The Prayer at Jordan-Hare.
The Kick Six.
They were two of the most memorable (and, being honest, luckiest) plays in the 2013 college football season. With luck on their side during those final two regular season SEC games, Auburn defeated Georgia and Alabama to win the SEC West and earn the right to face Missouri in the SEC Championship. The championship featured none of the vaunted SEC defense; the two teams combined for 101 points as the Tigers used their supersonic rushing attack to down Missouri 59-42. This win, combined with Michigan State's defeat of Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, secured Auburn's return to the BCS Championship for the second time in four years.
What began with a promising opening first half ended in anguish as Florida State, led by Heisman trophy winner Jameis Winston, broke a seven-game winning streak for the SEC. As disappointing as the ending was last year, Auburn has a ton of hope coming into the 2014 season as most of Gus Malzahn's hyper-sonic offense returns. However, the big question marks are on defense as only four starters return for the 2014 campaign.
There are not enough superlatives to describe how fast Guz Malzahn runs his offense. His anchor, quarterback Nick Marshall, returns for his senior season and looks to improve upon a junior season that saw him throw for over 1,700 yards and rush for over 1,100 while scoring 23 total touchdowns. The start of his season will be delayed, due to a marijuana charge which will cost him some time during the opening game against Arkansas. Sophomore Jeremy Johnson will get the start against Arkansas, and while he doesn't have the running ability that Marshall has he does posses a bigger arm, which could mean more of a passing attack against the Razorbacks.
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If Auburn does open up the playbook and throw the ball more, they will have a superb group of receivers catching the passes. Super freak, Junior Sammie Coats, leads an experienced and dangerous wide receiver group who caught 13 of Auburn's 18 passing touchdowns from a season ago. Three of the starters are juniors, with Quan Bray being the lone senior starter for the Tigers. However, the biggest question surrounding this group is if Nick Marshall has the arm strength and accuracy to get them the ball and allow them to make plays. If he is able to deliver consistent passes, look out: this could be one of the most balanced offenses in college football.
Both Tre Mason and Jay Prosch are gone. That's their leading rusher from 2013 and the fullback who helped lead the way to many of those yards. Replacing Mason will be seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. Together they combined for 1,259 yards a year ago, or 362 yards less than Mason did by himself. This is a big hole to fill but together Artis-Payne and Grant should be able to shoulder the load. Helping block for them will be Senior Brandon Fulse. Fulse will split time at h-back/tight end with senior C.J. Uzomah. Their biggest job is to lead the way on Malzahn's option read scheme.
Gluing the whole offense together will be a line that returns with the second most starts in the SEC. Losing Greg Robinson to the NFL is the biggest loss on the offensive line, and replacing him will present a big question mark. Shon Coleman will look to fill Robinson's shoes, and after winning the battle against cancer, pancaking some oncoming rushers should give him nothing but pleasure. If Coleman is able to step right in, the line shouldn't miss a beat and this Auburn offense will be one of the highest scoring in the country. And this team may well need to win games by forcibly outscoring its opponents.
That's because questions marks abound on the defensive side of the ball, and the biggest may be on the defensive line. Angelo Blackson returns to start at defensive tackle, while Gabe Wright moves from tackle to end this season. Completing the line are left end Elijah Daniel and defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker. The line will need to generate pressure without the aid of the blitz and it will have to replace Dee Ford who accounted for one-third of Auburn's sack total from a season ago. If the line can pressure the quarterback without the aid of the blitz, it should free up the Tiger linebackers to drop back into zone coverage and dare opposing teams to beat them with the passing game.
The strength of the Tigers defense will be their linebacking corps, where the returning Cassanova McKinzy will look to improve on his team-leading 66 tackles from a year ago, while Kris Frost will handle the weak-side linebacker duties. These two players combined for 118 tackles in 2013, and with inexperience on the line they will have plenty of opportunities to improve that total. Rounding out the linebackers is Justin Garrett, who only played in two games a year ago, but did total a four tackles and a sack in those games. The linebackers will need to continue their steady play from last season to help take pressure off a talented but shallow secondary.
The Tiger secondary may not have as many questions as the defensive line, but it's pretty close. Jonathon Mincy and Jermaine Whitehead are the lone returning players in the secondary, as Auburn has to replace starting corner Chris Davis. Mincy will also sit during the Arkansas game, busted for marijuana just like Nick Marshall. Starting in Mincy's place will be converted wide receiver Trovon Reed. The other safety position will be manned by a young but talented sophomore Rudy Ford. The concern for this group is not so much on who's starting, but who will sub in as the talent pool and depth at the secondary positions is an issue. If injuries plague the secondary this could be a long season for Auburn fans.
There are clearly areas where the Wildcats can exploit the Tigers weaknesses, and with Bill Snyder at the helm and an extra week of scouting before the game I fully expect Kansas State to give Auburn everything they can handle. This game is going to come down to which teams defense can step up and stop what should be two high powered offenses. This was by far the biggest area of disagreement among BOTC writers during the early-summer pick rundown, though some staffers who picked Auburn to win have started reconsidering of late. The following, however, are the picks when the staff convened in May.