-blue-clad fans standing in their seats. Then it dipped short and to the right, where Davis waited with open arms.

"I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run," Davis said.

Alabama simulated field goal returns like Davis' every Friday during the season. "We just imagine," said tight end Brian Vogler, who is responsible for sealing the outside edge of the line during kicks. But there's never anyone actually there to return the ball, he said.

"You practice it so many times and when it happens you're not expecting that kind of speed," Vogler explained.

Davis started to his right up the center of the field before turning back left toward the sideline. He knew if he got to the edge the bigger guys for Alabama wouldn't be able to catch him. Vogler, all 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds of him, took a bad angle, leaped at Davis, and missed.

"I was running down the field expecting a blindside [hit] out of nowhere," Vogler said, "and when I finally got the opportunity, I was kind of in shock I hadn't gotten laid out."

Adrian Hubbard, Alabama's 252-pound linebacker, didn't stand a chance either as he whiffed on the tackle.

Smith, in a stroke of irony, was a key part of the return as he laid out Alabama offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio.

"I made a good block," Smith said excitedly. "Y'all go check it out."

Mandell, the punter and holder, got one hand on Davis' jersey, but wound up only touching history rather than stopping it. Davis never broke stride as he passed Mandell and found daylight, running freely into the end zone for the game-winning score before being hugged to the turf by his own teammates as the stadium erupted in applause.

"When I looked back, I said I couldn't believe this," Davis said. "When I was running, I said, 'God is good.'"

It was like it happened in slow motion, McCarron said. His helmet on and his emotions hidden from view, he sprinted off toward the locker room as fans rushed the field.

"It's almost like a video game," McCarron said. "That's something you do on 'Madden.'"

"I was just shocked," said Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. "I didn't think that big of a play would have been caused by that."

Said Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae: "I lost it. I ran and found myself on the other sideline and got to see some of my guys and hugged them. It was just an amazing experience, one that will last me for a lifetime."

The floodgates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium became a crazed sea of blue and orange fans celebrating what will go down as the most memorable Iron Bowl in history. An Auburn staffer would have to save Malzahn from being hit by Aubie, the Tigers' crowd-surfing mascot, during a postgame interview.

[+] EnlargeAuburn
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThe game over, the field turned into one very large celebration.
"I don't think I've ever been part of a sequence like that with so much on the line in that part of the game," Malzahn said, not realizing he had won the Western Division until the moment he shook Saban's hand after the game.

Meanwhile, Davis was being suffocated at the bottom of a dog pile.

"It was hard to breathe," he said. "I knew it was coming. What else do you expect when you're doing something like that? I'm proud of my teammates. It might seem like I'm the hero in this moment, but they also are too -- offense and defense and special teams. We fought together and we got the W."

"If you weren't there," Ford said, "I can't really explain it to you."

It took at least an hour for players and fans to finally leave the field. The cleanup of their celebration would continue into Monday. Toomer's Corner remained painted white with rolls upon rolls of toilet paper prior to Malzahn's news conference that day at 11:30 a.m. In fact, most of the campus remained covered in the tissue.

When Davis went to his geology class that morning, he received a standing ovation. It was like a scene from a movie: the team that couldn't win a single conference game and fired its entire staff from the season before, suddenly beats the top-ranked team in the country and its star player goes to class to a round of applause.

Davis and his teammates better get used to it. This is their legacy now. No one who saw what happened that Saturday night in Jordan-Hare will ever forget.

AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs hired Gus Malzahn to be the Tigers’ new head coach last December, he had visions of the 2010 season.

He wanted to get back to competing for championships, and more importantly, he wanted to beat Alabama. Malzahn, who was offensive coordinator for the 2010 team, brought that winning mentality back to the Plains. It was evident in everything he did, and Jacobs noticed it during his first practice.

[+] EnlargeDee Ford
AP Photo/Dave MartinSenior Dee Ford is a veteran of Auburn's title team and sees some similarities with this year's team.
“He hadn’t changed a bit,” Jacobs said. “He was still tenacious and a perfectionist. When it’s not right, he runs it over again. When it’s one step out of place, he runs it over again. It was just 2010 all over again.”

But Malzahn didn’t have the same group of players he had in 2010. There were similarities -- a junior college quarterback who could both run and pass, a talented but underrated offensive line, a defense that overachieved at times -- but ultimately, it wasn’t the same team.

“You know that team was a special veteran group, and we’re not anywhere close to being veteran,” Malzahn said after the Mississippi State game on Sept. 14. “We’re still a work in progress, but it’s a good progress. I really like where we are as a team. We’re going to have the chance to improve each game, and I think our young guys will grow up and get better.”

That was then. This is now. Auburn rallied to win that game against Mississippi State in the final minutes but lost to LSU the next week. Since that loss, the Tigers have won seven straight games, and the confidence has grown with every victory. It’s a different team now than the one who needed a game-winning drive to beat the Bulldogs early in the season.

“Each game they have gotten better,” Malzahn said. “As a coaching staff, we learned a lot about our team the first half of the season. We weren’t there yet. We’re getting closer. There are still areas of improvement. We’re going to have to play our best game [Saturday], and we’re going to have to improve from the last game that we had.”

Malzahn, more than most, knows that playing your best game will be only the first step to beating No. Alabama. He learned that in 2010.

Auburn was undefeated and ranked No. 1, but was still a four-point underdog to the Crimson Tide. In that game, Alabama jumped out to a 24-0 lead, but Cam Newton led an improbable second-half comeback and Auburn found a way to win, 28-27. It had been their M.O. all season.

Defensive end Dee Ford was a part of that 2010 team, and he sees a lot of similarities in this year’s Auburn team and their will to win.

“We win very ugly, but we take it,” Ford said. “We weren’t able to do that at LSU, but I see this team just finding a way to win no matter what the circumstance -- just like in 2010.”

“That’s been something that I’ve been very impressed with our team,” Malzahn said. “They’ve found different ways to win. Sometimes it’s the offense. Sometimes it’s the defense or special teams. And in close games, they’ve won in some real pressure moments.”

The end result in 2010 was a BCS national championship. The Tigers need a little help to accomplish that this year, but they’re not looking ahead to that right now. They’re focused on Saturday’s Iron Bowl.

“We’re just the Auburn 2013 football team,” defensive tackle Nosa Eguae said. “We’re priding ourselves on that, and we can’t wait to finish this thing the right way.”

Planning for success: Auburn

November, 27, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. -- The most anticipated matchup in Saturday’s Iron Bowl is the SEC’s leading rushing attack versus the league’s stiffest run defense. It’s Nick Marshall and Auburn’s trio of running backs versus All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley and the Crimson Tide’s front seven.

But nobody’s talking about AJ McCarron and how Auburn plans to stop the Alabama offense. If you ask Auburn, the players will tell you it starts with generating a pass rush, and the Tigers have one of the nation’s premier pass rushers in defensive end Dee Ford.

“You change the game when you get to the quarterback,” Ford said. “That was the key last game. We had them on their heels, and they became very predictable. That's what we've got to do against McCarron. He hasn't been hit all year, so we want to see what he can do after being hit a few times.”

[+] EnlargeDee Ford
AP Photo/Dave MartinDee Ford and the Auburn defensive line hope to pressure Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron.
Against Georgia, Ford wreaked havoc against quarterback Aaron Murray. He finished with a sack, a forced fumble and six quarterback hurries. The senior missed the first two games, but he’s among the SEC leaders with eight sacks on the season.

But getting to McCarron will be no easy task. Alabama’s improved offensive line is one of the reasons why the man they’re protecting has emerged as a serious contender for the Heisman Trophy.

Auburn would love nothing more than to prevent him from winning the prestigious award, but they’re more concerned about stopping him.

“We’re not trying to take that from him,” Ford said. “We want to stop him. I’m not thinking about him not winning the Heisman, but he’s not going to come in here and just have his way.”

What Auburn needs to do to win: Play four quarters. Auburn had been one of the SEC’s best fourth-quarter teams until its epic collapse against Georgia the last time out. The Tigers can’t afford a repeat of that if they expect to knock off the nation’s No. 1 team. The Alabama-LSU game showed that if you don’t play four quarters against the Tide, it’s going to be nearly impossible to beat them. LSU looked like the better team through the first two quarters in that game, but they came out flat in the second half and couldn’t recover. Auburn needs to play to the crowd, jump out to an early lead and sustain it through four quarters.

Players to watch

FB Jay Prosch: He doesn’t get many touches, but Prosch has still been instrumental in Auburn’s ground game this season. He’s a true fullback -- one that can block. He certainly has the attention of Nick Saban, who called Prosch “a tough, physical guy” earlier this week.

DT Nosa Eguae: Not only was Eguae around for the 2010 Iron Bowl, Auburn’s last win over Alabama, he started for the Tigers in that game. Experience like that is invaluable, and he’ll be asked to lead by example this week as Auburn attempts to replicate the 2010 result.


“As Coach [Gus] Malzahn says, we started in the outhouse and now we're headed to the penthouse. We're just looking to get better and looking to execute what we have to do to come out with a win.” -- Tre Mason on Auburn's mindset heading into the Iron Bowl
AUBURN, Ala. -- Coming out of high school, Carl Lawson didn’t know Robert Nkemdiche personally, but he was impressed when he watched his highlight tape.

“I always go around and watch different people’s film,” Lawson said. “I really liked his film, and he’s a great player.”

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstFreshman defensive end Carl Lawson had two sacks in Auburn's win over Ole Miss.
The two were always grouped in the same circles. They were both talented defensive ends coming out of the state of Georgia. They both committed to SEC schools. In the 2013 ESPN 300 recruiting rankings, Nkemdiche was the top-ranked player overall, and Lawson was No. 2.

“I didn’t really want to pay attention to it,” Lawson said of the rankings. “There’s competition for me against any defensive end because I want to one day work to be the best, but I’ve got a long way to go.”

On Saturday, Lawson had his chance to show he was the better prospect of the two when Auburn hosted No. 24 Ole Miss.

Early in the season, all the talk was on the Rebels’ freshman phenom and how dominant he had been through the first four games. Saturday’s game, however, belonged to Lawson. The Auburn star finished with six tackles, 3.5 for loss, with two sacks. Nkemdiche, meanwhile, had four tackles but none for loss.

“The last few weeks [Lawson] has been improving,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He just turned loose and played his best game. It was a very complete game -- not just rushing the passer, but (against) the run. If he keeps improving, he has a chance to be a really good player.”

Lawson originally committed to Auburn in March of 2012 when Gene Chizik was still coach. When Chizik was fired, Lawson began to look around at other schools, but Malzahn and his staff convinced him to stick to his original commitment. As a senior, Lawson had 44 tackles for loss and 27 sacks.

As expected, the expectations were high for the Peach State star when he arrived on campus over the summer. Physically, he was dominant -- even as a freshman -- but mentally, he still had work to do.

“When we recruited him, we felt like his motor was really something else,” Malzahn said. “He plays extremely hard. College football is a different game than high school, and it took him a couple of weeks to get everything down.”

Through the first four games, Lawson was rotating in at defensive end, and though he had his moments, he easily played his best game of his career against Ole Miss. He lived up to the hype and showed the raw talent that everybody had been raving about. The scary part is he's just beginning to tap into his potential.

“That guy is going to be a mammoth player by the time he leaves here,” defensive tackle Nosa Eguae said. “He’s just continuing to get better every single week. He’s like a sponge, he just soaks in everything. He asks a lot of questions. He just wants to be the best player he can be.”

Added teammate Gabe Wright: “Carl’s a man-child. There was nothing holding him back physically, it was just maybe a little bit mental. Carl’s a remarkable player. I’m sure the Auburn family and the media knows that now. He’s been doing that at practice consecutive days, and I’m proud of him. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

After the game, Lawson was elated, but he knows he still has more work to do if he wants to be the best defensive end in college football. Saturday was just a start.

“It was a very good night,” Lawson said. “It means a lot, but I know there’s a lot of things I need to go fix and get ready for practice tomorrow.”
Auburn defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker will not return to the field this season and will receive a medical redshirt, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said on Tuesday.

Whitaker started the last two seasons for the Tigers and was expected to be an anchor on the defensive line this year before he underwent surgery on his right knee during fall camp. The senior was working his way back but will now wait and return in 2014.

"Jeff has been playing banged up the last year or so anyway," Malzahn said. "I think it will be good for him to be healthy. That is our goal -- to get him healthy for next year and have a chance to have his best season."

In 35 appearances with Auburn, Whitaker had 44 tackles, three for a loss, and a forced fumble.

The staff recently moved Nosa Eguae from defensive end to defensive tackle, and he joins a rotation that includes two-year starter Gabe Wright, junior college transfer Ben Bradley and true freshman Montravius Adams.

Malzahn also announced on Tuesday that linebacker Justin Garrett will not play this weekend because of a foot injury. He has already missed three games this season, and the Auburn coach said Garrett will be "week-to-week" going forward.

On a more positive note, linebacker Cassanova McKinzy returned to practice Tuesday after suffering a neck injury over the weekend. He had to be carted off the field.

"That was a scary deal, and it looks like it is going to turn out good," Malzahn said.

The Tigers will host Western Carolina on Saturday at 1 p.m. CT.

Helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. -- The Auburn players had a week off to prepare for No. 24 Ole Miss, and it showed. The Tigers played well in all phases and pulled the upset, 30-22. Now let’s hand out some helmet stickers from the game.

QB Nick Marshall: Looking at the stat line -- 11 of 17 for 93 yards passing -- it doesn’t look like Marshall deserves to be on this list. But it was what he did with his legs that earned him a helmet sticker. The dual-threat quarterback ran 14 times for 140 yards and two touchdowns. He became the first Auburn signal caller to rush for more than 100 yards since Cam Newton did it against Georgia in 2010, and he’s also the fourth different AU player to rush for more than 100 yards in a game this season, a first in school history. Marshall had only 148 yards rushing with no scores through the first four games, but he nearly matched it with Saturday’s performance.

The Auburn defensive line: Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace threw for 336 yards Saturday, but he also was running for his life most of the night. Auburn finished with 17 quarterback hurries and sacked Wallace six times. It was as many sacks as the Tigers had all of last season. But it’s hard to single out just one player. Starters Dee Ford and Gabe Wright each had two sacks, and true freshman Carl Lawson recorded the first two sacks of his young career, including one late that put the game away. Nosa Eguae, starting for the first time at defensive tackle, also played a solid game, with three tackles and 1.5 stops for loss.

DB Robenson Therezie: It was the play of the game. With Ole Miss driving to tie or take the lead late in the first quarter, Therezie intercepted a short pass and returned it 78 yards for a touchdown. Auburn went up 13-3, and the Rebels were forced to play catch-up the rest of the way. It was Therezie’s third interception of the season and his first since the season opener. Known for making plays, he made the biggest one of the season for this Auburn defense. Therezie also drew the assignment of having to cover Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell for most of the night, and he held the star freshman to just four catches for 45 yards.

Honorable mention: RB Tre Mason

AUBURN, Ala. -- When Ole Miss was shutout by No. 1 Alabama last week, everybody chalked it up to the Crimson Tide’s stingy defense. Quarterback Bo Wallace and the Rebels would surely get back on track against Auburn and the SEC’s 13th-ranked defense, right?


The Auburn defense responded. After giving up 456 yards and 35 points to LSU two weeks ago, the Tigers took a week off and returned with a chip on their shoulder. They produced six sacks and two interceptions to help the Tigers upend Ole Miss, 30-22.

“There’s no doubt that they improved from LSU to here, against an explosive offense, and I’m very proud of them,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.

It started up front. Auburn had as many sacks Saturday as it did all of last season. Veterans Dee Ford and Gabe Wright each had two sacks apiece, and true freshman Carl Lawson, the No. 2 player in the 2013 ESPN 300, added two sacks of his own.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsFreshman defensive end Carl Lawson had his coming out party with two sacks against Ole Miss.
“I feel like the pressure has been out on us by our coaches that it was time we stepped up,” Wright said. “In the LSU loss, we felt like the defensive line could have stepped up. I feel like we took a step forward tonight, and we’ll keep improving through the course of the year.”

“We did a great job,” Ford added. “We came into this thing with the motive to pressure the quarterback, and that’s what we did.”

The game was extra special for Lawson. He had shown flashes in practice but had not quite put it all together on the field. The 6-foot-2, 258-pound defensive end finally lived up to all the hype with his performance against the Rebels.

It was Lawson’s sack on fourth down in the final minutes that ultimately sealed the victory for the Tigers.

“I knew that we needed another stop,” he said. “Coach told me to go out there, and I had to pin my ears back and go to the quarterback, so that’s what I did.”

During the off week, the AU coaching staff tinkered with the defensive line and made some changes to the depth chart. It moved Nosa Eguae from defensive end to defensive tackle and made him a starter. Eguae thrived in the new role with three tackles and 1.5 for loss. As a team, Auburn finished with 14 tackles for loss.

“It was huge,” Eguae said. “In a game like this, we had to step up. We had to go out there and make plays. I feel like we did that. Guys continue to get better every single today, and it’s a testament of the work we’re putting in Monday through Friday. Guys are really buying into our system, and guys are reaping the benefits.”

The Tigers move to 4-1 on the season, just two wins shy of bowl eligibility, but their sole focus is on the next game.

“We’re on the rise, as Coach Malzahn says, but we don’t even need to think about that,” Lawson said. “We need to take it one game, one step at a time.”

Planning for success: Auburn

October, 3, 2013
Hugh Freeze says the most plays he’s ever run in a game is 117 when he was a head coach at Lambuth University. Don’t expect either team to run that many when his Ole Miss squad plays at Auburn on Saturday, but there could still be a high number of plays when it’s all said and done.

Both teams run an up-tempo style offense that makes it difficult on the opposing defense and puts a premium on conditioning.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesOle Miss should expect a healthy dose of Corey Grant on Saturday.
“I’d like to think we’re in pretty good condition, but I’m sure Hugh’s team is, too,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We both rely on tempo, and I think we’ll be somewhat familiar on both sides with the styles.”

Auburn had the luxury of an off week coming into the game, whereas Ole Miss had to play at Alabama, but both teams will be ready to play Saturday night. It’s a critical game in the SEC West, and one with bowl implications.

What Auburn needs to do to win: Auburn looks to be as healthy now as it has been all season, but the question is how well will it play together on Saturday? The Tigers need continuity on both sides of the football. Offensively, the key will be the running game. Ole Miss has been susceptible to the run this season, and Auburn has three talented backs who can take advantage. The X-factor might be Corey Grant. He was banged up against LSU, but if he’s back at full health, he could be dangerous against the Rebels.

What Ole Miss needs to do to win: With road wins at Vanderbilt and Texas, Ole Miss was one of the most talked-about teams in college football. It can’t let one loss to Alabama derail the train of momentum it's currently riding. The Rebels have a very potent offense, and although they were shut out last weekend, they need to continue to do what they do. Expect a heavy dose of running back Jeff Scott, and quarterback Bo Wallace will have to play to better if they want to leave with a victory. He struggled against the Crimson Tide, but he’s capable of a big game.

Players to watch

Auburn RB Tre Mason: I mentioned Grant, and both he and Cameron Artis-Payne will have a bigger role in the offense this week, but don’t be fooled -- Mason is still the man. Auburn went to him early and often against LSU, and it could be more of the same this weekend.

Ole Miss LB Serderius Bryant: When Denzel Nkemdiche went down with an injury in the season opener, somebody had to step up. That somebody was Bryant. In just three games this season, he leads the team with 35 tackles. Nkemdiche returned against Alabama, but Bryant still led the team with nine tackles against the Tide.

Auburn DT Nosa Eguae: It was announced this week that Eguae was moving from defensive end to defensive tackle, and he’ll get the start Saturday against Ole Miss. Listed at 269 pounds, he’s a little undersized, but it’s a huge opportunity for him in his first start of the season.


“It is very critical. We have the best fans in college football. That atmosphere, especially in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State, was second to none. We will need four quarters of that, and that will be a huge advantage for us with our crowd.” -- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn on the atmosphere inside Jordan-Hare Stadium


Tessitore assesses candidates in SEC West
Paul Finebaum and ESPN's Joe Tessitore look at SEC West for 2015 football season.