ARMED AND READY
The last highly touted, 6'5"-plus quarterback to stroll onto Auburn's campus won both the Heisman Trophy and the national championship in 2010. So perhaps the comparison with Cam Newton isn't fair to junior Jeremy Johnson, who has made only two starts on the Plains. "Cam is Cam, and not me," Johnson says. "I don't compare myself to Cam that much."
Still, it's hard to ignore the Cam-like hype around Johnson, a Montgomery, Ala., native who is the primary reason the Tigers should return to playoff contention. Johnson spent the last two years as Nick Marshall's backup, learning coach Gus Malzahn's hurry-up system. His superior arm strength and accuracy will allow Auburn to pass the ball more while keeping the read option open. Johnson may not be in Newton's or Marshall's class as a rushing threat, but, says Malzahn, "he probably runs a 4.6."
Johnson takes over an offense that mixes experience and potential. Seven starters return, including versatile junior Avery Young and three others on the offensive line. Junior Jovon Robinson—this year's top-ranked juco recruit—and sophomore Roc Thomas look to take over a ground attack that finished second in the SEC (5.5 yards per carry). Senior receiver Duke Williams (45 catches for 730 yards) gives Johnson an explosive weapon on the edge.
Auburn's defense couldn't keep up with its offense—or anyone's—last season, finishing ninth or worse in the conference in nine of 10 major categories. Malzahn is counting on new coordinator Will Muschamp to turn the unit around.
Muschamp inherits six returning starters, including the top three tacklers: senior linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost, who form a stout duo in the middle, and junior safety Johnathan Ford, who should lead the secondary. Ford will be joined by Georgia transfer Tray Matthews, a sophomore, on the back end, where the Tigers must improve dramatically: They allowed 7.1 yards per pass attempt—11th in the SEC—in 2014.
A win over Louisville in the opener in Atlanta is a must if the Tigers want to gain playoff consideration. The SEC West slate brings LSU in Death Valley on Sept. 19, then comes a home game versus Mississippi State and road matchups with improved Arkansas (Oct. 24) and Texas A&M (Nov. 7). At the end (Nov. 28), Alabama comes to the Plains, and the home team has won the last three.
Defensive end Carl Lawson had a stellar freshman season in 2013 (7½ tackles for a loss and four sacks), but he tore his left ACL the following spring. Without him the Tigers' pass rush and run stopping struggled in 2014. They finished 11th in the SEC in sacks (21) and yards-per-carry allowed (4.45). After a year of rehab, Lawson says he's now healthier than ever: During the spring he clocked his fastest 10-yard split in the 40. Says coach Gus Malzahn, "He's the same player he was before he got hurt." Malzahn and the rest of the Tigers certainly hope so.
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
They've got the best offensive line in the SEC. They're big, they're physical, they move people, they do a good job on double teams.... With Jeremy Johnson at quarterback, there may not be as many quarterback runs, but from a formation standpoint, it'll be the same thing. You'll still have to play your eight-man fronts to stop the running game.... Jeremy is a bit more of a quarterback. They're going to probably have more of a passing game, with play-action off the running game. That will end up bringing a different dimension to their offense.... Obviously their No. 1 receiver, Duke Williams, is going to have some big gains because you have to bring eight guys up.... They have a talented group of backs. They're really a two-back offense that likes to run and throw it deep.... They do have issues in the secondary, but Will [Muschamp] makes an offense beat him lefthanded—he takes away the things an O does well and makes it hard to score.
MIKE ZARRILLI/GETTY IMAGES (JOHNSON)
JOHN GREEN/CSM/LANDOV (LAWSON)
JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES (WILLIAMS)