BALANCE OF POWER
Auburn reached the BCS title game in coach Gus Malzahn's first season in spite of its defense, which allowed 6.0 yards per play, fifth-most in the SEC. The Tigers also gave up 35 points or more to LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia and Missouri. If Malzahn's up-tempo offense hadn't been so good, Auburn would have watched the national championship from the team lounge.
Ellis Johnson, who last year became Auburn's third defensive coordinator in three years, returns for a second season, adding stability to the Tigers' scheme. Senior defensive lineman Gabe Wright will need to be a monster to account for departed defensive end Dee Ford, a first-round draft pick, and for Carl Lawson, a sophomore end who could miss the season with a left-knee injury.
Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason is off to the NFL, but the offense shouldn't miss a beat. Senior Nick Marshall is Malzahn's first returning QB in his nine seasons as a college coach, and Marshall will play behind one of the country's best lines. Junior receiver Sammie Coates (21.5 yards per catch in 2013) and senior tailbacks Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant (a combined 1,257 rushing yards) will be major contributors. "We focused on being more balanced," Malzahn says of the off-season. "I really feel like we accomplished that."
Sammie Coates will get a lot of attention on the edge in Auburn's passing game, but junior wideout D'haquille Williams could emerge as a major receiving threat. The 6'2" 216-pounder was a junior college All-America during his two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College; in 2013 he hauled in 51 balls for 733 yards. In a season when dual-threat QB Nick Marshall and the Tigers are determined to pass more often, Williams has all the makings of a star.
While the only real out-of-conference challenge is Kansas State, few teams face a slate as daunting as the Tigers'. Starting in October they enter a hellish six-week SEC stretch that includes LSU, South Carolina, at Ole Miss, Texas A&M and at Georgia without a bye. At least Auburn has a light week against Samford before heading into an emotionally charged Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 29. They'll need to win at least eight of their last nine to have a shot at the Playoff.
SI POWER RANKINGS / By Rotowire.com
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SPECIAL TEAMS 81%
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
One of the things I've always thought Gus does well is, he fits his offense to the strengths of his personnel. Last year with the running back and quarterback they had, he was able to make sure he maximized the touches those two got. With the ability to run the quarterback and make the defense account for the 11th man on the field, they were pretty effective. Marshall's ability as a passer is average to above average, but he's so good as a runner that it doesn't permit teams to necessarily play man coverage. That forces them to play zone, and when you add that to Marshall's ability as a runner, it opens up larger throwing lanes. Assuming they use him the same way, I could see him being more effective as a passer.
On defense they played a lot of man coverage. They were able to generate pressure with a four-man rush and be decent against the run. Even though they lost some starters, they have guys with snaps under their belts. I can't anticipate there will be much of a drop-off there.
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