Auburn Tigers: Ricardo Louis

SEC's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
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Ten of the Top 25 tailgating schools reside in the SEC, including all of the top six. Does this surprise anyone?
AUBURN, Ala. -- When asked about newcomer D'haquille Williams, the nation’s top junior college player, Nick Marshall said he has been very impressive to this point, but the senior quarterback was quick to point out that Auburn has a number of other great wide receivers this season, too.

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Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsTop wideout Sammie Coates and the rest of the Tigers' receiving corps from 2013 return this season.
That’s because with the exception of Trovon Reed, who moved to cornerback this spring, the Tigers have their entire receiving corps back from last season.

Sammie Coates, the team leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns, is back for his junior season. Ricardo Louis, the hero from the Georgia game, has returned this spring with an added chip on his shoulder. Quan Bray and Marcus Davis, two reliable slot receivers from a year ago, are both back to solidify the position again in 2014.

Throw in former ESPN 300 stars Tony Stevens and Dominic Walker, who are both coming off their first seasons on the Plains, and what’s not to like if you’re Marshall?

“I think the biggest thing is the depth,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “That is the biggest difference [from last spring]. We’ve got two, sometimes three at each position that at least have a good idea of what is going on. We’re trying to give those guys all a chance to show what they can do. That’s a good thing moving forward.”

Last spring, Bray was Auburn’s top returning wide receiver after catching only 14 passes in 2012. Nobody else on the roster had more than 10 catches the season before. Needless to say, the position was a huge question mark.

That’s no longer the case. There still might be questions as to who the go-to target will be -- though Coates filled that role admirably in 2013 -- but for the first time since the Tigers won the BCS title in 2010, there’s depth and experience at receiver.

"This year, I think it'll be more like everybody eats,” Stevens said. “Right now, we've got so many weapons on offense from the running back position to the offensive line to the skills. If you stop one of us, then you've got plenty more receivers in the slot, or at running back with Cam [Artis-Payne], Peyton [Barber] and Corey [Grant].”

The surplus at wide receiver has also led to more competition this spring, and more competition only makes the position better.

"Coach [Dameyune] Craig is really working hard to make us become the best receiving corps in the nation,” Louis said. “We do a lot of drills on and off the field. Times we don't have practice, we’ll be out together doing drills."

The orchestrator of the extra workouts has been Marshall. The dual-threat QB wants to improve as a passer, so he has made it a point to spend time with his receivers this offseason. Whether it’s after practice or in study hall, he’s taking them out to the field, working on specific routes and coaching them on what he wants them to do.

"We know to have a good season between quarterback and receiver you have to have a good relationship off the field and on the field,” Louis said.

The extra time has brought them closer to Marshall, but it’s also brought them closer to each other. Despite the fact that they’re all battling for playing time this spring, they still want to see each other do well.

“It’s a brotherhood for us,” Davis said. “Everybody’s together. Everybody wants to see each other do good, so we just correct each other and make plays. Everybody feels good when their brother makes a play.”

And the more plays made, the better Auburn will be this fall.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn’s five early enrollees arrived in January, their heads were spinning. They were balancing school and studying with workouts, meetings and everything else that comes with playing football. They went from high school, or junior college in some cases, to the daily grind at an SEC program.

It was a difficult adjustment and one that’s even harder now that spring practice has started, but each of them has a unique opportunity in front of him. Everybody gets a chance in the spring, and it’s no different for the newcomers.

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Courtesy of Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C.Juco WR transfer D'haquille Williams has made a big first impression as an early enrollee at Auburn.
“Each guy is a little bit different that came in,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “There will be a few of them that will rotate with the first group or with the second group. The great thing about it is everybody’s getting reps. Everybody’s learning -- the offense, defense and special teams -- really at the same pace.”

The headliner of the group is wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He was the nation’s top junior college player a season ago and one of the more anticipated recruits ever to sign with Auburn. It was hard to miss his 6-foot-2, 216-pound frame the first day of practice, and he’s certainly impressed the coaches through the first week.

“You can tell why we needed him and why we wanted him,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He’s got God-given abilities that are really good, and I think he’ll really add value to our receiving corps.”

Williams has been one of the players who has rotated in with the first group early on, and he also has worked some with the kick and punt returners. His addition plus the return of Sammie Coates, Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis gives the Tigers a talented and deep group of wide receivers for quarterback Nick Marshall to throw to.

“[Williams] is very impressive,” Marshall said. “He’s a guy who will make a play for you when the ball is in the air. We’ve got great receivers this year. It’s going to be sick watching them.”

Although it’s Williams who has grabbed most of the attention, his junior college teammate Derrick Moncrief has been every bit as impressive through the first part of spring. The former Prattville (Ala.) star has played the lion’s share at boundary safety with Joshua Holsey still on the mend, and he has made the most of his opportunity.

“Moncrief has been an extremely pleasant surprise,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Thursday. “When you get a junior college player who’s not played in your system, you always wonder how long it’s going to take him to transition. He’s making some mistakes out there, as you would expect, but I think at this point, he is way beyond all the new safeties.”

The problem will be what to do with Moncrief when Holsey returns, but that’s a good problem to have, especially considering the lack of depth back there last year.

The only other junior college player to enroll early was offensive lineman Xavier Dampeer, and he, too, has drawn praise from the coaching staff. He’s currently backing up Reese Dismukes at center, a position that’s critical to the offense.

“He’s getting reps,” Malzahn said. “His snaps have been good. I thought his communication has been good the first few days. He seems like a really football-savvy guy. I think he likes to compete, so he’ll have a chance.”

For Chris Laye and Stanton Truitt, the two younger enrollees, the adjustment has been a little more difficult. It has been a little over two months since they finished their high school careers, and now they’re in college, practicing with the defending SEC champs.

Still, they’re getting an opportunity this spring and have an advantage over the rest of the 2014 signees who won’t arrive until the summer.

At the end of the day, the rookies are always going to make a mistake here or there. It’s that way at every school. But through the first week, Auburn’s early enrollees have not only shown potential. They’ve shown that they belong.

Opening spring camp: Auburn

March, 17, 2014
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Schedule: The reigning SEC champions will begin their title defense on Tuesday when they open spring practice in Auburn, Ala. They will work out every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday before wrapping up with the A-day scrimmage on Saturday, April 19 at 1 p.m. ET.

What’s new: After a complete overhaul of the coaching staff last offseason, Auburn’s current coaches will all be back for a second year on the Plains. There were rumors involving head coach Gus Malzahn (University of Texas, Cleveland Browns), as well as some of his assistants, but now that the dust has settled, they will be one of five coaching staffs in the SEC that will remain intact next season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCan Gus Malzahn and QB Nick Marshall improve on Auburn's successful last season?
On the move: Word out of Auburn is that there’s a strong possibility that wide receiver Trovon Reed moves to cornerback this spring. The former ESPN 300 star, who caught nine passes for 98 yards as a junior, hinted at the move in January via Instagram, but Malzahn refuted the rumor, calling it “premature.” The news will likely become official Monday when Malzahn holds his pre-spring news conference. The other name to watch is Johnathan Ford. There has been talk that the sophomore cornerback will return to his natural running back position, but the staff has also considered moving him to safety this spring.

On the mend: Safety Joshua Holsey injured his knee in practice just days before the Texas A&M game and missed the rest of the season. It was a costly blow to an already thin Auburn secondary, and with the loss of three seniors back there, his return next season is paramount. However, he’s questionable for spring and will likely not participate in any contact drills. Offensive lineman Jordan Diamond is also expected to be no-contact per Malzahn. There’s been no word on the progress of wide receiver Jaylon Denson, who tore his patellar tendon early in the season against LSU, but he’s considered doubtful for spring practice.

New faces: Auburn will have five early enrollees this spring but none bigger than wide receiver D’haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player, and he has the size, skill and potential to make an immediate impact for the Tigers. The next month will give him the opportunity to get acclimated, work with the quarterbacks and learn the offense. His teammate in junior college, Derrick Moncrief, is also expected to push for early playing time at either safety or the Star position. He’s the lone newcomer on defense.

Question marks: Auburn’s defense struggled at times last season, but it still improved under first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson. The stats prove it. However, Johnson will be the first to tell you that his unit needs to play better if the Tigers want to have any chance of duplicating last year’s success. It won’t be easy, though, as they need to replace five starters on defense including the team leader in sacks, Dee Ford, and the team leader in tackles, Chris Davis. With plenty of depth up front and budding stars like Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, the defensive line shouldn’t be a problem, but the secondary is a different story. The coaches will have to mix and match back there before reinforcements arrive this summer.

Key battle: When Greg Robinson left early for the NFL, it didn’t come as a surprise -- he’s a surefire top-five pick -- but it left a gaping hole at left tackle for Auburn. Malzahn said that offensive line coach J.B. Grimes will open it up to Shon Coleman, Robinson’s backup last fall, and Patrick Miller, a former starter at right tackle. But there’s more. The second-year coach also mentioned Avery Young and Robert Leff as possibilities to win the job. Young is the one to keep an eye on. He’s entrenched as the starter at right tackle after taking over midway through the year, but there’s a good chance the staff moves him over to left tackle at some point this spring, especially if neither Coleman nor Miller emerge as the favorite.

Breaking out: On Friday, I wrote about running back Peyton Barber and defensive end Elijah Daniel (read here), who could both emerge this spring, but junior wide receiver Ricardo Louis is another player who falls in the same category. He’s more established than the other two, finishing second on the team last season with 28 receptions for 325 yards, but he has yet to live up to his potential. With Williams now on campus, along with ESPN 300 wide receiver Stanton Truitt, it might be now or never for Louis.

Don’t forget about: On the subject of breakout performances, who can forget what Justin Garrett did last spring? He impressed the coaches so much so that he earned a starting role on Auburn’s defense heading into the fall. The problem was that he never made a start. Multiple injuries kept him off the field and prevented him from ever truly making an impact last season. The junior accepted a medical hardship and is now eager to return this spring, finally healthy. The coaches loved his versatility at the Star position, and if he can replicate what he did last spring, he could push Robenson Therezie for playing time.

All eyes on: There are plenty of talented players and key pieces on Auburn’s 2014 roster, but the Tigers will go where Nick Marshall takes them. The senior quarterback was absent last spring after transferring from junior college and arriving in the summer, but it didn’t seem to faze him during the season. He threw for 1,976 yards, rushed for 1,068 yards and combined to score 37 touchdowns. Now he’s a legitimate Heisman candidate heading into the upcoming season. The scary part is that he’s still improving as a passer. That’s the area where the coaches want to work with him this spring, but with all of his receivers back and the additions of Williams and Truitt, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t take the next step as an all-around quarterback.
This is Part V of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- There are still five months until Auburn’s season opener, but with spring practice beginning Monday, football is officially back. Spring is an opportunity for coaches to see what they have, a time when position battles are won, and undoubtedly there will be a player or two, off the radar, who makes a name for himself.

Last year, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and linebacker Justin Garrett turned heads during spring practice.

Artis-Payne, a junior college transfer who arrived in January, earned offensive MVP honors at the spring game and carved out a role in the Tigers’ backfield. Garrett, meanwhile, found a home at the Star position. His performance, highlighted by a fumble return for a touchdown in the spring game, earned him a starting role before injuries derailed his season.

Now, as Auburn heads into Year 2 under coach Gus Malzahn, here are two candidates poised to break out this spring.

Peyton Barber, RB, freshman: When you’re high school teammates with Carl Lawson, the No. 2 player in the nation, it’s sometimes hard to create your own identity. It’s even harder when you commit to the same school. But that’s the route Barber took, and despite redshirting his first season, he’s out to prove that he’s more than Lawson’s high school teammate. The 5-foot-11, 217-pound back is built similar to Artis-Payne and earned rave reviews from the coaching staff throughout his freshman season. He didn’t ever play a down, but his talent was on display every day at practice. Former running back Tre Mason described Barber as ‘big, fast and quick on his feet.’ Now, with Mason gone, there’s an opportunity for the Georgia native. If he continues to play well and impresses the coaches this spring, he could earn himself some playing time next season. And, as if he needs it, there’s extra motivation for Barber knowing that ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas will arrive on campus this summer.

Elijah Daniel, DE, sophomore: The easy pick for the breakout player this spring would be Lawson. As mentioned above, he was a top recruit, and of the freshman defensive linemen who played last season, he showed the most promise. Most have already tabbed him as the replacement for Dee Ford at defensive end. But let’s not forget about Daniel. He finished the season with just nine tackles, but he was second on the team with 11 quarterback hurries and fourth with 2.5 sacks. The former ESPN 300 prospect seemed to play better as the season progressed, and his role increased because of it. He, too, will be in the mix to replace Ford this spring, and at the end of the day, the best player will play. It doesn’t matter how many stars you had from recruiting services -- though Daniel was pretty good in his own right -- the job will be won on the field. The best-case scenario for Auburn is that both Daniel and Lawson have breakout performances this spring, and the battle lingers on into the fall. The harder the choice, the better the team will be.

Other candidates: WR Ricardo Louis and S Derrick Moncrief

Room to improve: Wide receiver

February, 20, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is part four in a weeklong series looking at Auburn’s top five position groups with room to improve.

AUBURN, Ala. -- With Nick Marshall back, Jeremy Johnson waiting in the wings and four-star QB Sean White expected to arrive this summer, quarterback is one position that Auburn doesn’t have to worry about. If anything, it will be improved from last season as Marshall will have a chance to go through spring practice for the first time.

The key will be his development as a passer, though. He led all SEC quarterbacks in rushing last year, but if there’s an area where he can improve, it’s throwing the football.

“We will see where we’re at with the talents around him,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “We really feel like we can be effective in the passing game and we can be more balanced, but at the same time, we’re going to play to our strengths.”

The strengths last year included Tre Mason and a dominant offensive line. It didn’t include a consistent crop of wide receivers. If Marshall wants to take the next step as a quarterback, it’s on the receivers, old and new, to step up and play better.

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Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAuburn's Sammie Coates might not be a prototypical go-to wideout, but he will likely be Nick Marshall's top target this fall.
Battling for No. 1: It was a breakout year for Sammie Coates. The sophomore had 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns after catching just six passes the season before. He might not be your typical go-to wide receiver, but he had a connection with Marshall that can’t be taught. He’ll be leaned on heavily again this season. After Coates, there are a handful of receivers who have potential but have yet to play to their abilities. Ricardo Louis is the perfect example. He showed what he can do against Georgia, catching four passes for 131 yards and a touchdown, but the next week he had just two catches for negative yards. The talent is there, but can he put it together? The biggest surprise last year was the play of freshman Marcus Davis. He wasn’t highly touted coming out of high school, but he made some clutch catches during the season and finished third on the team in receptions (23).

Strength in numbers: With Quan Bray, Trovon Reed and Melvin Ray all back along with the three players mentioned above, there isn’t a lack of options at wide receiver for Auburn. Bray was second on the team with three touchdown receptions, and Ray caught his first touchdown on the biggest stage, the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. The Tigers also have a pair of talented freshmen -- Tony Stevens and Dominic Walker -- who hope to improve from Year 1 to Year 2. They were both ranked in the ESPN 300 when they signed last February. The biggest boost could come from the return of Jaylon Denson. The junior was starting for the Tigers until he tore his ACL in game four against LSU. Denson wasn’t known as a pass-catcher, but he was as good a downfield blocker as they had on the team.

New on the scene: It’s fair to say that Auburn’s best wide receiver hasn’t even been mentioned yet. He hasn’t played a down for the Tigers, but D'haquille Williams has the size, skill and potential to emerge as the go-to guy in a crowded group of receivers. He was the top junior college player in the country, he enrolled in January, and assistant coach Dameyune Craig tabbed him as a player who could make a Jameis Winston-like impact when he gets to the Plains. High praise for a kid who has yet to catch a pass yet, but he’s not the only newcomer who could make an early impact. ESPN 300 athlete Stanton Truitt is thought to be the fastest player in Auburn’s 2014 class, and even if he doesn’t break the rotation at wide receiver his first year, he could help the Tigers in the return game.
Editor's note: This is Part IV in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Auburn faces this offseason.

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

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

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

Nobody ever emerged in that role for the Tigers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season wrap: Auburn

January, 15, 2014
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It wasn't the Hollywood ending Auburn was hoping for, but first-year coach Gus Malzahn and his team enjoyed a season that screenwriters couldn't have scripted better if they tried. The Tigers' season was full of comebacks, miracles and moments that will live on forever.

The Tigers, who were 3-9 a season ago, nearly pulled off the greatest turnaround in college football history. They finished 12-2, upset No. 1 Alabama, won the SEC championship and earned a trip to Pasadena, Calif., for the Vizio BCS National Championship.

The magical run came to an end in the title game as Florida State scored a late touchdown to upend the Tigers, but it was quite a debut for Malzahn and his staff. What could the Auburn coach possibly have in store for Year 2?

Offensive MVP: Auburn led the nation in rushing (328 yards per game), and though the emergence of quarterback Nick Marshall played a key role, it never would have happened without running back Tre Mason. The junior ran for a league-best 1,816 yards, topping Bo Jackson’s single-season school record, and played his best in the biggest games. He rushed for 195 yards and a touchdown in the BCS National Championship.

Defensive MVP: After missing the first two games due to injury, Dee Ford returned with a chip on his shoulder. The senior defensive end recorded seven sacks in his first seven games back and finished second in the SEC with 10.5 sacks on the season. He sacked Johnny Manziel twice in the final minute to preserve a win over Texas A&M and wreaked havoc on the likes of Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron and Jameis Winston in crucial games down the stretch.

Best moment: Auburn provided two of the most memorable moments in college football this season. First, it was the 73-yard Hail Mary caught by Ricardo Louis to stun Georgia in the final minute. Then, just two weeks later, Chris Davis returned a field goal 109 yards on the game’s final play to knock off No. 1 Alabama. Because of the rivalry and the stakes at the time, the edge goes to the field goal return, but both plays will go down in Auburn lore and will be talked about for years to come.

Worst moment: Davis went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. His field goal return against Alabama propelled Auburn to the national championship game, but he was also the one responsible for a missed tackle and critical pass interference penalty on Florida State’s game-winning drive in the BCS title game. The Seminoles went 80 yards in seven plays, and Kelvin Benjamin caught the go-ahead touchdown over Davis with just 13 seconds left.
Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Today's matchup is between Auburn’s wide receivers and Florida State’s defensive backs.

Auburn’s wide receivers: If there was ever a game for Auburn to stick to the run, this would be it. Quarterback Nick Marshall has struggled at times through the air and the Tigers are in for their most challenging test yet against a Florida State secondary that leads the nation in interceptions (25).

Expect a heavy dose of Marshall and Tre Mason running the read-option together like they’ve done all season.

Florida State still has to be wary of Auburn’s big-play ability. It starts with Sammie Coates who has emerged as a go-to wide receiver for the Tigers. He’s one of the fastest players in the SEC, if not the nation, and he leads the team with 38 catches for 841 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s second nationally in yards per catch (22.1) and all seven of his scores have come from more than 35 yards. It was his 39-yard touchdown grab in the final minute against Alabama that put Auburn in position to win that game.

The problem for the Tigers is that nobody has emerged opposite Coates. Freshman Marcus Davis had his moments early in the season, making key catches in critical situations. Ricardo Louis, who hauled in the 73-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to beat Georgia, might be the most dangerous athlete on the team. But neither has been consistent.

When Auburn plays Florida State, it’s going to need a play in the passing game from somebody other than Coates. Whether it’s Davis, Louis or even tight end C.J. Uzomah, who’s healthy again, somebody is going to have to step up and make a play when their number is called. Nothing will come easy, though, against a talented Seminoles’ secondary.

Florida State’s secondary: Only five teams threw less often this season than Auburn, which runs the ball on 72 percent of its plays. When the Tigers do throw, however, they’ve mustered some big plays -- averaging 14 yards per completion.

The recipe for Auburn is pretty simple -- run, run, run, then go deep. It’s a plan that may run into some trouble against Florida State, however. The Seminoles’ secondary is the nation’s best for the second straight season. Lamarcus Joyner leads a deep and talented group that leads the nation in fewest yards per attempt (4.9), most interceptions (25) and lowest QBR allowed (18.1). Opponents have completed just 6 of 36 passes thrown 20 yards or more against them this year, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Coates and Louis both have good size to win some battles downfield, but Florida State can match that physicality with P.J. Williams (6-0, 190) and Ronald Darby (5-11, 190), who have both been exceptional this year. Darby has allowed just seven completions this year and allows the fifth-lowest completion percentage among AQ-conference defensive backs in the nation.

Marshall can keep some plays alive with his legs, giving his receivers a chance to get open downfield, but Florida State hasn’t been burned often this year. Sammy Watkins, Allen Hurns and Devin Street all found some success this season, which should provide a bit of optimism for Coates, but no QB has managed better than 7 yards per attempt against FSU’s secondary all year. In its last eight games, Florida State’s secondary is allowing just 4.5 yards per attempt with 6 TDs and 19 INTs.

Ostendorf: Edge Florida State

Hale: Edge Florida State

Auburn heroics have FSU's attention

December, 27, 2013
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In the days after the Iron Bowl, everyone got their chance to weigh in on the absurd ending that helped send Alabama to its first loss of the season and Auburn on the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

The game came down to a long field goal, which Alabama missed. Auburn’s Chris Davis fielded the kick and returned it for a game-winning touchdown with no time left on the clock.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Don Juan Moore/Getty ImagesJimbo Fisher and FSU are well aware of Auburn's ability to make the seemingly impossible possible.
Even Jimbo Fisher, who knows both programs well and has seen his share of college football insanity, was left speechless.

“I never dreamed of it ending that way,” Fisher said.

Of course, had he been in the same position as Alabama coach Nick Saban, Fisher also might’ve handled things a bit differently.

“You’ve got to go cover [the return man],” Fisher said, adding that he would’ve adjusted his normal field-goal personnel to cover a potential return.

As unexpected as the play was, Fisher said Florida State has practiced it throughout the year, and the Iron Bowl was just another lesson on why the details matter so much.

For Auburn, those finer points have been crucial to reaching Pasadena with a shot at a championship. For Florida State, however, the Seminoles have rarely been tested on those finer points.

FSU has won all 13 games by at least 14 points. It’s average margin of victory -- 43 points -- is the most by any team in the past decade. Since its dominant win over Clemson on Oct. 19, Florida State has been favored by at least three touchdowns in every game.

The fact that Auburn has had to sweat out some close wins and Florida State hasn’t been tested has quickly become one of the most prominent narratives in the run-up to the BCS championship game. If it’s a close contest, certainly the team with the résumé of last-second wins gets an edge, right?

“That can happen to anybody, that can happen to us if we’re not locked in and playing to the last play,” safety Terrence Brooks said of Auburn’s unlikely wins over Georgia and Alabama. “I feel like those things will happen if you’re not doing the things you’re supposed to do and looking at the right thing.”

Even before Florida State began breaking down the film on Auburn, players were all too aware of the fantastic finish to the Iron Bowl, along with another final-minute win over Georgia in which Tigers receiver Ricardo Louis hauled in a 73-yard TD catch after it deflected off two Bulldogs defenders.

So as the Seminoles prepare for their Jan. 6 date with Auburn, they’re focusing on those same details they’ve worked all season in practice -- but they’re also expecting those details to be far more significant than they had been in any previous game this year.

“They’re going to play hard, so every snap we’ve got to be ready to play, whether it’s a trick play or a straight run at us,” linebacker Telvin Smith said. “We’ve got to go out and play until the clock says zero, zero, zero.”

It’s easy enough to say, of course, but the reality is that Florida State has had precious few chances to back up that mantra on the field.

The Seminoles haven’t won a game decided by three points or less since a 16-13 victory over Clemson in 2010. Since Fisher took over as head coach, FSU is just 6-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Auburn, meanwhile, has six wins by eight points or less this season alone.

“It’s a team with a bunch of talent, bunch of intelligence, and they wait for guys to make mistakes,” cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. “They do what they do well, and they do it for 60 minutes. Something has to bend and break, and they don’t. Opponents do.”

If the national championship game is tight, Auburn won’t be rattled. During Florida State’s three weeks of bowl practice, Fisher is doing his best to ensure the Seminoles won’t be either.

There’s no way to properly simulate what the final minutes of a national championship game might be like on the field, and Auburn’s shocking wins over Georgia and Alabama were as unexpected as any in recent college football history. So the job for Fisher won’t be easy, but the Seminoles can return to the fact that working the fundamentals and prepping for a close game isn’t a new addition to the practice routine. They’ve been doing it since the spring -- which is why the past 13 games have all looked so easy.

“Right now we’re at a point where we just want to get better and be able to know our assignments like this because they go fast,” defensive end Christian Jones said. “So we want to be able to know when they come out in something, we know exactly [where to be]. We’re doing a good job staying level-headed.”

SEC helmet stickers: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
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Time to hand out some helmet stickers from the SEC championship game. And considering there were 101 points scored between Auburn and Missouri, don't be offended that the two defensive coordinators didn't make the grade.

Tre Mason, Auburn: Was there any doubt? If one game can win you the Heisman Trophy, then go ahead and hand the award to Auburn's leading tailback. At least get him to New York City for the ceremony. Mason had arguably the best performance in SEC championship game history, running for an incredible 304 yards and four touchdowns against a Missouri defense that hadn't allowed a single team to break the 200-yard rushing mark this season. Mason finished just four yards shy of setting a school record. His 46 carries were the most ever in the league title game, passing former Tennessee Vol Jamal Lewis, who ran the ball 31 times in 1997.

Nick Marshall, Auburn: Auburn coach Gus Malzahn could have asked for nothing more from his quarterback, whom we'll all do well to remember came to The Plains only some six months ago. Marshall was the perfect orchestrator of Malzahn's offense on Saturday afternoon, knowing when to hand the ball off and when to tuck it and run on the zone-read. Auburn ended up with 545 yards on the ground, 101 of which belonged to Marshall, who averaged a staggering 12.0 yards per carry. But what has been most impressive about Marshall is his passing. He still is not the most accurate or developed passer, but when he throws it, he makes it count. Against Missouri, he kept the Tigers' defense honest by completing 9 of 11 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown.

Auburn's big uglies: Applaud Mason, congratulate Marshall and pat Corey Grant, Ricardo Louis and Cameron Artis-Payne on the back. But when you consider the running lanes they all had to work with in Atlanta, it's no wonder those guys went off for more than 500 yards. Reese Dismukes, Greg Robinson and the rest of Auburn's offensive line controlled the point of attack, moving around a defensive front that Alabama coach Nick Saban earlier in the day called the best in the league. Michael Sam's pass-rushing ability was negated and Matt Hoch wasn't allowed to disrupt the running game up the gut. Auburn's 545 rush yards was the most allowed by Missouri in a game since at least 2000.

James Franklin, Missouri: Missouri didn't lose to Auburn because of its offense, and fans certainly can't turn to Franklin and wonder, "What if?" Maty Mauk couldn't have done any better. Maybe no one could have. When you score more than 40 points in a game, you should win. Given the way Missouri's defense struggled to stop Auburn in Atlanta, it's safe to say Franklin kept his team in the game. The senior signal-caller threw for 303 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri: Did anyone else watch Green-Beckham take that screen pass 37 yards for a first down in the second half and see shades of NFL All-Pro Calvin Johnson? The speed. The size. The graceful stride. It was all there when Green-Beckham ran over the middle and past the Auburn defense for the big gain. Auburn's secondary had no answer for the 6-foot-6, 225-pound former five-star receiver, who wound up going off for 144 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions.


ATLANTA -- In the minutes that Tre Mason spent inside Auburn's locker room before Saturday's SEC championship game, he felt as though he was in some sort of a trance. He was fully aware of where he was and what was about to transpire, but his focus was heightened.

He wasn't jittery or anxious. He possessed a calm demeanor, but spoke with power when he finally stood in front of his teammates and told them the plan: They weren't leaving Atlanta without rings.

"I had the eye of the tiger," Mason said.

Once he stepped on the field, Mason had the strength, agility and heart of one, too, as he sliced and diced his way through Missouri's top-ranked rush defense to carry No. 3 Auburn (12-1, 7-1 SEC) to a 59-42 SEC championship victory.

Mason, who has quietly pummeled SEC defenses all season, not only left Atlanta with dreams of bling and a trophy, he left with a few records and some legitimate Heisman Trophy buzz after registering a career-high 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries. The game's MVP set the SEC championship-game record for rushing yards and attempts, while leaving the rest of the SEC's running backs in his dust with a league-high 1,621 yards and a school-record 22 touchdowns on the season.

"Tre told me he was going to do that and he did," receiver Ricardo Louis said. "He's the greatest player here. He's the best running back in the nation."

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
AP Photo/John BazemoreTre Mason had four touchdowns against Missouri and has 13 TDs in his past five games.
Mason couldn't be stopped by a defense that entered the game allowing just 119 rushing yards per contest. Before Saturday, fifth-ranked Missouri (11-2, 7-1) hadn't allowed a team to rush for more than 184 yards or two touchdowns in a single game.

By halftime, Mason had 195 yards, two touchdowns and was averaging a bruising 8.5 yards per carry. With 14 minutes, 26 seconds remaining in the third quarter, his 12-yard, first-down run to Auburn's 37-yard line that gutted the middle of Mizzou's defense pushed him past LSU's Justin Vincent's SEC championship-game record of 201 rushing yards (2003).

With Mizzou worried about athletic quarterback Nick Marshall and that deceptive read-option, Mason barreled his way through a line that featured way too much three-man personnel. He did most of his damage through the middle of the field, churning his legs and exploiting truck-sized holes made by his offensive line, and finished the game with just 2 negative yards. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Mason gained 182 yards inside the tackles, the most by an SEC player this season. Mason also gained 5 yards past the line of scrimmage without being contacted on 14 of his 34 carries inside the tackles. When he made his way to the edge, he embarrassed Mizzou's ends, linebackers and defensive backs with speed that left them panting and strength that left their measly arm tackles futile.

It was only fitting that he sealed the game with a feisty 13-yard touchdown run that carried a few Mizzou defenders into the end zone with 4:22 remaining.

With Mason having his way with Mizzou's defense with every punishing run he mustered, Auburn rushed for a title game-record 545 yards (third-most nationally this season) and had seven rushing touchdowns.

"We put the workload on him for the majority of the game and he always delivers," tight end C.J. Uzomah said. "He always shows up and he's always ready to play. Sixteen-hundred yards ... there's no reason he shouldn't be in New York.

"Coach [Gus] Malzahn said we were going to run the ball down their throats and really try to impose our will, and he came out and had a performance that I don't think anybody will forget."

So it begs the question: Is Mason, who leads the SEC in rushing and has had eight 100-yard rushing games (five straight), worthy of a seat at next week's Heisman Trophy ceremony?

"I want to win that, that's a goal of mine," said Mason, who now holds Auburn's single-season record for all-purpose yards (2,137). "I want to be in New York and be a finalist for the Heisman."

"I struck the pose a couple times [Saturday]. I feel like I should be in the talk with those guys."

His coach, who knows something about the Heisman, agreed.

"You're looking at one of the top running backs in college football, and he proved it again today," Malzahn said. "So usually, the best players on the best teams have a chance at it, and you're looking at one of those guys right here."

In the nation's toughest conference, Mason ran over and through defenses. Five of the defenses he has faced rank in the top 50 against the run. He rushed for 100-plus yards against each but Mississippi State (34). He has averaged at least 5 yards per carry in nine games and has at least one rushing touchdown in 12 games.

He's confident that he's one of the best players on one of the best teams, and it seems foolish to leave him out of legitimate Heisman talk -- or New York.

He's etched his name into the Auburn record books next to -- and over -- names such as Bo Jackson and Cam Newton. His yardage total Saturday was the second-most in Auburn history. In a special season for a program that has made college football's biggest turnaround, Mason has been a major piece of the Tigers' championship run.

Now he's hoping his own run takes a detour to the Big Apple.

"I feel like I'm chasing after [my dreams]," he said, "and nothing can stop me on the way there."

What to watch in the SEC: Week 15

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
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Almost nobody thought these two teams -- neither of which even reached bowl eligibility a season ago after going a combined 2-14 in SEC play -- would be here when the season started, but here we are. No. 3 Auburn (11-1) and No. 5 Missouri (11-1) will meet in Atlanta on Saturday with an SEC championship, a BCS bowl berth and maybe a spot in the national championship game at stake.

Let's take a look at five things to watch in Saturday's showdown at the Georgia Dome:

Possible hangovers: One could hardly blame Auburn if it entered this game a bit flat. Gus Malzahn's Tigers are coming off consecutive miracle wins against their biggest rivals: Georgia and Alabama. Chris Davis' missed field goal return for a touchdown against the top-ranked Crimson Tide resonated outside the sports world, considering that it was a subject on conversation on “The View” and the “Today” show and not just on sports highlight shows. Likewise, an emotional win against Texas A&M prompted the home fans to empty onto the field after Missouri clinched the SEC East title last Saturday. If one of these teams starts slowly Saturday, it could easily find itself facing a big deficit early in the game.

Defending the run: If Missouri is able to slow down Auburn's powerful running game (No. 5 nationally at 318.2 YPG), it will be in a small group of defenses that has been successful in that endeavor this season. Alabama -- which entered last week's game ranked fourth nationally against the run -- couldn't do it, as Auburn ran 52 times for 296 yards. In fact, Auburn has run for at least 200 yards in all but one game this season. Tre Mason (237 carries, 1,317 yards, 18 TDs) is the league's top rusher at 109.8 yards per game and quarterback Nick Marshall (140-922, 10 TDs) is eighth at 83.8 YPG. Meanwhile, Missouri -- which is 14th nationally against the run (119.1 YPG) has yet to allow 200 yards in any game. Let's not forget about the other side of this token, however. Missouri's offense performs with more balance than Auburn's, but its running game has been extremely productive, as well. Missouri ranks second in the league in rushing offense (236.2 YPG) with Henry Josey (153-951, 13 TDs) leading the way and ranking ninth in the league with 79.2 yards per game.

Auburn secondary against Missouri's big wideouts: Auburn has done a good job of pressuring opposing quarterbacks, but its secondary has been erratic at best. The Tigers surrendered 277 passing yards and three touchdowns to Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron last week -- including a 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper -- and gave up 415 yards to Georgia's Aaron Murray in the previous game. Overall, Auburn ranks second-to-last in the SEC against the pass (256.7 YPG), which is a scary sign with Missouri's big, talented receiving corps on deck. The Tigers have the No. 5 passing offense in the league (252.6 YPG), featuring L'Damian Washington (44 catches, 824 yards, 10 TDs) and Dorial Green-Beckham (49-686, 10 TDs), who rank seventh and 12th, respectively, in the SEC in receiving yards per game. Senior Marcus Lucas (50-596, 2 TDs) ranks 10th with 4.17 catches per game.

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
Zumapress/Icon SMIMichael Sam and Missouri's defensive front will be tested by Auburn's powerful run game.
Containing quarterbacks: Marshall's emergence has been one of the leading factors in Auburn's revival after last season's dismal results. Not only is he poised to become a 1,000-yard rusher, but he has made some enormous plays in the passing game -- and not just the miracle pass for the game-winning, 73-yard touchdown to Ricardo Louis against Georgia. He hit Sammie Coates with a crucial game-tying touchdown pass in the final minute against Alabama, went for 339 yards -- including the game-winning touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds remaining -- against Mississippi State and made some huge throws in the road win against Texas A&M. He has fumbled 11 times this season (and only lost four), however, so Missouri's turnover-happy defense (SEC-high 27 takeaways) will most certainly look to generate some momentum off Marshall turnovers. On the other hand, Mizzou's James Franklin creates major matchup issues of his own. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound quarterback earned the nickname “Frank the Tank” with his physical running style, although it would be understandable if he hesitated to put his shoulder down Saturday after missing four games with a shoulder injury suffered against Georgia. Franklin was a combined 30-for-47 for 375 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against Ole Miss and Texas A&M since returning from the injury and also rushed 26 times for 122 yards in those two games, so he appears to be back to the form that makes him so difficult to corral.

Defensive playmakers: Few defensive players, if any, have made a bigger impact around the SEC this season than Mizzou defensive end Michael Sam. He leads the league with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss, while fellow defensive lineman Markus Golden is fourth with 13 TFLs and Kony Ealy (9.5) and Shane Ray (9.0) aren't far outside the top 10. If Auburn's typical form holds, Mizzou won't have much of a chance to add to its SEC-leading sack total, but its defensive front will be the determining factor in whether it can handle Auburn's running game. Aside from defensive end Dee Ford (eight sacks, 12 TFLs), Auburn doesn't have many defensive players whose individual stats jump off the page. But a deep defensive line and playmakers like Robenson Therezie, Ryan Smith and Davis have combined to deliver some clutch plays when the Tigers needed a boost the most.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Chris Davis' unthinkable game-winning return on a missed Alabama field goal seemed impossible at the time. Even with all the magic from the immaculate deflection on the Plains just two weeks earlier, Saturday's shocking finish in Auburn's 34-28 stunner over No. 1 Alabama just wasn't supposed to happen.

But with this group of cardiac cats, an ending like that just makes since. In the fourth quarter, Auburn's magic emerges.

"Coach [Gus Malzahn] tells us the whole season that if it comes down to the end, we can win the game, we can find a way to win," receiver Sammie Coates said. "And every time it comes down to the end, we find a way."

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsChris Davis' stunning return on a missed field goal to beat Alabama was just the latest incredible fourth-quarter rally for Auburn.
During No. 3 Auburn's miraculous regular season, the Tigers (11-1, 7-1 SEC) have outscored opponents 93-58 in the fourth quarter. Only Georgia and Ole Miss have outscored the Tigers in the fourth quarter this year, but both resulted in Auburn victories after clutch plays on both sides of the ball.

But the last two games have shown just how much the Tigers love to shine when the game is on the line. Two weeks ago, Auburn blew a 20-point lead to the Bulldogs only to have Nick Marshall bring the Tigers back from the brink with his 73-yard prayer to Ricardo Louis.

Saturday, Auburn did that ending one better with Davis' return on a play that really never should have happened. Nick Saban pleaded for a second to be added to the game clock when Davis knocked T.J. Yeldon out of bounds after a 24-yard run to Auburn's 38-yard line. He got it, and trotted Adam Griffith out to attempt a 57-yard field goal with the SEC Western Division and a potential spot in the BCS title game on the line.

Griffth had made a 60-yarder in practice, but this wasn't practice. This was rowdy Jordan-Hare in the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl. And with no athletes on the field fast enough to catch anyone brave enough to return a short kick, Saban became yet another victim of Auburn's amazing fourth-quarter magic.

On Saturday, Auburn orchestrated its best fourth-quarter performance of the season. Facing a Crimson Tide team that has prided itself on dominating late and wearing down teams in the waning minutes, it was Auburn that did the late pushing and punishing.

Tied at 21 to start the fourth quarter, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron delivered what appeared to be the death blow to Auburn's magical season when he launched a 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper with 10:28 remaining.

Plenty of time remained, but this was Alabama. This was a team that thrived on late heroics … until it met this year's Auburn team.

Auburn allowed just 53 yards on its last three possessions and blocked a field goal. On offense, Auburn drove 80 yards on seven plays and tied Alabama with a wide open 39-yard touchdown pass from Marshall to Coates.

The Tigers stood tall, poked out their chests and bullied big, bad Bama before Davis ripped its heart out.

"They hit us back," Auburn safety Ryan Smith said. "Those were some hard punches and it was hard to fight back. We just tried to stay together and tell each other, 'Man, we are gonna keep fighting and we're gonna find a way to win this game, like coach tells us all the time.'"

Auburn's fourth-quarter rallies in consecutive games has been linked to luck, and you can't argue that it hasn't been a factor. But you can't say that luck has trumpeted Auburn's efforts. A lucky team doesn't eat up Alabama's running game late. A lucky team doesn't force Saban to make a critical late-game error.

"It's been like that all year," said running back Tre Mason, who rushed for 26 yards on six carries in the fourth quarter Saturday. "In the close games, we've been pulling out with a win. It's our mindset going into the fourth quarter that we own the fourth quarter. Once the fourth quarter rolls around, it's a new game. We don't even treat it like the same game we're playing. It's a new game, and we're starting over."

Auburn knows how to fight when the pressure is on and the clock is ticking down. Saturday made blood pressure rise and hearts pound on the Plains, but endings like this and plays like this have guided Auburn to its unlikely run to the SEC title game.

"It's been an amazing year so far," Malzahn said. "It's not over with, but obviously a huge win. Our program is going in the right direction and I really like coaching our team."

What we learned: Week 14

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
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At this time last season, Auburn had just gotten dominated by its cross-state rival in the Iron Bowl. The Tigers finished 0-8 in the SEC, winless in conference for the first time since 1980. On Saturday, Auburn knocked off No. 1 Alabama to finish the regular season 11-1 and earn a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. What a difference a year makes.

Here are three things we learned from the Tigers’ improbable 34-28 victory.

Team of destiny: There’s no other way to put it. It started back in September with Nick Marshall’s game-winning drive against Mississippi State. The Auburn quarterback did it again a month later on the road at Texas A&M. But none of that compared to the events of the past two games. Against Georgia, Marshall connected with Ricardo Louis for a 73-yard touchdown on 4th-and-18 with under a minute left. The only reason Louis caught it was because a defender batted it in the air. On Saturday, it was as improbable a victory as you’ll ever see. Alabama missed four field goals, and the last one, as time expired, was taken back 100 yards for the game-winning score. There must be something in the water on the Plains.

Relentless attitude: After the game, Chris Davis was asked what he learned about his team Saturday. “Relentless,” he responded. That sums it up pretty well. Auburn has not given up all season, and it wasn’t about to start against Alabama. The Tigers got down 21-7 in the first half but stuck to their game plan and battled back. They fell behind again when AJ McCarron threw a 99-yard touchdown pass at the end of the third quarter but didn’t get discouraged. They stayed within striking distance and tied the game with under a minute left. That set up the miraculous field goal return by Davis on the game’s final play. This Auburn team has come a long way in a short amount of time, and it starts with their never-give-up attitude.

BCS title shot: The BCS standings don’t come out until Sunday night, but Auburn is expected to move up to No. 3 after Saturday’s win. That’s a precarious position to be in, but it doesn’t mean the Tigers can’t move up and play for a BCS national championship. If either Florida State or Ohio State were to lose next weekend, Auburn would be a shoe-in if it beats Missouri in the SEC title game. But what happens if both the Seminoles and Buckeyes win? Will coach Gus Malzahn’s team be left out? Not so fast. Some experts, including ESPN's Brad Edwards, think the Tigers could jump undefeated Ohio State because of their résumé. We’ll know more Sunday when the standings are released but first, they must take care of business next weekend in Atlanta.

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