SEC: Auburn Tigers

SEC lunchtime links

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
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The Washington Wizards lead the Chicago Bulls 2-0 in the NBA playoffs. Never in my life thought did I think this day would come.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn’s spring came and went without a No. 1 running back establishing himself. Is it because Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant performed so well that deciding between the two proved too difficult for the Auburn coaches?

It’s a possibility. Artis-Payne paced the offense with 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, while Grant provided a spark with five carries for 128 yards and a touchdown of his own.

[+] EnlargeRacean Thomas
Tom Hauck for Student SportsRacean "Roc" Thomas, the No. 5 tailback in the 2014 class, was an Alabama fan before committing to play for Auburn.
A-Day capped off what had been an impressive month for both backs, though it did little to close the gap between the two.

But there might be more to it. What if the staff was waiting on a certain ESPN 300 prospect to arrive on campus before making a final decision?

It would seem crazy for a freshman to come in and take the job away from two seniors, but if you don’t think it’s possible then you haven’t seen Racean "Roc" Thomas play. As a senior at Oxford (Ala.) High School, he rushed for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns. He says he’s been told by Auburn coaches that he’ll have every chance to start when he gets on campus.

“They’re just ready for me to get up there and really get me in the offense and see what I can do,” Thomas told ESPN.com.

Growing up, Thomas was an Alabama fan. He went to games at Bryant-Denny Stadium and attended camps on the UA campus. When he received an offer from Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, it was expected that he would take his talents to Tuscaloosa. At one point, he was all set to commit there -- until the staff told him to hold on.

“I was like, ‘Well, no I’m not going to hold on. If y’all want my commitment, then y’all will let me commit right now,'" Thomas said.

Alabama didn’t take his commitment, so Thomas started taking visits to Auburn where first-year coach Gus Malzahn made him a top priority. A new bond was formed, and before Malzahn ever coached his first game, Thomas committed to Auburn in what he called a “business” decision.

Shortly after Lane Kiffin was hired as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, the Crimson Tide made one last push to sign Thomas, but it proved too little too late. Thomas stayed true to his word and signed with the Tigers in February.

“I think a lot of people were surprised,” Thomas said. “And [at the same time], I think a lot of them really kind of knew that’s where I was going to go. I guess it’s just stuff that happened over time.”

With the recruiting saga behind fully him, Thomas appears more confident and at ease than he ever did in the months leading up to signing day. There are no more phone calls from coaches or media. No more criticism from Alabama fans who were upset he signed with their bitter rival. He’s just living his life.

“[It’s] just working out, track, keeping in touch with the coaches,” Thomas said. “We’re probably going to start soon where they’ll start showing me some plays and trying to get me in the mix of how they do things up there play-wise.

“I’m just really trying to keep a solid schedule -- working out, eating right and just really trying to stay healthy.”

The plan is for Thomas to arrive at Auburn this summer and immediately begin working out with the team. The coaches have high expectations for the Mr. Football Award winner. When Thomas said he’ll be given every chance to start his first season, he wasn’t lying.

Even though Artis-Payne and Grant battled dutifully for the starting job this spring, it’s possible that Auburn’s No. 1 running back is still on his way.

“We're going to play the best player at every position,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said this spring. “I don't care if you're a senior, I don't care if you're a true freshman. Those guys are going to get opportunities.”

Lashlee was careful to peel back the layers on the pending competition, however.

“The difference for them, these guys (on campus now) are light years ahead,” he said. “Obviously Cam and Corey have played, Peyton [Barber] has had a year plus the spring, so it's just going to matter with Roc and Kam [Kamryn Pettway] in that situation, how quick do they pick things up, how fast can they grasp everything and have the game slow down for them.

“We've had it both ways. We've had guys like Peyton Barber who either because we had guys in front of him or he just needed a redshirt year -- we still think Peyton's going to be a great player. And then we've had other guys in the past that as a true freshman were ready, and we kind of eased them into it. Sometimes earlier in the year they got more or as the year went on they got more or their workload increased.

“We'll have to see how that goes when those two get here and see how they respond, but we're counting on them to come in and compete, want to play and want to play now.”
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.”

Three-star 'stars' in the SEC

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
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It’s not always about the four- and five-star prospects.

Plenty of three-star (and lower) prospects go on to highly successful careers in the SEC.

Below is a stab at the 10 best players in the SEC next season who were ranked as three-star prospects or lower by ESPN coming out of high school. We’ve listed them alphabetically.

[+] EnlargeSammie Coates
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Sammie Coates had seven touchdown catches last season.
David Andrews, C, Georgia, Sr.: The center position in the SEC is loaded, and Andrews will be near the top of that list in 2014. He's entering his third season as a starter and is one of the unquestioned leaders of the team. He wasn't ranked among the top 35 players in the state of Georgia coming out of high school and committed to the Bulldogs nearly a year before signing day.

Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn, Jr.: We've only seen a glimpse of what Coates is capable of, even though he had seven touchdown catches last season and averaged 21.5 yards per catch. A product of Leroy, Ala., Coates was ranked as the No. 76 receiver nationally. Originally committed to Southern Miss, Coates ran a sub-4.4 40-yard dash at the Auburn camp, got an offer and switched his commitment to Auburn.

Alvin "Bud" Dupree, DE, Kentucky, Sr.: With 16 career sacks, Dupree is one of the most accomplished pass-rushers returning in the SEC. Coming out of Irwinton, Ga., as a high school senior, he was ranked as the No. 48 tight end nationally and picked Kentucky over Georgia Tech. He wasn’t offered by Georgia.

Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas, Sr.: Flowers had 13.5 tackles for loss last season, which leads all returning players in the SEC. He was ranked as the No. 108 defensive end nationally as a high school senior in Huntsville, Ala. He was originally committed to Georgia Tech but took a visit to Arkansas on the final weekend and signed with the Hogs.

Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn, Sr.: Eight quarterbacks in the Class of 2011 who signed with SEC schools were ranked ahead of Marshall, who was a cornerback at Georgia that first season before running into trouble and getting kicked off the team. He blossomed last season at Auburn in leading the Tigers within an eyelash of a national championship. He has become a more consistent passer this offseason and returns as one of the more dynamic players in the SEC.

Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State, Jr.: Only a two-star prospect in 2011 out of Tunica, Miss., McKinney was ranked as the No. 169 athlete nationally and weighed just 205 pounds coming out of high school. He played quarterback, linebacker and punter for his high school team. Now 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, McKinney has been a tackling machine for the Bulldogs at middle linebacker with more than 170 tackles the past two seasons.

Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State, Jr.: One of the top returning quarterbacks in the league along with Marshall, Prescott is a threat both as a runner and a passer and is poised for a huge season in 2014. A Haughton, La., product, Prescott was ranked as the No. 41 quarterback nationally coming out of high school. LSU offered after he had a big senior season, but Prescott stuck to his guns and enrolled early at Mississippi State that January.

Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss, Sr.: Prewitt led the SEC last season with six interceptions, and his 71 total tackles were second on Ole Miss' team. He was a first-team All-American by the Associated Press after exiting high school in Bay Springs, Miss., as the No. 78 athlete nationally in the 2011 class.

Corey Robinson, OT, South Carolina, Sr.: South Carolina's offensive line should be one of the better ones in the SEC in 2014, and the 6-8, 348-pound Robinson returns as one of the premier left tackles in the league. Coming out of high school in Havelock, N.C., in 2010, he was ranked as the No. 56 offensive guard nationally. Other programs on his list included Duke, East Carolina and North Carolina State.

Braylon Webb, S, Missouri, Sr.: Webb is entering his third season as the Tigers’ starting free safety. He was second on the team in 2013 with 89 total tackles, and he also had three interceptions. He was unranked nationally coming out of Gilmer, Texas, in 2010 and chose Missouri over Houston.

SEC's lunch links

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
12:15
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So after all that, Kevin Durant made this insane shot ... and lost? Ouch.
video
AUBURN, Ala. -- The talk on the Plains this spring has been all about Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall and how he has improved as both a passer and a leader.

Marshall exceeded expectations last year as he guided the Tigers to 12 wins and a conference championship in his first year on campus, but his completion percentage was below 60 percent and he was ninth in the league in passing yards. He was known more for his running ability, leading all SEC quarterbacks with more than 1,000 yards rushing.

On Saturday, he looked like a different player out there. Marshall came out throwing, and although it took him a minute to find his rhythm, he finished 13-of-22 for 236 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions -- all in the first half. He threw for that many yards just twice last season and never came close to that many touchdowns.

“I think he did a good job with his eyes, his progression,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “He didn’t put the ball in jeopardy.

“I think the big thing is just being more comfortable. You can see him in the pocket. He’s just more under control. His balance is good. His eyes, his progression are good. So you can tell he’s really improved.”

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesNick Marshall looked like a much-improved player on Saturday.
Marshall’s performance Saturday was quite a contrast to the quarterbacks on the other side of the state, but what should we make of all this? Is he that improved as a passer? Should we go ahead and give him the Heisman Trophy? Will anybody be able to stop Auburn?

Hold on. Before everybody gets too excited, let’s not forget who Marshall was throwing against. It was a combination of the second-team defense and scout-team players. Former walk-on Mack VanGorder was playing safety and finished second on the team in tackles. Linebacker Michael Clifton wore No. 83 because he was a tight end last year. It’s fair to say that Auburn’s starting quarterback had a stiffer test against Florida Atlantic last year.

However, there were still plenty of positives to take away from the game, beginning with wide receiver D’haquille Williams, or Duke as they call him.

Williams arrived in January as the nation’s top junior college player, and he looked every bit the part in Saturday’s spring game. He led the team with five catches for 88 yards and made a terrific grab on a 3-yard fade route for a touchdown.

“He’s a playmaker,” Malzahn said. “There’s no doubt. He can get open. He’s one of those big, long, rangy guys that wants the football and makes a pretty good target for a quarterback.”

The wide receiver corps in general looked much improved in the spring game. Last year’s breakout star Sammie Coates has put on 15 pounds since the BCS title game and made the catch of the day with a one-handed grab in the back of the end zone. Veteran Quan Bray caught two touchdown passes from Marshall, and though he had a quiet afternoon, Ricardo Louis will be counted on again this fall.

“Our group is so tight,” Coates said. “The way we’re playing right now -- we’ve got so much talent in that room -- it’s scary. There are so many players in that room that can make plays at any time. Any time you give it to them, they’re going to make a play.”

So yes, it was an inferior defense that Auburn’s first-team offense ran the score up on, but the talent at wide receiver is there and, after a slow start, Marshall played more consistently and made some throws he might not have been able to make last season. For once, he looked comfortable in the pocket.

It’s a small sample size, but if Marshall in fact proves himself as a passer this coming season, there’s nothing stopping this Auburn offense.

“We’re just helping each other get better every day,” Marshall said. “There’s no telling how good we can be on the offensive side of the ball.”

Ball security in the SEC

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
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Turnovers are the great equalizer in football.

Teams that turn it over consistently don't win very often, and teams that force turnovers typically find ways to win.

Looking back at the SEC in the last three seasons, it's not surprising that Alabama and LSU lead the way in turnover margin. The Tigers are plus-36 and the Crimson Tide are plus-24 during that span. They've combined to win two of the last three SEC titles and played each other for the national championship in 2011.

Alabama has been especially good at not turning the ball over. The Crimson Tide haven’t turned it over 20 or more times in a season since 2007, Nick Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa. Alabama and LSU are the only teams in the league that haven’t had a 20-turnover season at least once over the last three years. During that three-year span, Alabama has turned it over just 44 times.

By contrast, Ole Miss has turned it over 75 times during the last three seasons, which is the most in the league. Arkansas is right behind the Rebels with 74 turnovers, and the Hogs have forced the fewest turnovers in the SEC since 2011 (47). Ole Miss and Texas A&M are the only SEC teams to turn it over more than 20 times in each of the last three seasons, although Texas A&M was a member of the Big 12 in 2011.

In the last three seasons, South Carolina's defense has led the way when it comes to creating turnovers. The Gamecocks have forced 86 turnovers. LSU is second with 82. The Gamecocks have intercepted an SEC-high 52 passes in the last three seasons. Vanderbilt is second with 48 picks during that span.

Ole Miss has thrown the most interceptions (44) in the last three seasons, just one more than Tennessee (43). Alabama has thrown the fewest picks (18).

Below is the turnover margin for all 14 SEC schools in the last three seasons. Missouri and Texas A&M were in the Big 12 in 2011.

1. LSU: 82 gained, 46 lost -- plus-36
2. Alabama: 68 gained, 44 lost -- plus-24
3. Mississippi State: 78 gained, 55 lost -- plus-23
4. South Carolina: 86 gained, 64 lost -- plus-22
5. Missouri: 77 gained, 57 lost -- plus-20
6. Georgia: 77 gained, 66 lost -- plus-11
7. Vanderbilt: 77 gained, 69 lost -- plus-8
8. Florida: 62 gained, 61 lost -- plus-1
9. Kentucky: 52 gained, 55 lost -- minus-3
10. Tennessee: 60 gained, 64 lost -- minus-4
11. Ole Miss: 67 gained, 75 lost -- minus-8
12. Auburn: 55 gained, 65 lost -- minus-10
13. Texas A&M: 53 gained, 66 lost -- minus-13
14. Arkansas: 47 gained, 74 lost -- minus-27

Video: Auburn RB Racean 'Roc' Thomas

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
2:30
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video
Auburn running back signee Racean 'Roc' Thomas talks with ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf about the Tigers' running back battle and how he will factor in this summer.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn might have been 3-9 in 2012, but that didn’t stop the fans from piling inside Jordan-Hare Stadium for last year’s spring game. There was a record crowd of 83,401 who were on hand to welcome new coach Gus Malzahn, not thinking that he would eventually lead the Tigers to the BCS title game nine months later.

“I think [A-Day] is for the overall program,” Malzahn said. “Like I’ve said before, we’re all in this together -- our fans, our players, our coaches. This is one of those unique opportunities. We want to make it exciting for our fans, and at the same time, we want to get better.”

The crowd could be even bigger this year with the Tigers coming off a 12-2 season and an SEC championship. Here are five things to watch in Saturday’s spring finale (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET):

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith his confidence sky high, expect Auburn QB Nick Marshall to be even better running the Tigers' high-powered offense.
1. Faster is better: The proposed “10-second” rule never made it to a vote, and that means that Auburn’s offense is only going to get faster. It took first-year quarterback Nick Marshall nearly half the season before he became comfortable in Malzahn’s offense, and even then he wasn’t as confident as he has looked this spring. The senior is making better reads, throwing the ball better and more importantly, he’s become a leader. Expect Marshall to take the hurry-up, no-huddle offense to another gear this fall, and although the spring game won’t give much away, it will give the fans a glimpse of what’s to come.

2. Juco impact: If you ask the fans, the player they most want to see Saturday would almost certainly be wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player a year ago, and there’s already talk that he could be one of the top wideouts in the SEC next season. The coaches and players alike have raved about his talent this spring, and he’ll make his debut in front of the fans this weekend. However, don’t sleep on his juco teammate Derrick Moncrief. The former Prattville (Ala.) defensive back has had as good as spring as anybody on the team and could push for a starting role in the secondary.

3. Blind side battle: Don’t expect the left tackle battle to be decided during Saturday’s spring game. The coaches have all but said they will wait until the fall before naming a starter. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be worth keeping an eye on. Sophomore Shon Coleman, who served as Greg Robinson's primary backup last year, might have a leg up in the race and will likely take the field with the first-team offense, but Patrick Miller, the more experienced of the two, will get his reps, too. In his first two seasons at Auburn, Miller started 14 games at right tackle, and he might see some time there depending on what the coaches do with Avery Young.

4. Health concerns: There could be some familiar faces not in action Saturday. It’s been a frustrating spring from a health standpoint, and while there haven’t been any serious injuries, there have been enough nagging injuries to force the coaches to get creative. Defensive tackles Montravius Adams and Gabe Wright have both worked some at end, and with LaDarius Owens out and Carl Lawson questionable, the “Rhino package” could make an appearance. Earlier this week, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson indicated that some of the starters who have been banged up might not get as many reps in the spring game.

5. The running backs: It was this time last year when Cameron Artis-Payne, a junior college transfer at the time, first made his mark on the Plains. He had 164 yards of offense and a touchdown in the spring game, which earned him offensive MVP honors. He’d like to duplicate that performance in this year’s game and claim the starting job, but Corey Grant won’t go down without a fight. Grant, who primarily ran the jet sweep last year, will show what he can do as a featured back. And don’t forget about redshirt freshman Peyton Barber, who could wind up leading the team in carries when it’s all said and done.

SEC lunch links

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
12:00
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Alabama, Auburn and Missouri will all hold their spring games this weekend. To get you ready for all the action, be sure to check out Friday’s lunch links.

Stopping the run in the SEC

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
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The game of football will always evolve, and there are always going to be changes -- from how fast teams want to play on offense, to whether the quarterback lines up under center, to whether there are four or six defensive backs on the field.

What doesn't change, at least if you want to be good, is that you have to be able to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense.

To the latter, I went back and looked at the recent SEC champions.

Last season, Auburn was 62nd nationally in rushing defense, the lowest any SEC champion has finished in rushing defense in the SEC championship game era. Nine of the previous 10 SEC champs had finished in the top-15 nationally in rushing defense, and six had finished in the top 10.

So, clearly, Auburn was the exception a season ago. The Tigers allowed an average of 162.1 rushing yards per game last season, the most by an SEC champion since the advent of the SEC championship game in 1992. Only three other SEC champions during the championship game era have averaged giving up more than 120 yards per game on the ground.

Prior to last season, the last seven SEC champs averaged giving up just 91.1 yards per game rushing.

Here's a look at the rush defensive numbers for all of the SEC champions going back to the first SEC championship game in 1992. Their national rank is in parentheses:
  • 2013 -- Auburn (62nd) -- 162.1 yards
  • 2012 -- Alabama (1st) – 76.4 yards
  • 2011 -- LSU (5th) – 90.1 yards
  • 2010 -- Auburn (9th) – 109.1 yards
  • 2009 -- Alabama (2nd) – 78.1 yards
  • 2008 -- Florida (15th) – 105.4 yards
  • 2007 -- LSU (12th) – 106.1 yards
  • 2006 -- Florida (5th) – 72.5 yards
  • 2005 -- Georgia (52nd) 143.8 yards
  • 2004 -- Auburn (12th) 104.2 yards
  • 2003 -- LSU (3rd) – 67 yards
  • 2002 – Georgia (19th) 114 yards
  • 2001 – LSU (21st) 116.7 yards
  • 2000 – Florida (39th) 133.1 yards
  • 1999 – Alabama (2nd) 75.3 yards
  • 1998 – Tennessee (6th) – 93.9 yards
  • 1997 – Tennessee (8th) – 93.3 yards
  • 1996 – Florida (18th) – 108.6 yards
  • 1995 – Florida (25th) – 130.2 yards
  • 1994 – Florida (5th) – 84.6 yards
  • 1993 – Florida (9th) – 111.2 yards
  • 1992 – Alabama (1st) – 55 yards

SEC's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
1:00
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Let them eat a late lunch!
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Shortly after a string of grueling 6 a.m. offseason workouts and just before spring practice began on the Plains, Auburn’s offensive players gathered together. Around the same time, the defense locked itself away, too.

There was no discussion of mutiny or complaining about the harsh offseason that was. These meetings were strictly business and about progress.

Offensive players anonymously wrote down their ideas on what it was going to take to push forward and what would hinder their growth, while defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson preached to his unit that it was much easier to build on losses than success.

Carl Lawson, Gabe Wright
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsGabe Wright leads a group of young, hungry defensive linemen intent on keeping Auburn atop the SEC.
Both sides emerged motivated to cast away any complacency. They were hungry to capitalize on a special season that saw the Tigers rebound from an embarrassing 3-9 2012 to march to the final BCS national title game, only to come up seconds short to Florida State.

“We’ve not arrived,” Tigers coach Gus Malzahn told ESPN.com in early April. “We had a really good season and we came a long way. We were 13 seconds away from winning the whole thing, and we’re trying to use all of that in a positive way moving forward and not let any of the things that come with success seep in. We have a heightened alert of it.”

More than a year removed from the dark stain that was 2012, the Tigers embark on a season in which they’ll be viewed as favorites more often than not, but they’re looking to evolve. Last year has vanished, and while it was a special season, everyone on the Plains feels something was left out in California with the loss to FSU.

Complacency isn’t an option for this year’s Auburn Tigers.

“Getting to the national championship was one of the hardest things to do,” senior defensive lineman Gabe Wright said, “but let’s face it: Getting there and then not winning it probably puts more fire in you than getting there and winning it. I know this team is highly motivated, highly driven, and that’s not coach-talk -- that’s talk in the locker room, and that’s exactly how we feel.”

Beyond hunger, this team has talent. Important pieces such as running back Tre Mason (a school-record 1,816 rushing yards and 2,374 yards of total offense), defensive end Dee Ford (10.5 sacks), cornerback Chris Davis (15 pass breakups and the Alabama kick-six) and left tackle Greg Robinson (future first-round draft pick) are gone, but the Tigers are stockpiled with more than adequate personnel.

Auburn has an All-SEC candidate quarterback in Nick Marshall, a healthy stable of running backs, older and improved receivers, and a young, yet beastly, set of defensive linemen that could be budding stars.

This team isn’t perfect, but it isn’t learning so much this spring as it is adjusting and growing. There’s less installing. Practices have been more technical than anything, with extra wrinkles being thrown in.

There’s also a healthy nucleus of veterans and youngsters who were key to last season's success, creating a great balance of camaraderie and skill.

Going 12-2 with an SEC championship and some miraculous victories set the college football world ablaze, but it hasn’t satisfied an Auburn team looking for more.

“It’s going to be tougher next year,” senior center Reese Dismukes said. “Now, everyone is going to have a target on us. You can’t let the little things slip ... you have to focus on everything being right.

“You can’t ever sleep. You gotta keep working hard and keep getting better because someone is always going to be coming after you.”

With a schedule that features trips to Kansas State, both Mississippi schools, Georgia and Alabama, Auburn will get all it can handle during its run to repeat as SEC champs. To attack that road, the no-longer-sneaky Tigers must make sure their defense can keep up with what should be another potent offense.

After allowing 466.6 yards and 29.6 points per game in conference play, Johnson described last season's defense as not very good. It gave up too many yards, had too many missed assignments, made too many adjustment mistakes, and allowed too many “cheap plays,” Johnson said.

But with the experience returning, instead of rebuilding and re-coaching, Johnson said he’s been able to work with a more comfortable group. Players know what they are doing now and aren't making the same silly mistakes that plagued them last spring and fall, which has made the defense "so much better" this spring, Johnson said.

“It’s a fine line sometimes between panic and recklessness,” Johnson said of his defense. “We’ve got to keep that recklessness and intensity if we’re going to have a chance. We’re still not one of the most talented teams in America, but we’re talented enough if we continue to focus like we did last year and keep trying hard and improving.”

It would be easy for the Tigers to rely on their talent and past success. But that's not the mindset. The mindset is that this team has so much more to show in 2014. The Tigers want to get comfortable with a championship lifestyle.

“Really and truly, I don’t think the confidence level could be too high," Wright said. "It’s not anything about overconfidence, it’s just that we don’t want to maintain to stay here. We know there’s another level to go.”

SEC lunchtime links

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
12:00
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Finish your taxes on time? Then sit back and enjoy Wednesday’s lunch links.

ESPN 300: Top SEC targets 

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
11:45
AM ET
video
With Wednesday’s release of the 2015 ESPN 300, here is a look at five top targets for the top conference in college football.


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