2015 CFB Preview – Auburn

    Auburn TigersGo to Team Page TigersGo to Selection Page           You don’t get the same breaks twice. Or do you? By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak Of course,

    July 1, 2015

     
       

    You don’t get the same breaks twice. Or do you?

    By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak

    Of course, the 2013 Auburn team made its own good fortune with a historically amazing running game and by putting itself in a position to make big plays – Chris Davis made a play against Alabama and Nick Marshall had to make the throw and Ricardo Louis had to actually make the catch against Georgia – but that could’ve very, very easily have been an 8-4 regular season with no SEC championship and no coming within an eyelash of winning a national title.

    That means it took two of the greatest, most amazing plays in the history of college football from 2013 Auburn to be, most likely, one win better than the 2014 team that was considered a bit of a disappointment.

    You can always if-and-but any season to death – there will always be strange occurrences in closes games that could go either way – but here’s the slight concern. On a far more subtle level, the 2014 team was almost as miraculous as the 2013 version – it just wasn’t as splashy.

    Kansas State had an All-America-caliber kicker on its roster in Matthew McCrane. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they didn’t figure that out until after Jack Cantele missed three makeable field goals in the 20-14 Auburn win.

    Had Ole Miss star receiver Laquon Treadwell had the ball one inch further one way as he suffered an injury going into the end zone, Auburn doesn’t beat the Rebels 35-31.

    The 7-1 start wasn’t a mirage just like 2013 wasn’t fluky – again, you have to be good enough to put yourself in a position to be fortunate – but losing four of the last five games has to be a concern, even if they were to really good teams.

    It’s not like teams figured out how to stop the Auburn attack. The Tigers weren’t as explosive or as devastating offensively, but they still finished 13th in the nation in rushing, eighth in passing efficiency, and still rumbled and rolled throughout the year – except against Georgia – the thing still worked.

    This year, the offensive line should be stronger, Jeremy Johnson is expected to be yet another star Auburn quarterback, and there’s more than enough firepower to keep it all going. It’s the other side of the ball that needs the tweaking.

    Auburn got the nation’s top defensive recruit – former Florida head coach Will Muschamp. An elite of elite defensive coordinator, he should be able to take a D that really wasn’t that miserable and turn it into something sensational. With eight starters back – and that doesn’t even include injured end Carl Lawson and Georgia safety transfer Tray Matthews – all of a sudden, the Tigers might have the right formula to make magic on the other side of the ball.

    Yes, it’s very possible Auburn can be as exciting and as interesting as any team over the last two years and still fly under the radar. No, this might not be the 2013 team, but the 2015 version might be good enough to not need the breaks.

    What You Need To Know About The Offense: It might not have been the epic juggernaut of 2013, but the 2014 Auburn attack was still explosive and devastatingly effective. Don’t expect two years ago, but the numbers should be fantastic again with a slew of excellent new skill starters around a strong O line. C Reese Dismukes is done, but OT Shone Coleman leads a good group that should be sharp from the start. The loss of Sammie Coates to the NFL takes away a deep threat, but the surprising return of D’haquille Williams gives the passing game a No. 1 target for new starting QB Jeremy Johnson to work with. Veteran Roc Thomas and JUCO star Jovon Robinson give the Tigers a stellar 1-2 rushing punch.

    What You Need To Know About The Defense: The defense allowed 31 points or more in the last seven games – let’s not count the date with Samford thrown in there – and couldn’t seem to hold up against anyone with pop or explosion. That’s where new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp comes in, returning to the gig he held in 2006 and 2007 when he made the Auburn D among the nation’s best. Almost everyone is back on the defensive front that needs to attack a bit more. Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost lead a veteran linebacking corps, while the secondary has the potential to be terrific with CB Jonathan Jones, S Johnathan Ford, and Georgia transfer Tray Matthews all ready to put up huge numbers.

    What to watch for on offense: The backfield has to undergo an overhaul. Last year’s team had to overcome the loss of 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns from Tre Mason, but it had Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne ready to roll. Those two, along with Nick Marshall, combined for over 2, 770 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns while averaging around 5.5 yards per carry. There’s a ton of talent now in the Tiger backfield in new starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson along with JUCO superstar running back Jovon Robinson and little-used veteran Roc Thomas, but the pressure is on to keep the production going. They will. The system is that good, and so are they.

    What to watch for on defense: Enter Will Muschamp. Sort of blown off and dismissed during his time at Florida was just how tremendous his defenses were. The offense might have done next to nothing at times, but Muschamp didn’t lose his touch on the other side of the ball. An elite of elite defensive coordinators before getting the job in Gainesville, he made the Auburn D rock in his turn with the program in 2006 and 2007, and he did the same at Texas. He has a lot of good pieces to work with, so if all of a sudden he turns the Tiger defense from mediocre to terrific, look out. Yes, he’s really that good of a defensive coordinator.

    The team will be far better if … it stops with all of the penalties. The 2013 team didn’t really need the extra yards, but on both sides of the ball it was tight with the mistakes, getting flagged just 70 times in the 14 games with 19 of the penalties coming against Missouri and Arkansas State. The Tigers were hit with more than six penalties just four times. Last year they were caught sinning 92 times in 13 games, getting flagged more than six times in eight of them including each of the last six games. Especially on offense, the flags disturbed the groove late in the year.

    The schedule: It’s sneaky-good if – and it’s a huge if – the Tigers can beat the SEC West’s other Tigers early on. The SEC opener is at LSU, and the pressure will be on if they can’t get out of Death Valley alive.
    – Going to Kentucky and Arkansas in back-to-back weeks won’t be easy, but the showdowns come after a tune-up against San Jose State and a week off to rest up.
    – Considering the opener against Louisville is in Atlanta, LSU only plays one true road game until October 15th, and goes from Halloween on with one more road trip – at Texas A&M on November 7th.
    – Louisville is the only saving grace in non-conference play with Jacksonville State, San Jose State and Idaho three money-making layups. All three come before key games.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … The three road games in four weeks against UK, Arkansas and Texas A&M. Auburn has to survive, and then has to deal with Georgia.

    Best offensive player: Junior QB Jeremy Johnson. Call him Nick Newton. He’s not as quick or explosive running the ball as Nick Marshall was, and he’s not as talented as Cam Newton, but he’s a big, skilled runner with great passing upside and the ability to be a special quarterback in the Auburn system – at least that’s the hope. Marshall was an underappreciated all-around quarterback by just about everyone outside of the greater Auburn metropolitan area. An ultra-efficient passer as well as a wizard for the Gus Malzahn attack, he was a Heisman-caliber talent without the Heisman-caliber attention – even in so many high-profile games. Johnson might be bigger physically, but he has massive shoes to fill.

    Best defensive player: Senior CB Jonathan Jones. Can he be 100% coming off a foot injury? An attacking, aggressive corner, he came up with six interceptions last year and did a good job of holding his own after being challenged time and again. It should be a a good secondary that’ll be helped by the addition of Georgia safety Tray Matthews to help fill in one of the safety gaps, but Jones will have to be the key part to clamp down on the No. 1 targets. He’s the veteran who has to be ultra-reliable and also make passing games pay again.

    Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Jeremy Johnson. There are other quarterback options who could step in and produce – Sean White was solid this offseason and others are being seasoned – but the Tigers can’t win the SEC West unless Johnson is terrific. He’s been the Wait Until You See This Guy type of prospect among a segment of the fan base for the last few seasons, and how he has to come through. Everything else might be in place for Auburn to be special – Johnson in a full-time role is the X factor.

    The season will be a success if … Auburn wins ten games. The coaching staff is peerless, the defense is experienced, the special teams will be good, the O line should be solid and the skill players explosive. It’s all there, and even the schedule is relatively manageable for an SEC West team. Split the road games against Arkansas and LSU, take care of A&M on the road, and win all the home games against Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama. Oh, and beat Louisville to start the season and win the SEC championship game. It’s just that easy. Realistically, if the Tigers can hang around the title chase all season and finish with double-digit victories, it’ll be a great year.

    Key game: Sept. 19 at LSU. Of course the Alabama game is all that really matters, and there are a slew of Game of the Week type of battles, but beating LSU on the road would be the true kickoff. The schedule is rough, but most of the biggest games are at Jordan-Hare. Lose this, and the road ahead is way too tough to go through unscathed with any reasonable hope of an SEC championship.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Auburn 2013 Rushing Yards: 4,596, 48 TDs, 6.3-yard average – Auburn 2013 Rushing Yards: 3,321, 32 TDs, 5.47-yard average
    – Penalties: Auburn 92 for 896 yards – Opponents 57 for 467 yards
    – Fumbles: Opponents 22 (lost 5) – Auburn 18 (lost 13)

    Players You Need To Know

    1. QB Jeremy Johnson, Jr.
    Is he Auburn’s best player? Considering lip service is being paid to Sean White being in the mix for the starting job, that might be a wee bit of a projection, but Johnson has been around the system for the last two years, he knows what he’s doing, and he has the talent and upside to become the type of gamechanger who combines a slew of skills to become exactly what the offense needs. At 6-5 and 240 pounds he has the right size and bulk, he has the big-time arm, and he has the mobility. He’s not anywhere near as quick as Nick Marshall, and he’s not slippery like Cam Newton was, but he can take off and he can move.

    The 2012 Alabama Mr. Football has seen a little bit of time, getting the nod for a suspended Marshall in the opener against Arkansas, and was terrific completing 12-of-16 passes for 243 yards and two scores in the win. He got mop-up duty the rest of the way, but on the year he connected on 76% of his throws with no picks. He’s more than ready.

    2. CB Jonathan Jones, Sr.
    After missing out on most of the fun in 2013 trying to get back from a broken ankle, he healed up and was fantastic last season as the team’s best all-around defender. Now he has to get past a foot problem, but he should be ready to roll. At 5-10 and 181 pounds he has good enough size to go along with blazing Georgia state high school champion track star speed. He won’t blow anyone up with his hitting ability, but he came up with 36 tackles last season with six interceptions and 12 broken up passes – he attacks the ball when it’s in the air with two picks in back-to-back games against Mississippi State and South Carolina.

    3. WR D’haquille Williams, Sr.
    The superstar JUCO transfer came in early from Mississippi Gulf Coast CC and turned in a big first year, leading the team with 45 catches for 730 yards and five scores despite missing two games hurt and the bowl loss to Wisconsin after being suspended. He might not have been as explosive as Sammie Coates, but he made plenty of plays down the field averaging over 16 yards per catch doing a good job with the ball in his hands as well as going after the deep passes. At 6-2 and 224 pounds he has the size, leaping ability and athleticism to go along with the talent and the deep speed to be the top target again. Living up to the hype as the nation’s No. 1 JUCO prospect, he came out with a bang catching a season-high nine passes for 154 yards and a score against Arkansas with Jeremy Johnson at quarterback – expect massive numbers with Johnson the full-time starter now.

    4. LB Cassanova McKinzy, Sr.
    Bulked up to be even more of a force against the run, the 6-3, 253-pound veteran was more than fine before finishing second on the team with 91 tackles to go along with a team-leading 11.5 tackles for loss and a pick. A starter on the weakside two years ago, he came up with a team-leading 75 tackles, but with his range and athleticism he was in on even more plays in the middle. Even though he wasn’t turned loose, he has the burst and the speed to do far more as a pass rusher, even though he’s at his best against the run. Very smart and very active, he’s a great leader for the linebacking corps.

    5. LB Kris Frost. Sr.
    A terrific recruit out of North Carolina, he showed glimpses over his first two years of being a big-time performer, and then last year he turned into a huge producer coming up with 87 tackles with ten tackles for loss and tying for the team lead with 3.5 sacks. Great in the open field, he came up with 11 solo stops in a brilliant 14-tackle game against South Carolina, and came up with 12 stops against Wisconsin in the bowl. While he wasn’t necessarily consistent, he’s a factor on the weakside who should shine under Will Muschamp.

    6. RB Roc Thomas, Soph.
    Is he the next back up? The 5-10, 203-pound Thomas was a part of the rotation last year getting two starts and finishing the year with 214 yards and two scores. While he’s built to deliver a punch, he’s at his best when he’s in the open field with fantastic pinball quickness. He does what the offense needs of him, and now he knows what he needs to do. The talent is there, and the numbers are about to follow.

    7. RB Jovon Robinson, Jr.
    Last year, Auburn got the star of star JUCO transfers in D’haquille Williams, and he turned out to be the team’s leading receiver. This season, the Tigers got another No. 1 JUCO guy, and Robinson should be ready to shine right out of the box. The national JUCO player of the year ripped up 2,387 yards and 34 touchdowns for Georgia Military College, and now he should be the perfect fit for the attack with 6-0, 230-pound size and great between-the-tackles quickness. With power and athleticism, he looks the part.

    8. S Johnathan Ford, Jr.
    A former running back, he came to Auburn after ripping up huge yards in high school, but he wasn’t considered a superstar prospect. After moving to corner, he eventually found a spot at safety, and now he has a home coming up with a team-leading 93 tackles last season with three picks. Ultra-consistent, he came up with 11 tackles against Ole Miss and eight or more in six games. The best part is that he’s still figuring out what he’s doing. Going from a part of the puzzle to a leader in the secondary, he should be terrific with even more of a role.

    9. S Tray Matthews, Soph.
    Kicked out at Georgia and had a few problems including an arrest after allegedly trying to cash scholarship checks twice. All was forgiven and now it’s time for a chance at a new career. After sitting out last season, the former superstar recruit should be ready to fill in a hole right away with 6-1, 213-pound size, great hitting ability and unlimited range. He made 36 tackles with a pick as a true freshman, and now after a year to get everything right, expect a hungry player who comes up with lots and lots of big plays.

    10. PK Daniel Carlson, Soph.
    Carlson came up with a nice debut looking like an all-star hitting 18-of-24 field goals including all five of his chances against Alabama. However, his two misfires against Wisconsin proved costly in the loss. He got a kick blocked, and most of his misses came from beyond 40 yards, but he’s a good kicker with nice range. He can be counted on more from 50 yards out.

    Head Coach: Gus Malzahn
    3rd year: 20-7
    4th year overall: 30-10
    Schedule
    Sept. 5 Louisville (in Atlanta)
    Sept. 12 Jacksonville State
    Sept. 19 at LSU
    Sept. 26 Miss State
    Oct. 3 San Jose State
    Oct. 10 OPEN DATE
    Oct. 15 at Kentucky
    Oct. 24 at Arkansas
    Oct. 31 Ole Miss
    Nov. 7 at Texas A&M
    Nov. 14 Georgia
    Nov. 21 Idaho
    Nov. 28 Alabama
    Ten Best Auburn Players
    1. QB Jeremy Johnson, Jr.
    2. CB Jonathan Jones, Sr.
    3. WR D’haquille Williams, Sr.
    4. LB Cassanova McKinzy, Sr.
    5. LB Kris Frost. Sr.
    6. RB Roc Thomas, Soph.
    7. RB Jovon Robinson, Jr.
    8. S Johnathan Ford, Jr.
    9. S Tray Matthews, Soph.
    10. PK Daniel Carlson, Soph.

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