Bill Connelly, SBNation's talented statistician and college football scribe, threw down the gauntlet (sorta) on Tiger fans in his preview piece earlier this week:
You've got to be able to say this, Auburn fans: We were lucky as hell last year.
Granted, Bill would also go on to say that it takes quality to take advantage of massive luck, which is true as well, but still, Bill's dared to say what so many others have wanted to say: Auburn turned a tipped pass and a 109 yard missed field goal return into a magical season. Now, what I would stress here is that we all acknowledge this and move on from it, because if we spend the next 800-1000 words talking about how lucky Auburn was last year then you all may miss out on the fact that the Tigers were also very very good last year, and will be much of the same, if not better, this upcoming season. So let's talk a little about last year, and then what they will bring back in 2014.
2013 - Year in review
To find the source of Auburn's success in 2013, we need to first talk about the ground game on offense. No one in college football ran the ball better than Auburn last fall, as the Tigers racked up an average of 328 yards per game on the ground -- most in Division 1. Yes, they averaged more rushing yards per game than perennial running teams such as Navy, Georgia Tech and Air Force; they averaged a full 90 yards per game more than the next closest SEC team (Missouri) as well, which proves that they were heads and shoulders above all others when it came to advancing the ball on the ground in 2013. That success was due to several factors: 1) A fast paced offense that wore down defenses and caused big plays as the game wore on; 2) Tre Mason -- one of the best running backs we've seen in awhile and a quiet Heisman finalist in 2013; and 3) Nick Marshall: The former Georgia DB who made it all go last year. Marshall, Mason and the Auburn offense, at times, would simply walk to the line and run an option read back to back to back times, with success on all tries.
If there was a weakness in last year's national runner-up, it was the defense: A defense that gave up over 400 yards per game in 2013. Thankfully, due to an offense that was like Bugs Bunny when he shot off like fireworks, it didn't matter, but still, the defense left something to be desired. The bad news for the SEC, though, is that most of that defense returns in 2014, and they should be much, much better under Ellis Johnson's tutelage this fall.
Yay! Tre Mason is gone, and that's good for the rest of us, right? Wrong. Mason is, in fact, gone, but the Tiger offense returns pretty much everyone else including Marshall, who while orchestrating the ground attack was able to amass 1,193 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing of his own. Marshall will be joined by returning backs Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant in the backfield this year: Both of which were able to eclipse 600 yards even though they had two 1,000 yard rushers in front of them (Mason and Marshall, that is). Again, this team could run the damn football last year.
Not to be overlooked because of the running game, Auburn will also return a full compliment of receivers this year, including Sammie Coates, who could (and should) be primed for a really big season. Auburn was 11th in the SEC in passing offense in 2013 (seriously, Florida, UT and Arkansas?), yet Coates still gained almost 1,000 yards (902) as the primary target when Marshall did decide to throw every now and then. And with a ground game that tends to suck defenders into the box, I would look for Marshall to try and air it out a bit more this year in that offense.
On defense, the Tigers feature one of the best defensive lines in the SEC. And I say that with full knowledge that Carl Lawson is lost for the year due to an injury: Even without him, the Tigers return monsters up front like Montravious Adams, Gabe Wright, and LaDarius Owens. Granted, they will have to replace the big shoes of 2013 star Dee Ford, but they bring in lots of JUCO talent to fortify the front.
In the back seven on defense, Auburn returns its two top linebackers and five of its top eight in the secondary, but it does lose Iron Bowl star Chris Davis. The Tigers were second to last in the conference last year against the pass, so improvement in the secondary I'm sure is a priority for this fall.
Overall, this team is just as good as it was last year, if not better. The offense should again fire on all cylinders, and the defense should improve with experience and another year under noted defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. I'm of the opinion that they are very deserving of the preseason top five ranking, and with a look at the schedule, Auburn could be undefeated and 5-0 when they come to Starkville on October 11th. At worst, I think 4-1, although they do have a big home date with LSU the week before, and a trip to Manhattan, Kansas to face Kansas State is a potential trap game against the great White Wizard. If both the Bulldogs and Tigers are 4-1 or better, I expect a raucous crowd and a big atmosphere for what should be a good game. Hopefully one that doesn't end in heartbreak for MSU yet again (see below if you don't know recent series history).
fun sheer torture, let's recap how the last four matchups have gone for Mississippi State when they faced Auburn:
2010 | Auburn 17, MSU 14 -- Down three with under a minute to go, MSU was driving. But Chris Relf couldn't complete on four passes -- including one that hit Leon Berry in the chest that would have put State in the redzone -- and MSU fell so close to downing what was the eventual national champion at home.
2011 | Auburn 41, MSU 34 -- MSU has the ball at the Auburn one and Chris Relf cannot cross the goalline as State loses a second heartbreaker in a row to the Tigers.
2012 | MSU 28, Auburn 10 -- State finally breaks through, albeit against a bad Auburn team that eventually got Gene Chizik fired.
2013 | Auburn 24, MSU 20 -- State led nearly the whole way until they punted to Auburn with under two minutes remaining in the game. The defense became soft butter, and Nick Marshall (the runner) sliced up MSU, eventually leading to a dagger 11 yard pass to C.J. Uzomah in the back of the endzone with 10 seconds remaining. That dagger was made worse due to the losses in previous seasons, as well as when the season progressed and we saw the success that Auburn would have.
All that pain and misery was dredged back up to say this: MSU has to learn to finish against Auburn. They've had plenty of chances in recent years only to see them slip away in games' final seconds.
Dak's defining moment
In Bill Connelly's summation of MSU, he said something succinct that I thought was quite true. While MSU's defense is a proven commodity, Dak Prescott -- despite the hype surrounding him -- is not. At least not yet. Dak finished strong last season, but he did struggle against better defenses, albeit in limited opportunities. In MSU's three game stretch against LSU, A&M and Auburn, Dak will have his opportunity to shine. Can he take advantage? Can he be the QB we saw against Rice against probably the second best team that MSU will face in 2014? If State is to come out of that three game stretch better than 0-3, it will be because Dak was able to fulfill the expectations places upon him.
Winning (rushing offense) strength vs. (rushing defense) strength
I try not to look ahead too much, but this game -- more specifically, the matchup of Auburn's rushing attack versus the MSU defense -- is one that I'm looking forward to in a big way. State's defense returns nearly everyone from the fourth best rushing defense in the SEC in 2013, and the Tigers as we've already stated are clearly the best running team in all of college football. The key to the game for State is plain and simple: Stop Auburn and the run, and you have a chance to win the game. If State cannot stop them, though, then we face the likelihood of being run out of our own building by Auburn. I think State can hold its own against Auburn's attack, but what happens late in the game -- when the defense is worn down and Auburn typically thrives -- will determine who comes out of this one with a W. I'm looking forward to it, for sure.