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COLLEGE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TOP 25
SEC West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Gus Malzahn, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Rhett Lashlee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ellis Johnson, Charlie Harbison
Auburn’s offense can’t possibly be worse than it was last year, can it? Gus Malzahn’s return gives Auburn an identity to hang onto, something the Tigers sorely lacked in 2012. Kiehl Frazier, who was heavily recruited by Malzahn before the coach’s departure for Arkansas State, and Jonathan Wallace are battling for the quarterback spot. Frazier must play with more confidence and make better decisions after a two-touchdown, eight-interception season. Wallace may not be the most talented player, but he showed poise last year. Junior college signee Nick Marshall could factor into the picture, too. He ran for more than 1,000 yards last season but also threw 20 interceptions.
Tre Mason rushed for 1,000 yards despite too often being an afterthought in Auburn’s gameplan. He has been a solid, although not spectacular, runner who could be very productive. Auburn needs to reestablish the running game under Malzahn to take pressure off its passing game. Cameron Artis-Payne, a 210-pound running back who ran for more than 2,000 yards at Allan Hancock (Calif.) College, opened eyes this spring and will complement Mason. Malzahn loves playing multiple running backs who provide different looks.
Auburn’s top returning pass-catcher based on receptions is Quan Bray, with 14. All of the Tigers’ returning receivers combined for 54 catches in 2012. Bray, Trovon Reed, Sammie Coates and Jaylon Denson must help improve a lackluster passing game that averaged 156.6 yards through the air in 2012 (112th in the country).
The offensive linemen must be in better shape to play in Malzahn’s hurry-up offense. Four starters are back from a unit that allowed 37 sacks last year, which ranked 109th in the country.
Any improvement on Auburn’s defense under new coordinator Ellis Johnson starts with the defensive line. “Potential” has been the buzzword around this unit for the past two years, but with limited production. Auburn could have used Corey Lemonier, but the defensive end left school early for the NFL Draft.
The linebacker position at Auburn was once a special spot featuring big, fast and talented future NFL players. Under Gene Chizik, linebacker turned into too many missed tackles and missed alignments. Johnson needs only two linebackers in his 4-2-5 scheme, and safety hybrid Justin Garrett opened some eyes in the spring.
All four of Auburn’s top cornerbacks and its starting safeties return. Then again, this was a secondary that had only one interception last season — a pick by reserve Trent Fisher against Alabama A&M. With games this season against Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Alabama’s AJ McCarron, Auburn’s secondary will have to play better for the defense to improve.
Auburn’s 2012 season was so miserable that even its punter, Steven Clark, averaged a yard less on his punts. Cody Parkey returns as a solid kicker who didn’t get many chances last year. Gone is elite kickoff return specialist Onterio McCalebb; he’ll be replaced by Reed and Bray.
There is talent at Auburn, which has signed many highly rated classes in recent years. The most telling factor of Malzahn’s tenure will be whether he can coach up and retain that talent, two areas where Chizik failed before his firing.
Most likely, Malzahn’s first year will see too many SEC teams that are more talented and have more depth than Auburn at too many positions. The Tigers do play in the SEC West, after all. But expect Malzahn and his offense to have some fun along the way. Auburn will beat someone it shouldn’t because of Malzahn’s fast-paced offense.