SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #6 Auburn
The college football staff at SQ have created rankings of the top-25 teams heading into the 2015 season. To prepare our readers for this upcoming season, we are previewing each team. Today’s focus: #6 Auburn.
SQ Ranking: 6
2014 Record: 8-5
Finish in AP Poll: 18
Head Coach: Gus Malzahn (3rd year)
Key Arrivals: DE Byron Cowart, RB Jovon Robinson, OLB Jeffery Holland, WR Darius Slayton, S Jordan Colbert
Key Departures: QB Nick Marshall, WR Sammie Coates, RB Cameron Artis-Payne
Previewing the Auburn Offense: There is a lot of hype surrounding the Auburn Tigers and much of that has to do with the potential that they have on offense. Gone is the trio of QB Nick Marshall, WR Sammie Coates, and RB Cameron Artis-Payne. The new trio, however, could be even better. Jeremy Johnson was Nick Marshall's back-up the last two years, and during that time, he threw for 858 yards with nine touchdown passes and two interceptions while completing over 70% of his passes. In the first half against the Arkansas Razorbacks in 2014, he completed 12 of 16 of his passes (75%) and threw for 243 yards while putting up two touchdowns. His body is ideal for a quarterback as he stands 6 feet 5 inches with a weight of 240 pounds. He'll be protected by one of the best offensive lines in the nation (allowed Nick Marshall to be sacked only 14 times in 2014) which has six starters returning.
Duke Williams was Auburn's second-leading receiver in 2014 with 730 receiving yards off of 45 receptions and five touchdown catches. He had four 100-yard receiving games, all of them coming against bowl teams (Arkansas, Kansas State, Mississippi State, and Alabama). Coates' departure and the potential that Johnson has at quarterback could lead to Williams having a breakout year.
Jovon Robinson, the nation's top junior college transfer, will likely be the team's number one running back. He won the NJCAA National Offensive Player of the Year award in 2013, rushing for 2,387 yards (a junior college record) and 34 touchdowns.
The x-factor to look out for is Ricardo Louis. Although he is primarily a wide receiver, he's also a threat as a rusher. In 2014, he averaged a much higher yards per carry (12.2) than 2014 team-leading rusher Cameron Artis-Payne (5.3). Look for head coach Gus Malzahn to possibly use him as a dual-threat option from both the air and the ground.
Previewing the Auburn Defense: This was Auburn's weakness last year. In 2014, Auburn had the 80th ranked passing defense and the 44th ranked rushing defense. They surrendered 26.7 points per game, good for only 63rd in the nation. One bright spot on the defense was that they snatched 22 interceptions, tied for first in the SEC.
To beef up the defense and hopefully give them a new identity, Malzahn has brought in former Florida head coach Will Muschamp to be the team's defensive coordinator. Muschamp, who has arguably the best defensive mind in college football, has had success pretty much everywhere on the defensive side of the football. While Florida's offense was inept under him, the defense was consistently great. It ranked ninth, sixth, fifth, and fourth in total defense, respectively, during his tenure. Muschamp has actually served as Auburn's defensive coordinator before, from 2006-2007. In his final season there, he guided them to the sixth best defense in the nation.
Team-leading tackler Jonathan Ford is returning. In addition to 94 tackles, he also had three interceptions and one forced fumble. Second-leading tackler Cassanova McKinzy is also returning. He had 91 tackles in addition to one interception and one forced fumble.
Highly touted DE prospect Byron Cowart (number one recruit on ESPN's 300 rankings) could impact this defense immediately. Only a freshman, he has already received high praise.
"We feel like he's going to be great for us this year. We trust him and we know that once he gets our system, it's going to be sky's the limit for him," Auburn linebacker Kris Frost said.
The x-factor to look out for is defensive back Jonathan Jones. In 2014, Jones was tied for first on the team in interceptions with six and had one forced fumble. In Muschamp's defensive system, that production could go up.
Three Key Games:
1. Auburn vs. Mississippi State, September 26th: The media has not been too kind to Mississippi State this year and that may be just enough to tick off a Bulldog team that wants to prove that last year was no fluke. Dak Prescott, the team's signal caller, is the SEC's only legitimately proven quarterback at this point. In 2014, he was third in the SEC in passing yards (3,449 ), second in passing touchdowns (27), and had the fourth highest QBR (151.72). Auburn will have to get through an angry Mississippi State team if it wants a real shot at the playoffs.
2. Auburn vs. Georgia, November 14th: Georgia is heavily favored to win the SEC East. Although there is still uncertainty at the QB position, their star running back, Nick Chubb, will be an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses. In 2014, Chubb rushed for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns. He stepped his game up in his final eight contests during Todd Gurley's absence, rushing for 1,323 yards and 12 touchdowns. Auburn will have to neutralize Chubb in order to secure a key victory.
3. Auburn vs. Alabama, November 28th: The Iron Bowl is always a classic. Last year, in an offensive shootout, the Crimson Tide beat the Tigers by a score of 55-44. The year before that, Auburn beat Alabama in the most dramatic way ever. Never count out Alabama. They are always in the hunt and continue to be a part of the SEC's elite. This battle of arguably the two best teams in the SEC West could be a joy to watch, with the winner possibly advancing to the playoffs.
Final Analysis: I'm really high on Auburn this year, so high that I'm predicting them to run the tables in 2015 and win the national championship with a 15-0 record. I absolutely love their offense and think it will be by far the best in the SEC as well as top five in the nation. Their defense should experience a significant rise in production under defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and with the help of top prospect Byron Cowart. The combination of an elite offense and a defensive unit under the guidance of a great defensive coach could be lethal for other teams.
It certainly will not be easy, however. Teams don't go from 8-5 one year to national champions the next year just like that. But if any team can do it, it's the Auburn Tigers.