Auburn Tigers: Robenson Therezie

Today, we continue our break down of each position group in the SEC by looking at an area of defense that has a lot to prove after last season.

We’re talking, of course, about the secondaries.

Maybe it was that they were young and inexperienced. Maybe it was a case of so many quarterbacks being the opposite. But whatever it was, the league’s defensive backs should have a chip on their shoulder after the beating they took in 2013.

With that said, let’s dig into which programs are poised to rebound and sport the best secondaries in the league.

Secondary position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the leader of an experienced, talented Rebels secondary.
1. Ole Miss: Talent and experience. Both are worth their weight in gold, and Ole Miss has loads of each. We’re probably not giving anything away when we say that both Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner will make the list of the league’s top 10 safeties later today. Prewitt led the league in interceptions last season, and Conner, a former four-star recruit, has barely scratched the surface on what he can do. Trae Elston and Senquez Golson, meanwhile, are potential impact players, along with Mike Hilton and Derrick Jones. If C.J. Hampton lives up to the hype, he could be a true freshman to keep an eye on.

2. Florida: The Gators have plenty of issues. Defensive back is not one of them, however. Despite losing Cody Riggs to transfer and Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson to the NFL, Florida has plenty of talent remaining in the secondary. Only a sophomore, Vernon Hargreaves III is arguably the best corner in the SEC. If either Jalen Tabor or Duke Dawson emerges opposite him, you’re talking about a good one-two punch. And with three experienced safeties to lean on -- Jabari Gorman, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole -- coach Will Muschamp should like what he sees from the secondary as a whole.

3. LSU: Getting Jalen Mills to safety would have been huge. But with his status up in the air, LSU must move on. It's still DBU -- Defensive Back University -- and thankfully for coach Les Miles, he’s got plenty more to work with. Ronald Martin has experience at safety, along with Corey Thompson, who missed the spring with an injury. At corner, LSU is in good shape with Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson in position to start, not to mention Jalen Collins, a former Freshman All-SEC choice in 2012. And since this is LSU and someone always emerges from nowhere, be sure to keep an eye on Jamal Adams. The former No. 2-rated safety in the ESPN 300 didn't enroll early but should have every chance to play as a true freshman. If Mills is able to return and some the young talent on LSU's roster develops as expected, the Tigers could have an argument for the top secondary in the league.

4. Alabama: Talent and experience. Alabama has one but not the other, and you can probably guess which. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue are all gone. That fourth spot in the secondary? It was never settled to begin with. Getting Landon Collins back at safety, however, is huge, as the former five-star prospect has All-SEC potential. But who starts opposite him is up in the air with Nick Perry coming off an injury, Jarrick Williams entrenched at nickel corner/star and Laurence "Hootie" Jones early in his development. At corner, Alabama’s hopes are pinned to two freshmen -- Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey -- along with a slew of unproven prospects such as Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Bradley Sylve.

5. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen loves his defense heading into this season, and considering what he has at defensive back it’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs are in the enviable position of having five legitimate SEC-caliber players at both safety and cornerback. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are two rock-solid corners, and Will Redmond is a good third off the bench. Kendrick Market and Deontay Evans might start at safety today, but Jay Hughes is back from injury and Justin Cox could very well be the most talented of the bunch after transitioning from corner this spring.

6. Auburn: The Tigers secondary was atrocious for most of last season, surrendering 260.2 passing yards per game through Jan. 1 (No. 104 nationally). Really, it wasn’t until the BCS title game that we saw some fight out of them. So was that first half against Florida State a mirage or a glimpse of the future? Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to hope it’s the latter. With Jonathon Mincy at corner, Jermaine Whitehead at safety and Robenson Therezie playing the star, he’s got some experienced parts to build around. Meanwhile, juco transfer Derrick Moncrief has the look of an impact player at safety. If Joshua Holsey is back to 100 percent, Johnson will have a better deck of cards to play with than last season.

7. Georgia: The good news is that the two main culprits from last season’s heartbreaking loss to Auburn -- Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- are gone. The bad news is that those same players were expected to start this season. Throw in the loss of Shaq Wiggins and you’re looking at Georgia, under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, essentially starting over in the secondary. It’s not all bad, though. There might not be much depth at cornerback, but veteran Damian Swann is a good place to start. And the same can be said of safety, where Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger have some experience.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers have one of the deeper secondaries in the SEC, returning all four starters, but it’s a group that received its fair share of criticism last season after giving up 283 yards per game. There’s still talent back there, though, with safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton. In particular, Randolph led the team in interceptions (4) and finished second in tackles (75), and though he missed the majority of spring due to injury, he’s expected back for fall camp. At cornerback, freshman Emmanuel Moseley arrived in January and could make a push for playing time after a strong spring.

9. South Carolina: You have to fear the unknown if you’re a Gamecocks fan. Brison Williams is a solid safety, but both of your starting corners from last season -- Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree -- are gone, and the senior you expected to be starting by now, Kadetrix Marcus, is trailing sophomore Chaz Elder on the depth chart. Rico McWilliams, the corner with the most returning experience, isn’t even a sure thing to start. A redshirt freshman, Ali Groves, is in line to start at the second cornerback spot, but keep an eye on two talented true freshmen who could play early: Wesley Green and Chris Lammons.

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AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett has all-conference potential, but the Texas A&M secondary is filled with question marks.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies return plenty of experience in the secondary this season. That's good in the sense that they have a defensive backfield with a lot of SEC football under its belt but make no mistake, this unit has a lot of room for improvement. Cornerback Deshazor Everett is the best player of the group and could be headed for an all-conference season, while junior corner De'Vante Harris continues to grow as a player. The safeties -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt -- must show improvement this season after last year's performance. The nickel position is open and a number of candidates could step in, including sophomore Noel Ellis or junior Devonta Burns.

11. Missouri: Much of the attention has been paid to reloading on the defensive line after the departures of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but Missouri should be fine there. The real concern, however, is the secondary, as three of last year’s starters (E.J. Gaines, Randy Ponder and Matt White) are gone. Getting Braylon Webb back at safety is huge, but he’ll need help. Ian Simon and Duron Singleton should vie for the second safety spot, and John Gibson and Aarion Penton are two of the more experienced options at corner. The wild card in all of this, though, is an incoming class that featured seven defensive backs.

12. Kentucky: With two of the better pass rushers in the league, one would think that Kentucky could force the opposing quarterback into throwing some interceptions. That didn’t happen last season. The Wildcats were dead last in the SEC with just three interceptions. Mark Stoops and his staff are hoping to turn that around this season, and they have plenty of capable bodies to work with on the back end. All four starters are back, five if you include nickel back Blake McClain -- who was third on the team in tackles as a freshman -- and junior college transfer A.J. Stamps might be the most talented defensive back on the roster.

13. Arkansas: Depth is going to be a concern for new secondary coach Clay Jennings, who is stressing turnovers this spring after the Razorbacks came in dead last in that category in the SEC in 2013. But in terms of front-line starters, he’s got some experience to work with, as every projected starter at safety and corner is a junior or senior. The most reliable of the bunch is safety Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season and should continue to play a pivotal role on defense. Another one to watch is cornerback Tevin Mitchell. It wasn’t that long ago that the 6-foot senior was an SEC All-Freshman selection. For Arkansas to take the next step, he’ll need to fulfill the early promise of his career.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were spoiled last season with four seniors starting in the secondary. You don’t replace the talent and experience of an Andre Hal and a Kenny Ladler overnight. And you certainly will have a hard time doing so when the entire coaching staff has changed. But such is new head coach Derek Mason’s task. The good news for him is that the cupboard wasn’t left entirely bare as the entire second string of the secondary -- Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster -- returns after having played in a combined 50 games last season.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Before spring practice, we previewed Auburn’s top five position battles. Now that spring is over and the players have had a chance to compete against each other, who has the upper hand at each position?

Position battle No. 1: Star

[+] EnlargeRobenson Therezie
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsRobenson Therezie looks like he'll be the starter at the Star position when the season starts.
This was Robenson Therezie’s job before spring practice, and it’s still Therezie’s job. The senior defensive back played through a broken bone in his hand, an injury he suffered the first week, and although he didn’t wow anybody, he also didn’t do anything to give the job away either. Justin Garrett and Mackenro Alexander will continue to push for playing time behind him, and there’s been talk that safety Joshua Holsey might get a look there in fall camp when he returns from injury, but the coaches feel confident with Therezie. He’s still improving against the run and in man-to-man coverage, but he’s a spark plug for this Auburn defense. Time and time again last year, he came up with a big play in a key situation.

Position battle No. 2: Left tackle

The battle at left tackle is ongoing. Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller took turns taking reps with the first-team offense throughout the spring, and though neither has emerged as the starter, both had strong springs. Coleman, a natural at left tackle, came out with the first group for the opening drive of the spring game. He’s stronger than his counterpart and a better run blocker. However, Miller has the advantage in pass protection and has more game experience, making 14 starts at right tackle the past two years. The good news is that Auburn has two capable candidates that could start for the majority of teams in college football. The bad news is that we won’t know a decision until fall camp at the earliest.

Position battle No. 3: Defensive end

If Auburn’s season opener was last month, there’s a strong possibility that Gabe Wright would have been the starter at defensive end -- the same 284-pound Wright who played all of last year at defensive tackle. That’s how depleted the position was this spring. Returning starter LaDarius Owens missed all of spring practice with a foot injury while sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel, the favorites to take over for Dee Ford on the other side, also sat out at some point due to injury. Still, there was progress made. By all accounts, Lawson had a terrific spring despite missing the spring game and improved his all-around game. Daniel played in the spring game and finished with three tackles, 2.5 for loss and one sack. Wright might see some time at end next fall, but it’s more likely he stays inside once everybody is healthy.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCorey Grant showed his big-play abilities this spring.
Position battle No. 4: Running back

Tre Mason might be gone, but Auburn showed this spring that it has plenty of talent returning at the position. No, a starter wasn’t named, and if it’s anything like last year, the team’s go-to back might not emerge until three or four games into the season. But Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant proved that they are each more than able to take over for the former Heisman Trophy finalist. Artis-Payne had 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game while Grant flashed his big-play ability with 128 yards and a touchdown on just five carries. Throw in redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and ESPN 300 star Racean Thomas, who is scheduled to arrive later this month, and it’s once again a position of strength for the Tigers.

Position battle No. 5: Cornerback

The spring game has not been kind to Jonathon Mincy recently. He was ejected from last year’s game for targeting, and he didn’t play at all in this year’s game. Fortunately, that doesn’t affect his status as the team’s No. 1 cornerback. As long as he’s healthy, he’s expected to move over and replace Chris Davis as the boundary corner. On the other side, Jonathan Jones still looks to be the favorite, but Trovon Reed turned heads with his performance this spring. The former wide receiver had three tackles, one for a loss and two pass breakups in the spring game. Expect even more competition in fall camp when Holsey returns from injury and when incoming freshmen Kalvaraz Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin arrive on campus.
AUBURN, Ala. -- What’s the adage? Offense wins games, but defense wins championships. Well, after Nick Marshall and the first-team offense put up 44 points in the first half of Saturday's spring game, it’s clear that Auburn has enough firepower to win games. But do the Tigers have a defense good enough to win a championship?

That answer remains unclear.

The 58-3 final score looks bad, but more than anything, it shows a lack of depth on the defense, which is understandable given the number of injuries that ravaged the Tigers this spring. Last week, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he had about a dozen guys who either missed all of spring practice or a good portion of the spring. Saturday was no different.

[+] EnlargeBrandon King
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Brandon King breaks up a pass intended for Marcus Davis during the spring game. The Auburn defense's lack of depth showed on Saturday.
Potential starters Carl Lawson, LaDarius Owens and Jermaine Whitehead did not play, and a handful of other key contributors were limited in action, making it difficult to get a read on how good this unit really is.

“I feel like the defense did good,” defensive lineman Gabe Wright said after the game. “It’s hard to say that when the team has got 50-something points, but the first-team unit, we did better. There wasn’t a lot of loafs, according to the coaches. Guys were making plays, so overall I feel like it’s a win for us.”

Wright, who started at defensive tackle last season, played defensive end in the spring game because of all the injuries. He was one of the many players who moved around this spring, and he’s another reason why the grade for the defense is incomplete.

One positive that came from all of the attrition was that it gave several younger players a chance to compete.

With Joshua Holsey out this spring, junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief stepped up and earned himself some playing time at one of the safety spots, while versatile sophomore Johnathan Ford played well at the other spot in place of Whitehead on Saturday.

“They looked pretty well,” Robenson Therezie said of the two safeties. “Those are the type of guys we can count on in a big game. They’re not rookies anymore, especially Derrick Moncrief. He came in, and he just got it. He caught up with everything. We feel pretty comfortable with the secondary right now.”

It was no different at linebacker, where injuries limited both Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy and paved the way for Kenny Flowers. The former junior college transfer was named defensive MVP of the spring game after he finished with seven tackles, 2.5 for loss and a sack.

“It felt great,” Flowers said. “I wasn’t a big factor last year, but I hope to be this year.”

Ultimately, the defense that Auburn rolled out Saturday probably isn’t capable of winning a conference championship, let alone a national championship, but it’s going to look a lot different in the fall, when everybody is back and healthy. That’s when the true test will come.

“This defense is going to be really good,” Therezie said. “Probably better than last year, because we have some guys coming back. We understand the concept of what Coach Johnson is running and everything, so it’s going to be really good. I can’t wait to see it.”

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.
Editor’s note: This is part one in a weeklong series looking at five position battles to watch when Auburn opens spring practice in two weeks.

AUBURN, Ala. -- The Star position. What is it? A hybrid between a linebacker and a defensive back. What are its responsibilities? To help against the run, to blitz at times and to cover the slot wide receiver or tight end. Who will fill the role next season for Auburn? To be determined.

Senior-to-be Robenson Therezie would seem like the favorite. He started every game at the Star last season during Auburn’s run to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, led the team with four interceptions and finished sixth in tackles.

However, there’s a reason the Auburn staff pushed so hard for ESPN 300 linebacker Rashaan Evans, who was projected to come in and compete at the Star as a freshman. The local prospect ended up signing with Alabama, but it still begs the question, is Therezie the clear-cut starter heading into spring practice?

“Robenson was a corner when we finished spring [last year],” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “We had to move him to get some depth at Star, and Justin Garrett, probably the best playmaker we had coming out of spring ball, got injured. By the time he got back, Robenson had taken that job.”

Now everybody’s healthy, and there’s a new face in the mix.

[+] EnlargeRobenson Therezie
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsRobenson Therezie could be the player to beat at Star, but he'll have some athletic competition.
The contenders

Therezie (senior): Make no mistake about it: Therezie was a playmaker last fall. After not playing much his first two years on campus, he finally got an opportunity and took advantage of it. He was known as a big hitter from his high school days, and he had the ability to cover, too. Perfect, right? The only problem was his size. At 5-foot-9, 204 pounds, he’s a tad undersized for the position.

Garrett (junior): He was supposed to be the ideal fit at Star in Johnson’s new 4-2-5 defense. He looked more like a linebacker, but he could cover like a defensive back. He was the MVP of the spring a year ago and listed atop the depth chart, but injuries kept him out of fall camp and opened the door for Therezie. When Garrett returned, he moved to weakside linebacker but was never fully healthy, playing in just two games before opting to take a medical redshirt. Now he’s back and hoping to duplicate the success he had last spring.

Derrick Moncrief (junior): The wild card in all this could be Moncrief, a junior college transfer who enrolled in January. He was the top-ranked juco outside linebacker and is expected to make an immediate impact either at Star or one of the safety positions. On signing day, coach Gus Malzahn called him a big, rangy guy who has very good ball skills and is a very good tackler. By the sound of it, he has all the right attributes.

Mackenro Alexander (sophomore): The plan was likely to redshirt Alexander, but injuries forced the freshman into action, and he served as Therezie’s backup for much of the season. In eight games, he finished with four tackles, including 1.5 for loss.

Spring forecast
This is still Therezie’s job to lose, but with openings at cornerback and safety -- until Josh Holsey returns from injury -- the Auburn coaches might experiment with Therezie at other positions in the secondary, allowing for both Garrett and Moncrief to receive more reps at Star. The goal is always to get the best players on the field, and that could mean moving Therezie to a new position. Unlike last season, there are plenty of options.

Room to improve: Linebacker

February, 21, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is part five in a weeklong series looking at Auburn’s top five position groups with room to improve.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn literally ran its way to the BCS title game, rushing for 368 yards per game in the team’s last five wins to close out the regular season. However, what was lost in that magical run was that while the Tigers were running all over its opponents, its opponents were also running over them.

Auburn’s defense allowed over 200 yards rushing in four of those last five games. Even Arkansas and Tennessee, two non-bowl-eligible teams rushed for over 220 yards against the SEC champs.

So what’s the problem or more importantly, who’s to blame?

There’s not one single unit at fault. Part of the blame falls on the defensive line, which was effective rushing the passer but struggled against the run. Part of the blame probably falls on the secondary for allowing good runs to become great runs. But if you’re looking for a scapegoat, look no further than the linebackers.

It’s a group that had its moments in 2013 but ultimately needs to play better if this Auburn defense wants to improve in Year 2 under defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.

[+] EnlargeJaViere Mitchell
AP Photo/Dave MartinJaViere Mitchell could make a big impact for the Tigers this season.
Battling for No. 1: Before we go and start putting all the blame on the linebackers, let’s not forget that Cassanova McKinzy, the team’s weakside linebacker, had a very solid season. The sophomore led the team with 75 tackles, including eight tackles for loss. Barring injury, he’s entrenched as a starter heading into next season. At middle linebacker, last year’s combination of Jake Holland and Kris Frost played well at times, but the duo was inconsistent overall. Holland graduated which leaves an opportunity for Frost to take sole possession of the job, but he’ll have to earn it by fending off some of the up-and-comers. The other question mark is at the Star, a hybrid position between linebacker and defensive back. Robenson Therezie started every game last year, but his lack of size hurt Auburn at times against the run.

Strength in numbers: The most experienced backup is junior-to-be Anthony Swain. He played in all 14 games last season and finished 13th on the team with 26 tackles. He’ll likely backup McKinzy on the weakside, but he has the size to play middle, too. After Swain, there are still a number of players who could see action this year including JaViere Mitchell, who made two key fourth-down stops against Arkansas, and Kenny Flowers, a junior-college transfer who played in 11 games. The player to watch this spring is Justin Garrett. He was the team’s MVP last spring and was slotted to start at the Star before a multitude of foot injuries limited him to just two games. If Auburn can get him back healthy, it could provide a huge boost for this defense.

New on the scene: The most likely player to push Frost at middle linebacker is one that’s not even on campus yet. ESPN 300 linebacker Tre Williams signed with Auburn in hopes of early playing time, and though he probably has the talent to start from Day 1, he knows he still has to earn it. As a senior, Williams finished with 119 tackles and was named to the all-state team. Don’t be surprised if it turns into another time share between he and Frost, similar to what the Tigers used last year. Auburn also signed Derrick Moncrief, the nation’s No. 1 junior college outside linebacker. Moncrief enrolled early, which gives him the advantage of going through spring practice, and he’s expected to push for immediate playing time at the Star.

Room to improve: Secondary

February, 17, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is the first part in a weeklong series looking at Auburn's top five position groups with room to improve.

AUBURN, Ala. -- The SEC is typically known as a defensive league, but offenses that dominated play last year. The conference featured the likes of Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray and James Franklin at quarterback, and defenses paid the price.

[+] EnlargeJoshua Holsey
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsA healthy return by Joshua Holsey from a mid-October ACL tear would bolster the secondary.
Auburn had to face all of the quarterbacks above and allowed 7.3 yards per game in those contests. The season stats don’t do any favors to the Tigers’ defense, especially the secondary, but they made enough plays on the back end to win 12 games and play for a BCS title.

“The [secondary] is really a picture of what our defense has been,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said before the Florida State game. “They've been inconsistent, given up cheap plays, [but] they have made some unbelievable plays. When they make the kind of plays that they made at critical times, you have to trust them.”

The good news for SEC defenses is that all five of those quarterbacks have moved on. In fact, six of the eight league games on Auburn’s 2014 schedule will feature teams with a first-year starter at quarterback. However, the Tigers will be without top cornerback Chris Davis next season, as well as safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White.

The balance of power in the SEC is expected to shift back to the defenses, and if Auburn hopes to follow suit, it must have better play in the secondary. Who will step up?

Battling for No. 1: With Davis no longer in the picture, Jonathon Mincy is expected to slide over and take his role as the No. 1 cornerback. The senior to be finished with 56 tackles last year and has started 28 games in his Auburn career. The other cornerback spot is up for grabs, and the early favorite to win the job is Jonathan Jones. He has made three starts in his first two seasons, and when healthy, he’s one of the better defensive backs on the team. At safety, the Tigers get Jermaine Whitehead back, and they hope to have Joshua Holsey back from injury. Holsey tore his ACL in practice just days before the Texas A&M game, but he was the glue that held the secondary together before he went down. A combination of Whitehead and Holsey could make safety a strength heading into next season.

Strength in numbers: Depth in the secondary was an issue for Auburn last year, and it could be again this year. Freshman Johnathan Ford came to Auburn as a running back but moved to cornerback in fall camp because of the lack of players at the position. There has been no word yet on which side of the ball Ford will be on this spring. If Holsey is still out, the team’s next best option at safety is senior Trent Fisher. He has played in 32 games, starting two, and should get plenty of first-team reps this spring. Another candidate could be Robenson Therezie, who started every game at Star this past season. If the coaches go a different direction at the Star position, Therezie could make an impact in the secondary, at cornerback and/or safety. Therezie’s backup, Mackenro Alexander, also could provide help at safety if needed.

New on the scene: With depth a concern, Gus Malzahn and his staff made defensive back a priority in the 2014 recruiting class. They added three ESPN 300 cornerbacks, a late bloomer in Markell Boston and the nation’s No. 1 junior college outside linebacker Derrick Moncrief, who could help at both the Star and safety positions. The most intriguing player of the group is Stephen Roberts, a former Alabama commitment. The in-state product is listed as a cornerback, but Auburn plans to use him at safety where he can contribute immediately. On signing day, Malzahn tabbed Roberts, along with fellow ESPN 300 cornerbacks Kalvarez Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin, as guys who have a chance to come in and contribute early.

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was greeted by crowd of television cameras as he stepped out of the shiny black Chevy SUV that had escorted he and several of his teammates to the Newport Beach Marriott on Friday morning for the Seminoles’ offensive news conference.

Sipping on his Starbucks, Winston was once again unfazed as the center of attention.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsHeisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston threw 38 touchdown passes this season and just 10 interceptions.
After a whirlwind awards tour, which included a trip to New York to claim his Heisman Trophy, Winston was again lighting up the stage with his engaging personality. He was the focus -- not just for the media, but also for Auburn’s defense. Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson conceded that the Tigers “have not been, by all standards, a really good defense this year.” That’s going to have to change on Monday night against the Seminoles if the Tigers hope to win the Vizio BCS National Championship, and according to Ellis, the difference in the game will be the defense’s ability to pressure Winston into uncharacteristic mistakes.

“It's going to be a big factor,” Ellis said. “The play in the box, they have tremendous skill out on the edges, but the pressure in the box is going to be one of the biggest keys to any defensive success that we have. There will be some other things in the game we can't control, kicking game, offense, all are going to contribute. But as far as us performing defensively and giving our football team a chance to win, there's got to be pressure on the quarterback.”

Somehow, pressure doesn’t seem to get to the 19-year-old first-year starter.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, on plays Winston is pressured (knocked down or hurried), he completes an AQ-high 62 percent of his passes and is averaging 11.1 yards per attempt. The AQ average for a quarterback when pressured is 35 percent and 4.7 yards per attempt.

It’s a statistical mismatch in Florida State’s favor, but Auburn’s hybrid safety, Robenson Therezie, isn’t deterred.

“With our game plan I feel like when we execute and do our jobs, I feel like we can keep him outside his comfort zone,” Therezie said. “With our front four, I don't think he's seen the front four he's about to face on January 6th. It's a completely different front four than he's ever faced. With our secondary, I don't think he's seen the secondary that he's seen all year with our secondary. It's completely different from all the other leagues he's played in.”

The good news for Auburn’s defense: It has had a little experience with elite SEC quarterbacks. Now the bad news: Against the offenses of Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger and James Franklin, Auburn allowed 7.3 yards per play.

"I think seeing those type of players, week in and week out, definitely gets you ready," defensive back Jermaine Whitehead said. “I mean, seeing previous Heisman winners gets you ready for a guy that just won the Heisman. Playing against those guys a couple years now, watching them grow and watching how they transpired over the years, the depth of exactly what Winston has the capacity of ...

“I think being in those situations, also, has shown us how to be resilient, not give up when they make a big play. We understand that their college football team is one of the best in the country, and they’re going to have big times in the game, and how we respond is going to be the test of the game.”
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 Florida State’s wide receivers and Auburn’s secondary.

Florida State’s wide receivers: It’s not a deep group, but there may not be a more dynamic set of receivers in the country than what Jameis Winston has at his disposal at Florida State.

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Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsFSU WR Kelvin Benjamin is a physical presence who can also break free and make big plays.
Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw are all within striking distance of 1,000 yards. Greene is one of the nation’s most consistent threats, and while he’s not imposing physically, he runs precise routes and rarely drops a pass. Shaw is the lone senior in the group, and he’s averaging 18 yards a catch and has topped 89 yards receiving seven times. But it’s Benjamin who should keep Auburn defenders awake at night.

At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Benjamin is as physical a receiving threat as there is in college football. He excels at jump balls, is physical at the line of scrimmage, and loves blocking downfield. His career has been marked by inconsistency, but he was red hot to end the regular season, with 17 catches for 458 yards and eight TDs in his last four games.

Even if Auburn manages to corral all of Florida State’s deep threats, tight end Nick O’Leary is a wild card. O’Leary has 33 catches for 557 yards and seven touchdowns this season and is one of Winston’s favorite targets. As the big three receivers draw attention downfield, O’Leary provides a dangerous weapon underneath and is capable of picking up big chunks of yards after the catch.

And, of course, the key to all of it is Winston, the Heisman winner and one of the country’s most aggressive quarterbacks. Winston completes 55.8 percent of his passes of 15 yards or more (second only to Baylor’s Bryce Petty among AQ QBs) and has 19 TDs without an INT in the red zone this season.

Auburn’s secondary: In the last three games, Auburn has had a difficult time defending the pass. Aaron Murray threw for 415 yards and two touchdowns. AJ McCarron threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns. And in the SEC championship game, James Franklin threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns. Now, the Tigers are about to face the Heisman Trophy winner and the nation’s leader in opponent-adjusted QBR (90.8).

It’s a group that remains confident in their ability, but they know they have a steep challenge ahead of them.

The most notable name is cornerback Chris Davis, but that’s more because of his field-goal return to beat Alabama than his pass coverage. Still, he’s the No. 1 cornerback and the team’s best chance of shutting down an opposing wide receiver. It’s the cornerback opposite Davis, Jonathon Mincy, who teams have been able to pick on this season.

Mincy was defending Amari Cooper when the Alabama wide receiver hauled in a 99-yard touchdown pass in the Iron Bowl. He also had no answer for Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who finished with six catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns against Auburn. If he draws the assignment of defending Benjamin, which is what he wants, it could be a long day for the Tigers.

The X-factor could be Robenson Therezie who plays the Star position in Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 defense. He leads the team in interceptions (four) and is fourth in tackles (55). He’ll primarily focus on covering the slot receiver, but he might also be asked to cover O’Leary at times or even blitz from time to time. Auburn isn’t going to stop Winston, but Therezie could make life a little more difficult for the Florida State quarterback.

Hale: Big edge Florida State

Ostendorf: Edge Florida State

What to watch in the SEC: Week 15

December, 5, 2013
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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.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The mark of a good football team is not just winning, but winning on the road.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIAfter finishing the road portion of their schedule on a strong note, Gus Malzahn's Tigers close out the regular season at home against two tough opponents.
Auburn took care of business on Saturday, beating a dangerous Tennessee team in Knoxville. The 55-23 victory was the team’s third straight triumph away from home, but the Tigers still remember their first road trip of the season and the quarter that continues to haunt them to this day.

Auburn started the season 3-0 and looked to have its confidence back. But that quickly changed when the Tigers arrived in Death Valley for a road test with LSU. They fumbled on each of their first two possessions, and LSU capitalized. Before the players ever broke a sweat, Auburn was down 14-0 in one of the most hostile environments in college football.

“The first quarter we were on the verge of being terrible against LSU, and I think everybody saw that,” head coach Gus Malzahn said.

But once the initial storm passed, the Tigers played pretty good football and actually outscored LSU in the second half. Though they lost that game, they learned from it. They tasted defeat on the road, and since that point, they have yet to leave a visiting locker room without celebrating a victory, picking up wins at Texas A&M, Arkansas and most recently Tennessee.

“Our first road game, we turned the ball over,” defensive back Robenson Therezie said. “We understand [it's important] not turning the ball over, and just those little things that we have to fix in order to win a road game because we know they’ve got all the momentum, all their fans making noise and everything.

“At the same time, we’ve just got each other, and we just have to focus on the little things -- not turning the ball over, playing good defense -- just to win.”

The good news is Auburn will not play in a visiting stadium until next season. The bad news is the Tigers still have two Top 25 teams on their schedule. Still, the players are elated to return home for the team’s last two regular-season games.

“It’s very exciting,” cornerback Chris Davis said. “I told them before we went out, ‘This is the last road game, let’s take advantage of it.’ We’ve got two more tough games at home that we end with, so for this to be the last road game, it’s a good road win for us.”

And Auburn will have no trouble getting up for its last two home games. On Saturday, the Tigers host No. 25 Georgia, and on Nov. 30, No. 1 Alabama comes to town in what has turned out to be a much-anticipated Iron Bowl.

“That’s very exciting for us with Georgia next week, then you get a bye week, and then come in with Alabama,” running back Corey Grant said. “To finally be done with the road games and be home for big games is something to look forward to.”

“Now it’s time to turn up in Jordan-Hare Stadium,” Therezie said. “It feels good.”

There’s a lot at stake for Auburn in these last two regular-season games. Win both and the Tigers are headed to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. A loss could take them out of contention for a BCS bowl game.

Malzahn knows it will be a challenge, but he’ll have his team ready.

“Anytime you're playing good teams, you have to play your best football,” he said. “We talked about improvement in each practice and each game, and I feel like for the most part we've done that all season. We're going to have to continue to do that because you're talking about two of the better teams in all of college football.”

Week 11 helmet stickers

November, 10, 2013
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- There were plenty of helmet stickers to pass around for Auburn on Saturday. After a slow start, the Tigers found their groove in the second half and cruised to a 55-23 victory. It was the most points scored by either team in the series.

QB Nick Marshall: On the opening drive, Auburn came out throwing. Marshall completed his first pass, but after two incomplete passes and a sack, the Tigers went back to their bread and butter -- running the football. They finished with 444 yards on the ground, and it was Marshall who was the catalyst. The Auburn quarterback rushed for a career-high 214 yards and two touchdowns. He had 164 yards by halftime. He became the 25th player in school history to run for more than 200 yards and the first since Cam Newton did it against LSU in 2010. Marshall completed only three passes all game, but one was a 25-yard touchdown to tight end C.J. Uzomah. The former Georgia defensive back will face his old team next week.

CB Chris Davis: It was only a matter of time before Davis broke one on a punt return this season, and Saturday was the day. With the game tied 13-13 early in the second quarter, the senior cornerback returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown. He dropped it initially but picked it back up, made a couple of moves and the rest was history. It was the third-longest punt return in school history. In the first quarter, Davis returned a punt 42 yards which set up the Tigers for their first touchdown. He finished with 127 return yards. On defense, he made four tackles and now has 47 on the season, second on the team.

LB Cassanova McKinzy: There were plenty of outstanding performances to choose from on the Auburn defense. Robenson Therezie pulled down his fourth interception of the season. Elijah Daniel recorded his second sack of the season. But nobody played better than McKinzy. He was all over the field for the Tigers. The sophomore led the team with 10 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. At times, he was asked to spy Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs, and although Dobbs got loose a couple of plays, it could have been a lot worse if not for McKinzy. The linebacker corps has struggled this year, but McKinzy seems to play better every week. He now leads the team with 49 tackles.

Honorable mention: RB Tre Mason

Planning for success: Auburn

October, 31, 2013
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There’s quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding Auburn’s quarterback situation leading up to Saturday’s game at Arkansas. The status of starter Nick Marshall is still up in the air after he suffered a shoulder injury last week against Florida Atlantic. He’s been able to practice this week, but head coach Gus Malzahn said it could be a game-time decision.

“He’s a tough guy, but like I said, it’s day-to-day,” Malzahn said. “We’re hopeful.”

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertAuburn quarterback Nick Marshall practiced this week, but will he be recovered enough from a shoulder injury to return to the starting lineup against Arkansas?
If Marshall can’t go, the Tigers will turn to freshman Jeremy Johnson. The former ESPN 300 recruit has played twice this season -- against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic -- and earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors both times.

Regardless of whether Marshall plays, the dual-threat quarterback will likely be more cautious with his body in the future. The initial injury occurred when he used his shoulder to throw down a defender before going out of bounds. The Auburn coaches have encouraged him to avoid those types of plays in the future.

“He’s a great competitor,” Malzahn said. “There’s no doubt. You’d rather have to pull him back than have to prod him on. He’s a great competitor, he’s a tough guy, we’ve just got to be a little bit smarter next time we are in that same situation.”

What Auburn needs to do to win: It doesn’t matter who’s at quarterback -- Auburn needs to continue to establish the run. The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing, and although they face an Arkansas defense that has had success getting to the quarterback, the Razorbacks have struggled against the run. Marshall is clearly the better runner of the two Auburn quarterbacks, but Johnson is athletic in his own right and has shown improvement with the zone-read. Defensively, Auburn needs to be ready for a dogfight. Arkansas will try and run it right down their throat, using running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. But, if Auburn can jump out to a big lead early, it would make it difficult for the Razorbacks to come back.

Players to watch

OT Greg Robinson: Auburn’s offensive line doesn’t get much credit, but it’s been one of the top units in the SEC this season. Not only do the Tigers lead the league in rushing, they’re among the top three in sacks allowed. Robinson will have his hands full with Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith, but it’s important he keeps his quarterback upright.

DB Robenson Therezie: This is type of game that was made for Therezie. He’ll be asked to come up in run support and do what he does best -- hit people. Through eight games, he’s tied for the team-lead in tackles. It also might be a little more personal for Therezie when he goes up against Collins, a fellow South Florida native.

Quotable
"I haven't heard it, but since you told me that, it really doesn't do much. That's the way we run the ball, and that's our offense, so we've just got to stick with it." -- Corey Grant on Bret Bielema’s criticism of the hurry-up, no-hudde offense

Midseason report: Auburn

October, 15, 2013
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Of the four first-year head coaches in the SEC, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn is having the best season to this point. His Tigers are 5-1, ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 2011 and coming off a game where they set a school record with 712 yards of total offense against Western Carolina.

Auburn certainly looks to be ahead of schedule with their rebuilding efforts.

The offense has thrived under Malzahn. The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing at 287 yards per game. Their trio of running backs -- Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant -- have all rushed for over 100 yards in at least one game this season. Even quarterback Nick Marshall reached the century mark with 100 yards rushing against Ole Miss.

Meanwhile, the defense has also shown signs of improvement. Although they’ve given up plenty of yards, the Tigers are ranked in the top half of the league in scoring defense. They have been solid in the red zone, and they’re making plays in critical situations.

The road ahead is not an easy one. Three of the Tigers’ next four games are on the road, including Saturday’s matchup with No. 7 Texas A&M. They finish the year with back-to-back home games against Georgia and Alabama. However, the Tigers are just one win away from bowl eligibility, a monumental step for a team who had just three wins a season ago.

Offensive MVP: C Reese Dismukes

When you lead the SEC in both rushing yards and fewest sacks allowed, it says something about your offensive line. For Auburn, Dismukes is the leader of that group. He also claims he leads his fellow offensive linemen with over 60 knockdowns this season, the only stat they keep track of on the line, but his impact goes far beyond the numbers. Every play starts with him, so if the offense falters, it’s on him. If they execute, that’s on him, too. Through six games, it’s safe to say Dismukes has helped trigger a lot of positive plays.

Defensive MVP: DB Robenson Therezie

Therezie wasn’t even a starter coming out of fall camp. The only reason he started the season opener was because of an injury to Justin Garrett, but he took full advantage of the opportunity. Therezie finished with seven tackles and two interceptions against Washington State, earning SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Since that game, he’s found a permanent home at the Star position for the Tigers. He leads the team in both tackles (28) and interceptions (3), and he made a critical pick-six in Auburn’s 30-22 win over Ole Miss.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Before Saturday’s game, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said that this year’s Auburn team reminded him a lot of his own team from a year ago. The Tigers were coming off a dismal season, just like what Freeze encountered when he arrived in Oxford, and they turned to a new coach, Gus Malzahn, to right the ship.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstAuburn race to a win over Ole Miss and the schedule sets up nicely for the Tigers.
“To watch them play, it’s eerily similar to what we were going through last year, and there’s no question that they’re getting better each week,” Freeze said.

For the Tigers, it appears they might be slightly ahead of what Freeze faced with the Rebels. At the very least they were better on Saturday night. Auburn defeated No. 24 Ole Miss, 30-22, handing the Rebels their second consecutive loss after a 3-0 start to the season.

Granted, the game was at Jordan-Hare Stadium with Auburn was coming off a bye while the Rebels had to play at Alabama the week prior, but it was still a win over a top-25 team.

“We talked about getting better each week,” Malzahn said. “We knew we were going to have to play better than we did against LSU to have a chance to beat them, and we did. There were some mistakes that we can still improve, a few turnovers we have to correct, but our defense picked us up and we beat a good team.”

In Freeze’s inaugural season, Ole Miss finished 7-6 and won their bowl game, but the Rebels were 0-4 against top 25 teams.

Perhaps Malzahn is ahead of schedule in his rebuilding efforts. The Tigers already have two conference wins and are 4-1 with homes games left against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic with the Tigers already reaping benefits of Malzahn’s changes.

“It feels like a whole new team, a whole new Auburn team,” defensive back Robenson Therezie said. “We just keep going up -- just like Coach Malzahn talks about.”

Said offensive tackle Greg Robinson: "We really see that we have a chance. The better we get, the more work we put in, and we’ll continue to get better each week. We're just listening to what the coaches say, because they really have our best interests. I think we just need to buy into the fact that we have to get better each week to be able to beat the harder teams we play later on in the year."

There’s now even talk that Auburn could pull an upset over Georgia or even Alabama when the two top-10 teams visit the Plains in November. But don’t start asking Malzahn about either one of those games just yet. After hosting Western Carolina this week, they’ll face road games at Texas A&M, Arkansas and Tennessee in three of the next four weeks.

“We’re not looking ahead,” Malzahn said. “We’re going to the next game, and I’m just proud of our guys. We’re going to get better each week, and I think we have a chance to continue that.”

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