NCF Nation: Auburn Tigers

Nick Marshall is tired of hearing the criticism. He’s tired of hearing that he can’t throw the ball or that he’s not cut out to be a quarterback at the next level. Sure, he’s only completing 55 percent of his passes through the first three games, but when Auburn needs to make a big throw, Marshall is the man to do it.

He proved that last year against Mississippi State when he threw the game-winning touchdown to tight end C.J. Uzomah. He proved it against Alabama when he had the sense to throw it to a wide-open Sammie Coates just before crossing the line of scrimmage. And he proved it again Thursday night in Auburn’s 20-14 win at Kansas State.

On 3rd-and-9 with two minutes left and the Tigers clinging to a six-point lead, Gus Malzahn didn’t play it safe and hand the ball off. He trusted his quarterback to make a throw, and like he always does, Marshall delivered.

The Auburn quarterback pumped once and then connected with D'haquille Williams over the top for 39 yards and a first down.

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"He has that knack for when the game is on the line," Malzahn said afterwards. "He did it all last year, and he did it tonight. He helped find a way to help our team win the game."

"I just think it’s something you expect," added offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. "He’s our leader. He’s our quarterback. You expect him to come through in those situations. It’s why he ended up winning the job last year. It’s something he’s got a knack for and he’s really good at. That’s why our guys believe him."

In what was a homecoming of sorts, Marshall finished 17 of 31 for 231 yards with two touchdowns and one interception against Kansas State, but he struggled early. After connecting on his first pass, he threw three straight incompletions, and at one point in the second quarter, he was 3 of 9 for 29 yards and an interception.

Marshall didn’t let it bother him, though. He kept slinging it, and on the touchdown drive that turned the game late in the third quarter, he converted three of four third downs with his arm.

"You know Nick is always level-headed, and he keeps his spirits up no matter what," Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne said. "Whether he completes three passes in a row or he gets ten drops in a row, he is our leader and we look to him."

The Tigers have now won 12 of the past 14 games with Marshall at quarterback (excluding the season opener when he only played a half), and he will have to continue to make throws like he did Thursday night when the Tigers get into the heart of their SEC schedule.

"We got some (tough road games) in the SEC, too, and we know how to respond from here on out," Marshall said.

After Thursday, nobody’s making the case for Marshall as the SEC’s best passer, but if you need a clutch throw late in the game, it’s hard to argue against the Auburn quarterback.

SEC bowl projections: Week 4

September, 21, 2014
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Alabama reinforced its position as a College Football Playoff contender by obliterating Florida on Saturday, while Mississippi State and Georgia also jumped in this week’s SEC bowl projections.

We’re also adding a 12th team -- Arkansas -- to the list after the Razorbacks crushed Northern Illinois to improve to 3-1. Arkansas has an awfully difficult schedule down the stretch, but we will give Bret Bielema's club the benefit of the doubt for now and project it to reach at least six wins.

Here is our full SEC list entering the fifth week of the season:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Alabama
Orange Bowl: Texas A&M
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Auburn
Capital One Bowl: Georgia
TaxSlayer Bowl: South Carolina
Outback Bowl: Mississippi State
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Ole Miss
Belk Bowl: Missouri
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: LSU
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Tennessee
Birmingham Bowl: Arkansas
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Florida

SEC helmet stickers: Week 4

September, 21, 2014
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Can you feel the drama building? We're just starting to get into the meat of the SEC schedule and already the league is spinning off its axis with excitement. Here are this week's best performances:

Blake Sims and Amari Cooper, Alabama: Everyone suspected Cooper might be the nation's best receiver, but who saw this coming from Sims? The Crimson Tide dismantled Florida 42-21 and Sims' 445 yards passing -- second best in the school's storied history -- was the biggest reason why. Equally unstoppable was Cooper, who caught 10 passes for 201 yards and three TDs. Much of Cooper's production came against the defense of UF cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, thought to be one of the nation's finest.

Dak Prescott and Josh Robinson, Mississippi State: Time after time this dynamic duo sliced through the heart of the LSU defense en route to the Bulldogs' first win in Baton Rouge in nearly 23 years. LSU's late rally made the final score 34-29, which diminished State's dominance for most of the game. Prescott passed for 268 yards and two TDs. He ran 22 times for 105 yards and another score in building MSU's 34-10 lead. Meanwhile, Robinson was a deadly efficient complement, running for a career-high 197 yards and a TD on 16 carries (12.3 yards per carry). The Bulldogs' offense was firing on all cylinders and racked up 570 yards with standouts all around. The empty seats in Death Valley were a testament to just how demoralizing Mississippi State's performance was for the No. 8 Tigers and their fans.

Auburn's run defense: Holding a run-heavy team like Kansas State to 40 yards on the ground is exactly how you win huge nonconference road games. The Tigers did that in Thursday's 20-14 win in Manhattan, Kansas. The Wildcats came in averaging 236 yards a game on the ground, but Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson had his front seven ready. When called upon, safeties Joshua Holsey (11 tackles) and Rudy Ford (eight tackles) cleaned up the leftovers.

Arkansas' run game: We might want to reserve a weekly spot for this unit, as it seems there is absolutely no slowing down Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and their under-appreciated blockers. The Razorbacks were rolling once again in their 52-14 rout of Northern Illinois on Saturday. Collins, Williams and Korliss Marshall combined to rush for 188 yards on 36 carries. Right guard Denver Kirkland (6-foot-5, 330 pounds), left tackle Dan Skipper (6-10, 316) -- both sophomores -- and senior tight end AJ Derby (6-5, 255) had great success opening some gaping holes.

Sony Michel, Georgia: We knew the heralded true freshman was good, but in garbage time against Troy he laid any doubt to rest. Michel needed just 10 carries to pile up 155 yards (15.5 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. Occasionally running out of the Wildcat, he's already proven to be more than a backup. The future is looking bright for a Bulldogs team that suffocated Troy in a 66-0 romp.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 4

September, 20, 2014
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Well, that was an interesting day in the SEC. Here's what we learned:

1. The SEC West is clearly the best ... again: It's the same story in the SEC: The West is the best. None of these teams are perfect, but they are the best of the bunch in the SEC. Alabama throttled Florida at home, Auburn went on the road and gutted out a tough win over No. 20 Kansas State, Texas A&M just continues to roll over everyone, Arkansas can run on anyone, Ole Miss is a top-10 team, and Mississippi State walked into Death Valley at night and beat No. 8 LSU team in what turned into a late thriller. We know this LSU team has issues with its passing game and young defense, but give Mississippi State a lot of credit for that performance. There's a reason the West entered the weekend with five ranked teams -- all in the top 10. On the other side of the conference, everyone in the East has issues. The thing about the West is no team is really sticking out as the dominant team in the division, and every one of them is a work in progress, but they've all had really good moments. This is easily the toughest division in all of college football. Whoever comes out of this division might have an automatic ticket to the playoff on principle alone.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertDak Prescott had 373 yards of offense and three touchdowns in a return to his home state.
2. Florida's offense and defense have issues: Where do you even start with Florida's performance in that 42-21 loss to third-ranked Alabama? Despite plenty of opportunities afforded to the offense, the Gators continuously stalled with the ball. Quarterback Jeff Driskel struggled with the same issues that have plagued him his entire career. He was off with his deep throws and had trouble with his reads and threw for just 93 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions on 9-of-28 passing. Even with decent protection for most of the day, Driskel never got into a rhythm and couldn't take advantage of an Alabama secondary trying to find its identity. The defense gave up some big plays in the passing game, especially when the ball went to Amari Cooper (10 catches, 201 yards and three touchdowns). Blake Sims torched Florida's secondary, which struggled with coverage issues all day, for 445 passing yards and four touchdowns, including one of 87 and 79 yards. Yes, Florida's defense was on the field for a very long team, but the Gators allowed 645 total yards ... the most allowed in school history.

3. Mississippi State will challenge for the West title: I wondered why this team wasn't ranked in the Top 25 to begin the season, and then the defense fell asleep in Week 2 and I started to wonder if Mississippi State was for real. Now, after a 34-29 win over LSU in Baton Rouge, you can't sleep on Dan Mullen and his Bulldogs. Sure, this was a rout that got pretty tight late in the fourth quarter, but this is a win the Bulldogs should be ecstatic about. And how about quarterback Dak Prescott? He had his best performance to date in his home state with 373 yards of offense and three touchdowns. Fellow Louisiana native Josh Robinson wasn't too shabby either, as he rushed for 197 yards and a score. Take the Bulldogs lightly at your own risk.

4. The East race is a total crapshoot: Besides a dominating performance from Georgia over Troy, the SEC East didn't have a great day. Florida was blown out by Alabama, Missouri was stunned at home by unranked Big Ten representative Indiana 31-27, and South Carolina slogged through a 48-34 win at Vanderbilt. We saw that Florida's offense still has major issues and Missouri's interior defensive linemen need a lot of work, as Indiana ran for 241 yards on the Tigers. South Carolina still controls its own destiny when it comes to going to Atlanta for the SEC title game, but no one would be shocked to see the Gamecocks drop another one. Will Georgia's defense get better? Will Florida have an offense? Was this a fluke loss for Mizzou? Is Tennessee a real sleeper? A two-loss SEC East champ is not out of the question with so many uncertainties.

5. Will Muschamp's seat is hotter than ever: I have a feeling Bill from Gainesville won't be calling into many radio shows this week. With a loss in which the Gators faded quickly in the second half, Muschamp's seat is roasting in Gainesville. Last year's injury-riddled, 4-8 season was one thing, but Florida has regressed in the past two games this season, which means the Gators have to show vast improvement in two weeks at Tennessee in order to perk an already downtrodden and disheartened fan base. You have to let the season play out, but this was a bad loss for Muschamp's squad, even if Alabama was the No. 3 team in the country. Florida should be competitive in games such as this, and the Gators just weren't after Alabama cleaned up its mistakes in the second half. There were plenty of opportunities for Florida in this one, but the Gators just didn't execute. Florida fans are frustrated with their coach and their quarterback, who are both in their fourth years at UF.

Plays that changed the game: Auburn

September, 18, 2014
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It might not have been pretty. It might not have been what everybody expected. But all that matters to Auburn is the final score, and the Tigers left Bill Snyder Family Stadium with a 20-14 win over No. 20 Kansas State. It was the program's first road win against a ranked nonconference opponent since 1984.

A little luck

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Kansas State had a chance early in the game to take a lead and grab the momentum, but that chance bounced right off the chest of Tyler Lockett as the star wide receiver tried to make a catch at the goal line, but the ball deflected off his hands into the air. To make matters worse, Auburn cornerback Jonathan Jones was there to haul it in for the interception. It turned out to be a theme for the Wildcats, who missed three field-goal attempts, lost a fumble and threw another critical interception later in the game. Meanwhile, Auburn turned the ball over only once and was a perfect 3-for-3 in the red zone.

A little skill

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Auburn wide receiver D'haquille "Duke" Williams had to be kicking himself after dropping a potential touchdown in the first half, but the junior college transfer, playing in his first road game, more than made up for it with a spectacular touchdown grab at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The score capped off a 15-play, 80-yard drive and gave Auburn a 17-7 lead. Williams, who later had a clutch 39-yard catch to seal the win, finished with eight catches for 110 yards and the lone touchdown.

Auburn 20, Kansas State 14

September, 18, 2014
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Auburn fended off Kansas State 20-14 to improve to 3-0 on the season.
In a season when Auburn has to play six top 15 teams in the final nine weeks, including three on the road, why would the Tigers schedule another road test at No. 20 Kansas State? And why would they want to play it on a Thursday night? Do they not know the history of ranked teams going on the road for Thursday night games?

"I’m all about winning championships," Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs told ESPN.com. "So when we went from 11 games to 12 games, I made the commitment -- that 12th game has to be a BCS opponent."

Jacobs, who is responsible for putting together Auburn’s non-conference schedule, has stayed true to his word. Since the schedule expanded to 12 games in 2006, the Tigers have played at least one power conference foe outside the SEC every year.

[+] EnlargeD'haquille Williams
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesD'haquille Williams and Auburn will be braced for a rowdy atmosphere Thursday at Kansas State.
How did he settle on Kansas State?

The answer goes all the way back to the Tommy Tuberville era. Auburn first welcomed Kansas State to the Plains in 2007 as part of a home-and-home series. With Tuberville still pacing the sidelines, the Tigers scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes to rally and beat a Wildcats team featuring Josh Freeman and Jordy Nelson.

Auburn is hoping for a similar result when it makes the return trip to Manhattan this week, seven years later.

As for playing the game on a Thursday night, that was Kansas State’s call. It’s their home game, so they were the ones who initially pitched the change to Jacobs. He then checked with head coach Gus Malzahn, who liked the idea, and voila, the game was moved up two days.

"It worked out great for our schedule," Jacobs said. "It gave us a few extra days to rest for Kansas State and a few extra days to get ready for our next team.

"The other thing, too, is it’s on Thursday night, so everybody in the nation will be watching. We didn’t have a competitive disadvantage whatsoever -- us or Kansas State -- and it put Auburn versus Kansas State on Thursday night, ESPN."

Among those watching will be the College Football Playoff selection committee. The game gives Auburn an opportunity to impress the committee members on a national stage.

It’s also not 2008 anymore. If you remember, that was the year when seven top-25 teams fell to unranked teams on Thursday night, the same year Oregon State took down No. 1 USC and Pittsburgh knocked off No. 10 South Florida in back-to-back weeks. Last season? Just one top-25 upset took place on a Thursday.

Still, the Tigers should be weary of the atmosphere and the raucous crowd that will be awaiting them inside Bill Snyder Family Stadium. The game has been sold out since June.

"This will likely be our greatest attended game ever," Kansas State athletics director John Currie told the Wichita Eagle last week. "We actually have not sold standing room-only tickets, because we know our student section will be as full as it has ever been that night. Student attendance is highest on weekdays."

On one hand, Thursday’s game has all the makings of an upset. On the other hand, it’s the perfect challenge to prepare Auburn for arguably the toughest schedule in the SEC. Either way, it's must-see TV. And to think, it was first thought up almost 10 years ago.

SEC bowl projections: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
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We're creeping closer and closer to the meat of conference season in the SEC. That just means things will get a little clearer in the bowl picture for the league.

We had a major shakeup at the top of our predictions with South Carolina's 38-35 upset win over Georgia, but we're still going with one SEC team making the College Football Playoff and 11 teams from the league making it into the postseason:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Alabama
Orange Bowl: Texas A&M
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: South Carolina
Capital One Bowl: Auburn
TaxSlayer Bowl: LSU
Outback Bowl: Ole Miss
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Georgia
Belk Bowl: Missouri
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Mississippi State
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Florida
Birmingham Bowl: Tennessee

The search for SEC's top QB continues

September, 12, 2014
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The best quarterback in the SEC is ...

Here's an even trickier one: Who will be the SEC's best quarterback by season's end?

Good luck with both of those. Now, I'm sure a few people on the Plains are offended by the question. Surely, it's Nick Marshall, right? But after watching Jeremy Johnson sling it around, Marshall may have a little competition as the best quarterback on his own campus right now.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Butch DillAuburn's Nick Marshall is just one of the two dynamic quarterbacks on the team.
That says as much about the talent Gus Malzahn has assembled at quarterback (and true freshman Sean White is waiting in the wings) as anything.

But unlike a year ago in the SEC, when the league was as star-studded as it's been in a while at the quarterback position and there was a very clear separation at the top, it's a tough call at this point on how the top three or four, or even the top six or seven, would break down if you were creating a pecking order.

Nobody's going to confuse the SEC with the Pac-12 when it comes to this year's quarterback crop, but don't sleep on the SEC, either.

Between them, Mississippi State's Dak Prescott and Missouri's Maty Mauk have accounted for 18 touchdowns in their first two games. They've each thrown eight touchdown passes, and both have the ability to extend plays with their athleticism, making it even tougher to defend them.

The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Prescott is the best fit for Dan Mullen's offense that he's had since taking the Mississippi State job in 2009, and Mauk is no stranger to big stages after stepping in for the injured James Franklin a year ago when the Tigers were in the midst of the SEC's Eastern Division race.

There's still a caveat with both players, though.

They need to do it for an entire season, leading their teams to big wins and putting them in championship contention, before anybody's going to label them as elite quarterbacks.

Perhaps the most intriguing wild card in the whole bunch is Florida's Jeff Driskel. All we have to go on this season is one glorified scrimmage against Eastern Michigan, but the vibe out of Gainesville in the preseason was that Driskel was primed to live up to his billing coming out of high school. First-year offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has helped polish his game, and the Gators are running more of a spread offense that suits what Driskel does best.

And how can we get into a conversation about the best quarterback in the SEC without mentioning the trigger man for Texas A&M?

[+] EnlargeKenny Hill
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesTexas A&M sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill is already garnering early Heisman Trophy talk.
That's sort of been the way it's gone under Kevin Sumlin. His quarterbacks always tend to light it up. See Case Keenum. See Johnny Manziel. And, now, see Kenny Hill, aka Kenny Trill.

He's been dynamic enough that his parents have already filed for the trademark to the Kenny Trill nickname. He's thrown for 794 yards and seven touchdowns in his first two games and is already popping up in early Heisman Trophy talk.

We'll wait until he faces a few more SEC teams before we hail him as the second coming of Manziel, but the tape doesn't lie. He's got a sweet release, knows where he wants to go with the football and isn't fazed by hostile environments.

By now, I'm sure the Ole Miss fans are wondering if I've forgotten about Bo Wallace, who's the most experienced quarterback of the group. Wallace's numbers speak for themselves, and his shoulder is finally healthy. If he keeps his interception total down, he could be the quarterback at the top of the SEC heap come December.

We only had one quarterback (Marshall at No. 6) among the top 25 players in the league in our preseason rankings. And in the spirit of full disclosure (and, yes, I've heard from a few Aggies over this), I ranked Texas A&M 12th in the league in our quarterback rankings.

That's about where I had the Aggies in our 2012 preseason quarterback rankings, but that's before Johnny Football had morphed into Johnny Football.

It's a reminder that quarterbacks in September can look a lot different come December.

And so can the way they're ranked.

Losing another voice of the SEC

We lost another treasured link to years gone by earlier this week when longtime Mississippi State radio play-by-play announcer Jack Cristil died. He was 88.

Cristil was part of a fraternity that made the SEC so special. He was calling Mississippi State games before they were all on television and before there was any cable. If you didn't go to the games, Cristil was the one who painted it for you on the radio every Saturday, and he did so in his own distinctive style for 58 years.

What a legendary collection of radio broadcasters this league has produced, and sadly, many of them are now gone.

It's impossible for me to think about the SEC without thinking about some of the radio voices that defined my childhood -- Larry Munson, John Ward, Cawood Ledford, John Ferguson, Jim Fyffe and Jack Cristil. Now, all except Ward are gone.

They truly brought the games to life when all you had in front of you was a radio with a big antenna.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn defensive lineman Montravius Adams sacked San Jose State’s quarterback last Saturday, it didn’t look all that different from a play he made a year ago.

It was the 2013 season opener, and nobody knew what to expect from the Tigers. They led Washington State by one point midway through the second quarter, and the defense desperately needed a spark. Adams came into the game, and on his first collegiate snap, he shook off his block and took down the quarterback.

[+] EnlargeMontravius Adams
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAuburn defensive lineman Montravius Adams is more comfortable on and off the field in his sophomore year.
Fast-forward to this season and last Saturday’s game. It was once again the second quarter, and Adams was lined up inside at the exact same spot. He made a quick move to his left, blew past the offensive lineman and left the quarterback with no chance. The only difference between the two plays was a salute he added to his celebration.

Take a closer look, though, and you’ll see the player who made the sack Saturday is not the same player he was last season.

“He’s so much further along than where he was, it’s not even funny,” Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner said during fall camp. “He wasn’t even on the planet [last season].”

In high school, Adams played Class A football, the smallest classification in the state of Georgia.

He graduated with just 67 students at Dooly County High School, so it was quite an adjustment when he first arrived at Auburn, a school with nearly 25,000 students on its campus.

The football was different, too. Adams was no longer the star player. He couldn’t afford to take plays off or slack off in practice.

“The tough thing last year was learning how to take coaching, being a better practice player and just being a better person in general,” he said.

Added Garner: “Just that every-day, bring-it-to-work, no-matter-how-you-feel, you’ve-got-to-come-practice (mentality), that’s the thing he struggles with the most.”

The immaturity, both on and off the field, showed up during Adams’ freshman year. The sack he made on his first play would be the only sack he made all season long. Despite coming in as a four-star prospect, ranked No. 13 in the ESPN 300, Adams wasn’t ready. He finished with 20 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and that lone sack.

“I think he physically and mentally hit a wall,” Dooly County head coach Jimmy Hughes said. “And I don’t think that’s unusual for a lot of kids that are true freshmen. There’s a lot of true freshmen that don’t play.”

But now that Adams has a year of experience under his belt and a full offseason to work out and get acclimated to college life, there is a noticeable difference in the 6-foot-4, 306-pound defensive lineman. He’s stronger and quicker on the football field. He’s more mature from a mental aspect as well, able to handle the everyday grind.

“Coming out this year, I just feel more comfortable,” Adams said. “I feel like I’m a part of the family.”

The results have been evident. He started the first two games of this season, and he probably played his best game ever wearing an Auburn uniform Saturday against San Jose State. He recorded six tackles, three for a loss and the sack, his first sack in more than a year.

“He’s [grown] big time,” Auburn teammate Trovon Reed said after the game. “He’s more mature. He knows if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he could be something big around here. It’s in his head now. He knows it. We don’t have to tell it to him. He’s just playing with that chip on his shoulder.”

The scary thing is that Adams only turned 19 in July. He’s still learning the game, and he still has plenty of room to improve.

“Everybody’s got to keep working,” he said. “I think I’ve got to do a lot more, too. Coach [Garner] told me after the game that I’ve got to get better. I had a good game, but I have to get better. So when we go to practice, I’ll look at film, work on what I did wrong and just keep doing what he says, get better.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- Through the first two games, Cameron Artis-Payne has rushed for 289 yards and four touchdowns. His 42 carries are twice as many carries as Corey Grant, the team's No. 2 running back. So does that mean Auburn has found its workhorse? Have the Tigers found their replacement for Tre Mason?

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Butch Dill/AP PhotoCameron Artis-Payne, Auburn's leading rusher through two games, is out to prove he can carry the ball, as well as the Tigers' offense.
Not quite. At least not according to head coach Gus Malzahn.

"He did a good job," Malzahn said after Saturday's game. "Corey did a good job in there, too. We utilized both those guys. Nothing's changed as far as that goes. We've got to have two of those guys. And you saw the young guys get in there -- Peyton Barber and then Roc [Thomas], too. It's good to get those guys some carries in a game-type situation."

And so we're back to square one.

Technically, Artis-Payne is Auburn's starting running back. He started the first two games, and he will likely start next Thursday's game at Kansas State. But for some reason, Malzahn has been reluctant to acknowledge that he's the guy.

To be fair, more than one back is needed in Malzahn's offense -- it's why the Tigers led the nation in rushing a season ago -- but by the beginning of SEC play last season, they settled on Mason as the featured back. That's the role Artis-Payne wants to have.

"Selfishly, yeah of course, everybody wants to keep getting the ball," Artis-Payne said after Saturday's game where he rushed for 112 yards and three touchdowns. "But at the end of the day, we have to go with the looks that they give us and what the defense is giving us.

"It's a team game. We've got a lot of really, really good running backs in the backfield."

That attitude is why Artis-Payne's position coach Tim Horton calls him "a pro before he's a pro." It basically means he's the same every day. He doesn't have bad days. He's professional in meetings, professional in work. As offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee put it, "he's all business and all work."

It's the same way when he faces the media. There's plenty of personality, but there's a certain edge to him, too, a chip on his shoulder that's likely a reminder of where he came from.

"I'm sure there are some personal aspects in his life that he draws from, but also, he didn't have any offers coming out of high school," Lashlee said. "He goes out to junior college, and he earned his way here. He didn't have the typical road that a kid playing at a big school in the SEC would have as far as recruiting goes.

"So I think he's constantly out to prove himself, and he's out to prove that we don't have to miss a beat with him back there."

Even Artis-Payne admitted to having a little chip on his shoulder coming into this season.

"Yeah, ya'll saw me sitting on the bench last year," he said. "I read everything that everybody puts out, talking about how the running game is going to be. I'm here to prove that it's going to be all right."

After two games, it's been more than all right.

Auburn leads the SEC in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. It doesn't matter that Mason is gone or that Greg Robinson left early for the NFL or that Alex Kozan is out for the season with an injury. The Tigers still feature a dominant rushing attack, and whether Malzahn wants to admit it, Artis-Payne is quickly becoming the driving force behind that.

"I'm just getting more comfortable knowing that I'm going to get in the game and not have to worry about playing time and all that type of stuff," Artis-Payne said.

So is he OK with 20+ carries a game from here on out?

"Oh yeah, I definitely enjoy that," he said. "I'd like for that to continue if it can."
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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting news across the country. Today's offerings: James Franklin and Penn State was already building one of the best classes in the country, and Monday's news that the Nittany Lions were eligible for postseason play will help them build an even better class. Plus, recruits across the country agreed with the NFL and the Ravens' decision to distance themselves from Ray Rice, and we continue our tour of the top recruiting happenings on social media.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Balance. That was the key word for Auburn all offseason. Second-year coach Gus Malzahn was adamant that his offense would be more balanced in 2014 after the Tigers led the nation in rushing a season ago.

"That was really probably the number one priority in the spring," Malzahn said at SEC media days. "We led the country in rushing last year. When you do that, defenses have to take some chances. We've got to do a better job this year of making them pay when they do take chances."

Don’t be fooled, though. After Saturday’s 59-13 win against San Jose State, the adage "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" comes to mind.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Butch DillQB Nick Marshall and Auburn strive for balance, but running the ball is working just fine for now.
Auburn looked like a carbon copy of last season's team, racking up 363 yards on the ground compared to just 135 through the air. The Tigers ran on 68 percent of their plays, which was less than last season's clip but still astounding when balance was supposedly the focal point heading into this season.

Obviously a lot of factors played into the game plan during Saturday’s rout. Nick Marshall was back at quarterback, and his strength is running the zone-read. The game was never really close, meaning the offense didn’t have to throw, and towards the end, they were more concerned with running the clock out.

But if it’s going to work that well in the future, why change?

"We definitely need to throw the ball to keep balance to keep things honest, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to go with what got you there and we were a running team last year," Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne said.

Artis-Payne has rushed for 289 yards and four touchdowns through the first two games.

"We just need to do what it takes to win," wide receiver Ricardo Louis added. "If that means running the ball the whole game, it’s fine with me."

Malzahn is calling the shots, though, and he still insists on the offense having more balance. If that is indeed the plan moving forward, then it comes down to Marshall and his ability to throw the ball. All offseason, we heard about how he’s improved as a passer, but through a game and a half, the results have been mixed.

On Saturday, the senior quarterback finished 10 of 19 for 101 yards and a touchdown. He started well, completing four of his first five passes, but then struggled with his consistency. At one point, he threw five straight incompletions. Of his 10 completions, only five were of 10 yards or more.

"There were a couple throws that I know I could’ve made," Marshall said. "It’s just going to take practice. We’re going to get better every game and every week and every practice."

The team’s best passer, Jeremy Johnson, is No. 2 on the depth chart behind Marshall. He didn’t see any action until the fourth quarter Saturday, but Malzahn and his staff have said that he will have a role for the Tigers this season.

So will we see Auburn throw more as the season progresses? Not if the rushing attack is working like it was against San Jose State.

But Malzahn has a plan, and there are not many coaches better at reading a game and calling plays accordingly.

"Whatever Coach Malzahn calls, we’re going to run," Artis-Payne said. "He’s a genius as far as picking apart defenses and seeing their weaknesses."
Unless you're invested in a college football fantasy league with a team stockpiled with SEC talent, Saturday was hard to stomach.

Too many utterly overmatched opponents got their brains bashed in by the hands of superior SEC opponents, leaving most viewers yawning by sundown and SEC haters lambasting the conference for not challenging itself.

Hey, the haters were right. Oregon-Michigan State, Stanford-USC and Ohio State-Virginia Tech blew the SEC's slate out of the Mississippi River. After a decent opening week, the SEC went soft with its scheduling to pad stats and work some kinks out before things get a little tougher going forward.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanLeonard Fournette and the LSU Tigers had no problems handling Sam Houston State -- blanking them 56-0.
The SEC outscored its nonconference competition 550-126 on Saturday, and while many will laugh at the conference's efforts, teams did exactly what they needed to do against lesser competition. Just about every SEC team made needed improvements from Week 1 to Week 2. There were no real scares, like Nebraska and Iowa (oh, Big Ten). No team let an opponent like Memphis scare it at home (hello, UCLA). No team needed a last-second interception to thwart a shocker, like North Carolina. And no team got upset, like Purdue (oh, man, Big Ten).

Outside of Vanderbilt, which was throttled at home by Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, which forgot how to play defense against UAB, every SEC team improved.

While we scoffed at the games, this wasn't a throwaway weekend for teams still looking to work through things before conference season gears up.

A perfect example of that is Florida. Coming off a disastrous 4-8 season and a canceled opener, the Gators stomped Eastern Michigan with 655 yards, scored on their first five possessions and averaged 7.6 yards per play with new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper running things. Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who has had an up-and-down Florida career, completed 31 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown.

It was Eastern Michigan, which failed to master the art of the pregame run-out, but for a program desperately looking for an offensive pulse, this is exactly what the Gators needed.

"We needed a win and to get out and play," coach Will Muschamp said. "We're much improved. That's not false bravado. It's real. We are a better football team, and we are much improved."

Same for Arkansas. The Razorbacks thrashed Nicholls State 73-7 behind 684 yards. The Hogs needed to stop a 10-game losing streak, and they needed to shake off a bad second half against Auburn. They did with 495 rushing yards and quarterback Brandon Allen throwing for 117 yards and four touchdowns on just four completions.

Alabama's secondary played much better and was much more composed against FAU, while Nick Saban figured out more about his quarterback situation. Blake Sims is ahead and is the more composed player, but he is limited with his arm, unlike Jake Coker.

LSU played a complete game, Leonard Fournette shook off the nerves (13 carries, 92 yards and a touchdown), and we saw a more relaxed and confident Anthony Jennings at quarterback (188 yards and three touchdowns) in a 56-0 win over Sam Houston State.

Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk looked like a seasoned veteran on the road, throwing for 325 yards and five touchdowns in what could have been a trap game against Toledo.

Auburn's offense clicked with Nick Marshall back at quarterback and the defense made vast improvements in a 59-13 win over San Jose State.

Texas A&M's offense is still scoring on Lamar, but the defense didn't allow a touchdown and didn't allow at least 430 yards for the first time since last year's UTEP game (Nov. 2).

And South Carolina got a must-win over a feisty East Carolina team that took it down to the fourth quarter. But the Gamecocks got their running game back just in time for Georgia. Now, if they can figure things out on defense.

Many won't cheer the SEC's past weekend, and that's totally legitimate, but the league did what it needed to, considering the circumstances. It might have been ugly scheduling, but at least the outcomes didn't look like the Big Ten's weekend.

SEC bowl projections: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
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It wasn't much of an eventful week in the SEC with so many teams playing weaker opponents and only one conference game, with Ole Miss routing Vanderbilt. As a result, there are no major shakeups in this week's bowl projections from last week's. Georgia had the weekend off, so it is still riding its impressive Week 1 victory to sit atop the list. We are still projecting only one SEC team in the College Football Playoff at the moment, though that could change down the road.

We are still projecting 11 SEC teams to make the postseason. Noting that these projections will fluctuate quite a bit throughout the season, here's our best guess after Week 2:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Georgia
Orange Bowl: Alabama
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Auburn
Capital One Bowl: Texas A&M
TaxSlayer Bowl: LSU
Outback Bowl: Ole Miss
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Mississippi State
Belk Bowl: Florida
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Missouri
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: South Carolina
Birmingham Bowl: Tennessee

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