NCF Nation: Corey Grant

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn’s spring came and went without a No. 1 running back establishing himself. Is it because Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant performed so well that deciding between the two proved too difficult for the Auburn coaches?

It’s a possibility. Artis-Payne paced the offense with 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, while Grant provided a spark with five carries for 128 yards and a touchdown of his own.

[+] EnlargeRacean Thomas
Tom Hauck for Student SportsRacean "Roc" Thomas, the No. 5 tailback in the 2014 class, was an Alabama fan before committing to play for Auburn.
A-Day capped off what had been an impressive month for both backs, though it did little to close the gap between the two.

But there might be more to it. What if the staff was waiting on a certain ESPN 300 prospect to arrive on campus before making a final decision?

It would seem crazy for a freshman to come in and take the job away from two seniors, but if you don’t think it’s possible then you haven’t seen Racean "Roc" Thomas play. As a senior at Oxford (Ala.) High School, he rushed for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns. He says he’s been told by Auburn coaches that he’ll have every chance to start when he gets on campus.

“They’re just ready for me to get up there and really get me in the offense and see what I can do,” Thomas told ESPN.com.

Growing up, Thomas was an Alabama fan. He went to games at Bryant-Denny Stadium and attended camps on the UA campus. When he received an offer from Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, it was expected that he would take his talents to Tuscaloosa. At one point, he was all set to commit there -- until the staff told him to hold on.

“I was like, ‘Well, no I’m not going to hold on. If y’all want my commitment, then y’all will let me commit right now,'" Thomas said.

Alabama didn’t take his commitment, so Thomas started taking visits to Auburn where first-year coach Gus Malzahn made him a top priority. A new bond was formed, and before Malzahn ever coached his first game, Thomas committed to Auburn in what he called a “business” decision.

Shortly after Lane Kiffin was hired as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, the Crimson Tide made one last push to sign Thomas, but it proved too little too late. Thomas stayed true to his word and signed with the Tigers in February.

“I think a lot of people were surprised,” Thomas said. “And [at the same time], I think a lot of them really kind of knew that’s where I was going to go. I guess it’s just stuff that happened over time.”

With the recruiting saga behind fully him, Thomas appears more confident and at ease than he ever did in the months leading up to signing day. There are no more phone calls from coaches or media. No more criticism from Alabama fans who were upset he signed with their bitter rival. He’s just living his life.

“[It’s] just working out, track, keeping in touch with the coaches,” Thomas said. “We’re probably going to start soon where they’ll start showing me some plays and trying to get me in the mix of how they do things up there play-wise.

“I’m just really trying to keep a solid schedule -- working out, eating right and just really trying to stay healthy.”

The plan is for Thomas to arrive at Auburn this summer and immediately begin working out with the team. The coaches have high expectations for the Mr. Football Award winner. When Thomas said he’ll be given every chance to start his first season, he wasn’t lying.

Even though Artis-Payne and Grant battled dutifully for the starting job this spring, it’s possible that Auburn’s No. 1 running back is still on his way.

“We're going to play the best player at every position,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said this spring. “I don't care if you're a senior, I don't care if you're a true freshman. Those guys are going to get opportunities.”

Lashlee was careful to peel back the layers on the pending competition, however.

“The difference for them, these guys (on campus now) are light years ahead,” he said. “Obviously Cam and Corey have played, Peyton [Barber] has had a year plus the spring, so it's just going to matter with Roc and Kam [Kamryn Pettway] in that situation, how quick do they pick things up, how fast can they grasp everything and have the game slow down for them.

“We've had it both ways. We've had guys like Peyton Barber who either because we had guys in front of him or he just needed a redshirt year -- we still think Peyton's going to be a great player. And then we've had other guys in the past that as a true freshman were ready, and we kind of eased them into it. Sometimes earlier in the year they got more or as the year went on they got more or their workload increased.

“We'll have to see how that goes when those two get here and see how they respond, but we're counting on them to come in and compete, want to play and want to play now.”

SEC shoes to fill in 2014

January, 21, 2014
Jan 21
4:10
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Earlier, we took a look at some of the underclassmen leaving the SEC and who could replace them at their respective schools. Now it's time to look at 14 pairs of the biggest shoes to fill in the SEC in 2014.

These are either graduates or guys who decided to take their talents to the NFL early. It's never easy to replace top players, but the SEC has a tendency to just reload. Let's see if SEC teams can replace these 14 studs:

ALABAMA

AJ McCarron, QB: He won two national championships and went 36-4 as a starter for Alabama. He was also the first Crimson Tide quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards and was an excellent leader. Alabama must now turn to junior Blake Sims and a host of youngsters to fill his spot as Alabama's starter.

ARKANSAS

Zach Hocker, K: A kicker? You bet. Hocker finished his career as the SEC's active career leader in extra points made, extra points attempted, field goals made, field goals attempted points. Hocker ranked in the top-five nationally among active players in field goals made, points, extra points made, extra points attempted and field goals attempted. He was also excellent on kickoffs and has no true heir in 2014.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI Tre Mason's productivity won't be easy to replace for Auburn.
AUBURN

Tre Mason, RB: Replacing the guy who set the single-season school record for rushing yards (1,816) and total offense (2,374) won't be easy at all. Mason carried Auburn's offense for most of the season and led the SEC in rushing and rushing touchdowns (23). The Tigers now turn to Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, who both rushed for more than 600 yards and six touchdowns last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Racean Thomas.

FLORIDA

Dominique Easley, DT: Though his season was cut short by an ACL injury, Easley was so dominant when he was on the field. He was the type of player who didn't have flashy stats but created so many plays for other people. Losing someone as disruptive as Easley really showed as the season continued, as the Gators failed to get consistent pressure on opposing backfields. Leon Orr and Darious Cummings get first crack at trying to replace Easley.

GEORGIA

Aaron Murray, QB: He won a handful of games, went to two SEC championship games and broke a ton of SEC records. Now, Murray is gone, and Hutson Mason has been given the duty of replacing one of the most decorated quarterbacks to ever play in the SEC. Mason got his feet wet early when Murray went down late with an ACL injury, but now this is his team and it's his turn to be a leader.

KENTUCKY

Avery Williamson, LB: In his last two seasons in Lexington, Williamson totaled 237 tackles, including 116 solo stops. A leader of the defense, Williamson was all over the field, and it might take a committee to fill his shoes both in games and in the locker room. Kentucky was able to do more when Williamson was on the field, and now the Wildcats will need to find a new spark at linebacker.

LSU

Zach Mettenberger, QB: We got to really see what Mettenberger was capable of once he got comfortable running Cam Cameron's offense. He was third in the SEC with 3,082 passing yards and threw 22 touchdowns. His big-league arm and awareness will truly be missed, as the Tigers turn to a band of inexperienced quarterbacks, starting with Anthony Jennings.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Gabe Jackson, OG: Quietly, he was one of the country's best guards in 2013. He was the anchor of the Bulldogs' line and was arguably the team's best overall player in 2013. Mississippi State has Justin Malone returning from a season-ending foot injury, while former walk-on Ben Beckwith, who replaced Malone, and Jamaal Clayborn should compete for one of the guard spots.

MISSOURI

E.J. Gaines, CB: If not for Gaines' play, Missouri's secondary would have been in a lot of trouble last season. That means the loss of arguably the SEC's best cover corner will hurt that much more in 2014. What will make things even tougher for the Tigers is that two other seniors from the secondary will also be gone, but replacing Gaines is easily the toughest job of all.

OLE MISS

Donte Moncrief, WR: He might not have had the same sort of season as he did in 2012, but Moncrief was yet again Ole Miss' top offensive weapon in 2013. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's such a tough player to cover with his size and strength. He could hit the big play deep or make the tough catches in traffic. The loss of Moncrief now puts the pressure on sophomore-to-be Laquon Treadwell, who led the Rebels in receptions.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDylan Thompson will get the first crack at replacing Connor Shaw as South Carolina's QB.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Connor Shaw, QB: With all due respect to future top-five pick Jadeveon Clowney, Shaw's play, toughness and leadership will be tougher to replace in Columbia. He was the heart of this team and played through all sorts of pain to help lead the Gamecocks to their third straight 11-win season. Dylan Thompson backed him up for the past two seasons and now has to job of following Shaw's impressive career.

TENNESSEE

Antonio Richardson, OT: One of the best offensive linemen in the league, Richardson will be very tough for the Vols to replace in 2014, especially with young quarterbacks littering the backfield. Making matters worse is that the rest of the entire starting offensive line will be gone too. But not having that anchor at left tackle hurts the most.

TEXAS A&M

Johnny Manziel, QB: Yeah, like replacing all the on-field theatrics from someone who won the Heisman Trophy and produced 9,989 career yards of offense and 93 touchdowns will be easy. Manziel could hurt a defense with his arm and legs and was only contained a few times during his two seasons as the Aggies' starter. No one will be able to produce the entertainment Manziel provided.

VANDERBILT

Jordan Matthews, WR: One of the SEC's best all-time receivers is leaving the league. More importantly, he's leaving a Vanderbilt team that now has to find a consistent go-to receiver for its new quarterback. Sophomore-to-be Jordan Cunningham could be the next in line.

As expected, Auburn junior running back Tre Mason declared for the 2014 NFL draft Thursday.

He's foregoing his final year at Auburn for a chance at millions, and no one would dare blame him for his decision.

Following a stellar season that ended with a dynamic performance in Monday's VIZIO BCS National Championship Game loss to Florida State, Mason had no choice but to leave Auburn early for a chance at the NFL.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesAfter rushing for 1,816 yards and 23 TDs in 2013, Tre Mason had nothing left to prove at Auburn.
The truth of the matter is that Mason's stock will never be higher. That's certainly not a knock against Mason, but after leading the SEC with 1,816 yards (which broke Bo Jackson's school record) and 23 touchdowns, setting a school record for yards of total offense (2,374), and finishing sixth in the Heisman Trophy race, there really wasn't anything else for Mason to prove.

He went from 161 yards as a reserve freshman to 1,002 last year and a national championship run this season. The chances of surpassing -- let alone duplicating -- what he did in 2013 are very slim. Not with SEC defenses looking to make a major rebound in 2014 and with defensive coordinators gunning for the Tigers' little wrecking ball.

Is Mason a first-round running back? He certainly has the vision, toughness, strength, speed and elusiveness to be in the conversation, but his 5-foot-10, 205-pound frame could hold him back some. But another year of college ball won't help him grow.

Regardless of his size, Mason believes he's more than ready to take on the NFL.

"They’re getting somebody that’s a hard worker and willing to do whatever it takes to win," Mason said Thursday. "My mind is not just set on money. It’s set on championships. I have yet to win a championship, and my mindset is not going to change. God willing, I’ll win a championship at the next level."

We know about the short self life NFL running backs have, and another pounding in the SEC won't do much to help him. Sure, more coaching can always be a benefit, but what else does Mason really have to learn? He's eclipsed 1,000 yards in both a pro-style offense and a spread. He knows adversity all too well, considering he rushed for 1,002 yards in 2012 during a 3-9 season that saw his head coach get fired, only to turn around and creep up on 2,000 yards under new coach Gus Malzahn in 2013.

Does he have much more to prove against SEC defenses? Uh, no. Against Alabama's top-rated rush defense in that fateful final week of the regular season, Mason rushed for 164 yards and a touchdown, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. The next week in the SEC championship against Missouri's rush defense, which ranked 14th nationally at the time, Mason rushed for a career-high and SEC championship game-record 304 yards with four touchdowns.

In SEC play in 2013, Mason averaged 123.1 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. He also had 13 touchdowns.

In Monday's 34-31 loss to the Seminoles, Mason looked like the best player on the field for most of the night, rushing for 195 yards and a 37-yard touchdown that appeared to be the game-winning score with 1:19 remaining. With the way he played on Monday, you have to think that he would have finished much higher in the Heisman race.

Mason has been great for the Tigers, and there's no doubt that he immediately would've made them a title contender again in 2014 if he had decided to stay. But he absolutely made the right decision.

For Auburn, it's time to look to its already-loaded stable of running backs, which includes Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne, who each ran for more than 600 yards and had six touchdowns this past season. Obviously, quarterback Nick Marshall (1,068 rushing yards) is a dangerous running threat. Auburn will take the redshirt off running back Peyton Barber and will have ESPN 300 back Racean Thomas coming in. Thomas could be a real stud for Auburn and could compete for solid playing time early.

The Tigers will certainly miss Mason, who was both a great player and person, but his family on the Plains had to know that it was his time to take the next step.
Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Today’s matchup is between Auburn’s running backs and Florida State’s linebackers.

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Nick Marshall
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Marshall isn't a running back, but with over 1,000 yards rushing, Auburn's quarterback provides a lethal ground threat.
Auburn’s running backs: Gus Malzahn has always been one to tailor his offense around his team’s skill set. In this case, it’s safe to say that Auburn’s strength is running the football. The Tigers have run on 71 percent of its plays, the highest percentage of any non-triple-option offense in the FBS. They lead the nation in rushing yards per game and are one of five schools this season to have two players with at least 1,000 rushing yards.

The star is running back Tre Mason. He leads the SEC in rushing (1,621 yards) and rushing touchdowns (22), rushing for a career-high 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries in the SEC championship game. That performance, along with his 164-yard outing against No. 1 Alabama, earned him a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation.

But as impressive as Mason has been all year, it’s quarterback Nick Marshall who makes this offense go. Technically, Marshall isn’t a running back, but how can you not include him in this category when he has over 1,000 yards rushing? The junior college transfer seems to get better every game as he gets more and more comfortable with the zone-read. Florida State has the athletes to defend Auburn’s offense, but Marshall’s ability to run turns a great offense into a nearly unstoppable offense.

The wild card of the group is Corey Grant, a former Alabama transfer. If Mason is the thunder, Grant is the lightning. The junior has been used sparingly, but he’s a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. He has 650 yards and six touchdowns on the season and is among the nation’s best in yards per carry (10.0).

Statistically speaking, Florida State has been strong against the run, but the Seminoles haven’t faced a rushing attack quite like Auburn’s “four-headed monster.” When they faced Boston College’s Andre Williams, they gave up 149 yards to the Heisman finalist. Mason is every bit the player that Williams is, and that’s just one of the multiple weapons Auburn has in its arsenal.

Florida State’s linebackers: It’s hard to know quite what to make of this matchup. On the one hand, FSU has been exceptional against the run for most of the season. The Seminoles are eighth nationally, allowing just 3.1 yards per carry (and just 2.9 in the first halves of games), and the first-team defense has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. Throw out the second half against NC State (when the backups played the entirety), and FSU is allowing just 2.6 yards per rush since the start of October, when Christian Jones moved up to the defensive line and Terrance Smith stepped in as the starting middle linebacker.

The problem, of course, is that Maryland and Wake Forest and Duke didn’t provide anything close to the challenge Auburn will on Jan. 6. The best rushing offense Florida State faced this year was Boston College, and not coincidentally, no team had more success on the ground (200 yards) or overall (34 points) against FSU this season.

Still, the Seminoles defense has evolved immensely since that BC game. Terrance and Telvin Smith have both developed into reliable defenders against the run. Jones provides an athletic defender on the edge. Jalen Ramsey (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) moved to safety and can play sideline to sideline against the run. Both Jones and Ramsey will be vital against an Auburn team that runs outside the tackles routinely with great success (averaging 6.3 yards before contact outside the tackles, according to ESPN Stats & Info, best among AQ schools). FSU is allowing just 3.1 yards per rush between the tackles this year, but 5.1 outside.

The Seminoles have the athleticism on defense to make life tough for an Auburn running game that hasn’t struggled often, but what the Tigers do well is also the one place where some questions remain for Florida State.

Ostendorf: Edge Auburn

Hale: Slight edge for Auburn
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Gus Malzahn stood at the podium during his introductory press conference last December, he said his goal was to ‘play championship football like Auburn expects.’ It sounded great, but how realistic was that?

Across the state, Alabama was on the verge of winning its second national championship and third in the past four years. Auburn, on the other hand, was coming off a dreadful 3-9 season, the program’s worst finish in over 50 years. It didn’t look like the Tigers were going to be competing for championships any time soon.

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Tre Mason and Gus Malzahn celebrate
AP Photo/John BazemoreEven if Tre Mason decides to enter the NFL draft, things are looking up for Gus Malzahn's Tigers.
But here they are, 12 months later, headed to Pasadena, Calif., to play Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team come as far as we have,” Malzahn said.

Auburn isn’t just a year ahead of schedule. It’s two or three years ahead of schedule. Some people questioned whether Malzahn would ever get the Tigers to this point. After all, he was coaching high school football less than a decade ago, and his experience as a college head coach consisted of one year at Arkansas State.

However, he’s a proven winner. He’s won at every stop he’s made, and it was no different this season on the Plains.

It was a season that was kind to Auburn as far as injuries, and the ball bounced its way on certain occasions, but it was no fluke. The Tigers are in the national championship game for a reason, and the scary thing for the rest of the SEC is that they’re not going away. They could be even more dangerous in 2014.

The offense, which averaged 40 points per game and led the conference in rushing, has only one senior in the starting lineup -- H-back Jay Prosch. The rest of the unit is able to return next season, but a few key players still have decisions to make regarding their future and the NFL draft. Running back Tre Mason is one of those players.

“I’m not sure,” he said recently when asked about the NFL. “I’ve been talking to my family, talking to a couple of guys I know [who] are already there. I’ve been discussing those things with them, and they said, ‘Don’t worry about it, leave it in God’s hands. He’s going to make the right decision for you.’ I’m just going to let time wind down.”

Mason leads the SEC with 1,621 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns. On the heels of his 304-yard performance in the conference championship game, he was invited to New York City for last weekend’s Heisman Trophy presentation. If he opts to leave early for the NFL, it would be a devastating blow for Auburn but one the Tigers could still recover from.

They will have Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant back for one more season, and it could also open the door for ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas, who is currently committed to Auburn. The in-state prospect rushed for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior, despite missing several games due to injury.

The offense, though, is still run by the quarterback, and Auburn has one of the league’s best in Nick Marshall. The junior-college transfer arrived on campus over the summer, won the starting job and never looked back. He threw for 1,759 yards, rushed for 1,023 yards and scored 23 combined touchdowns. Imagine if he had gone through spring practice.

Next season, Marshall's numbers could be even more gaudy when he has a year of experience under his belt. It's not crazy to consider him an early candidate for the 2014 Heisman Trophy. It doesn't hurt that all five starters on the offensive line are eligible to return as well.

This week, Auburn began practice for next month’s BCS title game. It’s obviously a monumental game for the program, but win or lose, the Tigers have the players and the coaching staff to make a run at it again next year. And possibly the year after that. As long as Malzahn's in town, the AU program has what it takes to be playing championship football for a long time.

“While this season has been remarkable, I'm equally excited about the future of our program under his leadership,” athletic director Jay Jacobs said. “The future of Auburn football is very bright.”

What we learned in the SEC: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
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Has an SEC season ever been this much fun? Auburn and Missouri capped a tremendous season with a thrill ride of a championship game. Here are five things we learned from Saturday's tilt.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Tre Mason not only carried the Tigers to a win in the SEC championship game, but he ran his way into the Heisman discussion as well.
1. Auburn's offense is impossible to contain: Missouri entered Saturday's game with a very good defense, ranking second in the conference and 14th in the nation against the run (119.1 yards allowed per game). When the burn marks cooled off and the game was over, Auburn had 545 yards rushing (the most in league history by an SEC team against an SEC opponent) as part of its SEC title game record 677 total yards. Gus Malzahn's offense was at its mind-boggling best, using every wrinkle in the playbook to steamroll yet another helpless opponent. When Mizzou geared up to stop the run in the first half, AU quarterback Nick Marshall went 6-of-6 passing for 94 of his 132 yards to loosen up the defense. When Tre Mason needed a blow -- which wasn't often -- Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne stepped in to score one TD each. When Missouri went with an extra linebacker in a 3-4 alignment to attempt to keep Auburn from gaining the edge, the Gus Bus simply ran up the middle and flattened Missouri. All of it happened at a breakneck pace, as Auburn's offense set a tempo that no defense appears capable of keeping up with.

2. The SEC has a chance to extend its streak of national championships: The SEC just won't be denied. After celebrating with the league trophy, the oversized logo and the confetti cannons, Auburn players and coaches settled in to watch the ACC and Big Ten championship games. No. 1 Florida State took care of business, but No. 2 Ohio State fell to Michigan State. Toomer's Corner exploded with toilet paper for the second time on Saturday night, as fans spilled into the intersection to celebrate a shot at the national title. Auburn took care of business on the field but needed help, and the Spartans delivered. What else would you expect in the Tigers' miracle season? The SEC's seven-year winning streak refuses to die, as AU is now projected to play unbeaten FSU in Pasadena, Calif., for all the marbles.

3. Mason deserves serious Heisman consideration: If the junior from Palm Beach, Fla., somehow wasn't on the national scene before Saturday, he certainly is now. Mason broke five SEC championship game records with 46 carries for 304 yards and four touchdowns. It was three yards shy of tying the Auburn single-game record of 307 set by Curtis Kuykendall in 1944. He ran away with the MVP award (pun intended) and could now find himself in New York City next week as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Mason finished strong in 2013 and added to his eye-popping 2013 season stats -- 1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns. It's only fitting that the Heisman could come down to Mason and FSU quarterback Jameis Winston, the two biggest stars on the nation's two best teams.

4. Mizzou has a great offense of its own: James Franklin's valiant attempt to keep up with the Auburn juggernaut deserves recognition. The senior kept his Tigers in the game, throwing for 303 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 62 yards and another score. His favorite target, sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham, put an exclamation mark on his breakthrough season with six catches for 144 yards and two TDs. Mizzou had balance and did plenty of big-play damage. Leading rusher Henry Josey broke off a 65-yarder as part of his 123-yard effort (13.7 yards per carry). But it wasn't enough to keep up, as Auburn's offense applied too much pressure, and Missouri eventually wilted in the fourth quarter.

5. If this is the new SEC, it sure is entertaining: An era of unbridled offense has taken over college football, and on Saturday the old formula of winning with defense, special teams and a conservative offense was nowhere to be seen inside the Georgia Dome. The first half was enough to know this wasn't your father's SEC. The combined 55 first-half points were not only the most in SEC championship game history, they were more points than the four-quarter totals scored in 15 other SEC title games. When it was over and the scoreboard operator got some much-needed rest, the combined point total of 101 had obliterated the previous record -- 75 points in 1996 (Florida 45, Alabama 30). Auburn and Missouri combined for a dizzying number of big plays, as the SEC's showcase looked more like a video game than ever before.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
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Time to hand out some helmet stickers from the SEC championship game. And considering there were 101 points scored between Auburn and Missouri, don't be offended that the two defensive coordinators didn't make the grade.

Tre Mason, Auburn: Was there any doubt? If one game can win you the Heisman Trophy, then go ahead and hand the award to Auburn's leading tailback. At least get him to New York City for the ceremony. Mason had arguably the best performance in SEC championship game history, running for an incredible 304 yards and four touchdowns against a Missouri defense that hadn't allowed a single team to break the 200-yard rushing mark this season. Mason finished just four yards shy of setting a school record. His 46 carries were the most ever in the league title game, passing former Tennessee Vol Jamal Lewis, who ran the ball 31 times in 1997.

Nick Marshall, Auburn: Auburn coach Gus Malzahn could have asked for nothing more from his quarterback, whom we'll all do well to remember came to The Plains only some six months ago. Marshall was the perfect orchestrator of Malzahn's offense on Saturday afternoon, knowing when to hand the ball off and when to tuck it and run on the zone-read. Auburn ended up with 545 yards on the ground, 101 of which belonged to Marshall, who averaged a staggering 12.0 yards per carry. But what has been most impressive about Marshall is his passing. He still is not the most accurate or developed passer, but when he throws it, he makes it count. Against Missouri, he kept the Tigers' defense honest by completing 9 of 11 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown.

Auburn's big uglies: Applaud Mason, congratulate Marshall and pat Corey Grant, Ricardo Louis and Cameron Artis-Payne on the back. But when you consider the running lanes they all had to work with in Atlanta, it's no wonder those guys went off for more than 500 yards. Reese Dismukes, Greg Robinson and the rest of Auburn's offensive line controlled the point of attack, moving around a defensive front that Alabama coach Nick Saban earlier in the day called the best in the league. Michael Sam's pass-rushing ability was negated and Matt Hoch wasn't allowed to disrupt the running game up the gut. Auburn's 545 rush yards was the most allowed by Missouri in a game since at least 2000.

James Franklin, Missouri: Missouri didn't lose to Auburn because of its offense, and fans certainly can't turn to Franklin and wonder, "What if?" Maty Mauk couldn't have done any better. Maybe no one could have. When you score more than 40 points in a game, you should win. Given the way Missouri's defense struggled to stop Auburn in Atlanta, it's safe to say Franklin kept his team in the game. The senior signal-caller threw for 303 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri: Did anyone else watch Green-Beckham take that screen pass 37 yards for a first down in the second half and see shades of NFL All-Pro Calvin Johnson? The speed. The size. The graceful stride. It was all there when Green-Beckham ran over the middle and past the Auburn defense for the big gain. Auburn's secondary had no answer for the 6-foot-6, 225-pound former five-star receiver, who wound up going off for 144 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions.
Auburn fullback Jay Prosch respects Missouri's defensive line and its rush defense, but he also loves what his own team's offense can do.

"We're really good at what we do offensively," Prosch said. "I think no matter what, whoever we play, we're going to find a way to move the ball no matter what, where their strengths are. … Missouri has a very good defensive line and a very good defense, but overall I think that we're going to find a way to move the ball no matter how we have to do it."

You can't knock his confidence. The Tigers finished the regular season with the SEC's No. 1 rushing attack, averaging 318.25 yards per game. They average 6.3 yards per carry and have 39 rushing touchdowns on the season.

What's more is that Auburn averaged 286.3 rushing yards in eight conference games. In those games, the Tigers failed to rush for 200 yards just once (120 against Mississippi State). They rushed for 323 yards against Georgia, 379 against Texas A&M and 444 against Tennessee. In last week's epic win over Alabama, Auburn rushed for 296 yards on a defense allowing just 91 rushing yards per game before the Iron Bowl.

While Auburn runs a variation of the spread offense, its running game is very multiple with some power, read-option and triple-option.

[+] EnlargeAuburn
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsNick Marshall and Tre Mason put stress on a defense on every play.
"We're going to have to draw from some experience of other running teams, some of the running philosophies that they have that maybe some other teams had that didn't run the ball as much, be able to apply those lessons to this," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said of defending Auburn's running game.

But Missouri shouldn't feel overwhelmed by what those other Tigers can do on the ground. They have their own stout rush defense.

Mizzou is allowing just 119.1 rushing yards per game, 3.6 yards per carry and has given up 11 rushing touchdowns. Mizzou allowed a league-low 120.8 rushing yards per game in SEC games.

Mizzou linebacker Donovan Bonner has been proud of his defense's production, but he understands the major challenge Auburn's running game presents. After all, this is the same running game that dominated Alabama a week ago. The SEC's best rush defense was pounded and pounded again, allowing a season-high 5.7 yards per carry.

Bonner said stopping Auburn's run game takes discipline and filling gaps. It also means everyone has to be spot-on with their assignments for every player who could run the ball while on the field.

"If you mess up one gap, you go for a big run," Bonner said.

"It's not an easy offense to stop. They do a lot of motion.

"They can pull it out and run with the quarterback. Sometimes they can raise up and pass it. It's really a triplethreat offense, man. You just have to be conscious of what's going on around you and not get caught up in all the other stuff and just focus on what's in front of you. You have to trust your keys as a linebacker and also the safeties, too. So if they scream downhill, and it's play-action, that could be a pass also. So we're just going to focus on trusting our eyes."

Auburn has four players with more than 500 rushing yards, but the stars of the show are Tre Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall, who have combined to rush for 2,239 yards and 28 touchdowns.

Mason is a home run threat and a bruiser. Marshall is slippery, fast and deceptive with the read-option. Twice this season, both rushed for at least 100 yards in the same game, and in the last three games they have combined to run for 798 yards and 10 touchdowns.

You know you're going to take one on the chin when Mason has the ball, but watching Marshall's movements is a little tougher to read.

"You have to stay with the quarterback," Bonner said.

"Marshall is obviously a great runner, probably the best runner other than [Johnny] Manziel that we faced this year. "

But has Auburn faced a defensive line like this? This team hasn't seen a Michael Sam (10.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss), and fellow Mizzou ends Kony Ealy and Markus Golden have combined for 13 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss.

Auburn's running game likes to test players on the edge, but Bonner thinks Mizzou's ends have the ability to contain runs to the outside.

"It can kind of neutralize that, but our defensive ends are pretty athletic, physical guys," Bonner said. "They can get to the ball also I mean, really, if they keep doing what they've been doing all year, we should be fine."

It should be a fun matchup between Auburn's running game and Mizzou's defense. Neither unit has faced the kind of consistency and talent they'll see Saturday, but that hasn't hindered one side's confident nature.

"Offensively, from what we do, I think it will work in our favor," Auburn running back Corey Grant said.

"With us running the ball, we'll find a way to move the ball and get out on the edge and run our zone reads and things like that. So either way, our offense, we've gotten better each week throughout the season. I believe we'll find a way."

AUBURN, Ala. -- All Corey Grant ever wanted was a shot.

He grew up in Auburn's backyard, but the four-star running back committed to cross-state rival Alabama in the Class of 2010 based on a pitch the Crimson Tide staff gave him, promising to open the offense and utilize his blazing speed. Had he stayed home and signed with the Tigers, he would've been a part of the 2010 BCS National Championship team.

Not to worry, Grant surely would get a ring while at Alabama, right?

Wrong. The role he thought he was going to play in Tuscaloosa never panned out, and he transferred to Auburn after his freshman season. He was back home, but he had to watch his former team win back-to-back national championships.

The state of Alabama has claimed the past four crystal balls, and Grant doesn't have a ring to show for it. But none of that matters.

"I'd rather play than sit on the bench and get rings," Grant, now a junior, said.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCorey Grant finally is playing, which means more to him than winning rings while on the sideline.
That's how he always has been.

Grant grew up around football. His father, Ike Grant, was a football coach for 33 years and would take his son with him to work as soon as Corey was old enough to walk. Corey would cut the grass. He would watch film. He would hang out in the weight room with the players. He was always working, always around football.

"Corey didn't have no other choice than to be the kind of kid that he is, simply because I was a football coach and no stranger to hard work," said Ike, the 10th child of 14.

More than anything else, Ike wanted his son to be a good person, but he could see at an early age that Corey was going to be a special athlete. When Corey started walking, it wasn't long before he was running around the house. In pee-wee football, they would toss him the ball and Corey would outrun everybody.

It continued into high school, where he emerged as one of the top prospects in the state.

"Corey had a tremendous junior year," Opelika coach Brian Blackmon said. "Corey had a really big upside. He played a little bit at a bunch of different positions as a sophomore for us. His junior year, though, he had an incredible year. A lot of big plays."

Stanford was the first to offer Corey a scholarship. Auburn was the first SEC school to offer back when Tommy Tuberville was still the head coach. He had double-digit offers but chose Alabama over both Auburn and Florida, which was also in the mix.

But Corey never found a fit while he was in Tuscaloosa.

"He went to Alabama, but we could tell during preseason that he wasn't really happy," his father said. "He wasn't really sure. Midway through the season, we really knew it, because when he'd come home, he would kind of indicate that, and he would always regret going back."

Corey stuck it out through the next spring, but when freshman running back Dee Hart arrived in January and passed him on the depth chart, the writing was on the wall. It was time to move on.

There was just one problem. Nick Saban wouldn't release Corey's scholarship if he chose to play for another SEC school. The Alabama coach knew the caliber of athlete he had and didn't want to have to compete against him for the next two or three years.

That left Corey with very few options. Ultimately, he wanted to come home and play for Auburn. But to do that, he was forced to walk on to the program and live at home for the first year. He would wake up at 4 a.m. and drive to the football complex every morning for practice. It wasn't easy, but it was the only way.

"I think Corey was just happy to be home," Blackmon said. "Corey's a very driven kid. He had to go back and earn it all over again. He went from a four-star, highly recruited kid to a walk-on, having to earn it again."

Corey won multiple team awards the year he walked on and eventually earned a scholarship. But when former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left for Arkansas State, Corey's opportunity to play left with him. The local kid was working hard and doing everything the right way, but his opportunity never came.

"He's had a hard road, simply because when he got to Auburn, he had to sit down, because Coach Saban wouldn't release him," Ike said. "Then the next year, he stood on the sideline and nobody gave him an opportunity.

"All the coaches would say he's a great kid, he's a great athlete, he's a hard worker, he does what he's supposed to, but he never got that opportunity. He's had a struggle with that."

Flash forward to this season. Malzahn returned to Auburn as head coach, and, in turn, Corey has become an integral part of the rushing attack. He's one of four Tigers with more than 500 yards rushing, and he leads the SEC in yards per carry (9.9) with a minimum of 50 attempts. He had 53 yards and a touchdown on just six carries last week against Georgia.

"He's one of the faster guys probably in college football," Malzahn said. "He's been a speed guy, but he's gotten a lot better at running in between the tackles and doing the things that a normal running back does. He's an outstanding player and an even better person."

It would have been easy to stay at Alabama. He might never have seen the field, but he'd have been part of two national championship teams. Some of his teammates knew they were never going to play but stayed anyway for the shot at getting a ring.

But that's not Corey. His father once asked him about the rings, to which he responded, "Daddy, it don't make no difference if you're not happy."

Corey's finally happy, and he'll get his shot against his former team this Saturday in the Iron Bowl. If Auburn wins, he might even get a chance to play for a ring.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The mark of a good football team is not just winning, but winning on the road.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIAfter finishing the road portion of their schedule on a strong note, Gus Malzahn's Tigers close out the regular season at home against two tough opponents.
Auburn took care of business on Saturday, beating a dangerous Tennessee team in Knoxville. The 55-23 victory was the team’s third straight triumph away from home, but the Tigers still remember their first road trip of the season and the quarter that continues to haunt them to this day.

Auburn started the season 3-0 and looked to have its confidence back. But that quickly changed when the Tigers arrived in Death Valley for a road test with LSU. They fumbled on each of their first two possessions, and LSU capitalized. Before the players ever broke a sweat, Auburn was down 14-0 in one of the most hostile environments in college football.

“The first quarter we were on the verge of being terrible against LSU, and I think everybody saw that,” head coach Gus Malzahn said.

But once the initial storm passed, the Tigers played pretty good football and actually outscored LSU in the second half. Though they lost that game, they learned from it. They tasted defeat on the road, and since that point, they have yet to leave a visiting locker room without celebrating a victory, picking up wins at Texas A&M, Arkansas and most recently Tennessee.

“Our first road game, we turned the ball over,” defensive back Robenson Therezie said. “We understand [it's important] not turning the ball over, and just those little things that we have to fix in order to win a road game because we know they’ve got all the momentum, all their fans making noise and everything.

“At the same time, we’ve just got each other, and we just have to focus on the little things -- not turning the ball over, playing good defense -- just to win.”

The good news is Auburn will not play in a visiting stadium until next season. The bad news is the Tigers still have two Top 25 teams on their schedule. Still, the players are elated to return home for the team’s last two regular-season games.

“It’s very exciting,” cornerback Chris Davis said. “I told them before we went out, ‘This is the last road game, let’s take advantage of it.’ We’ve got two more tough games at home that we end with, so for this to be the last road game, it’s a good road win for us.”

And Auburn will have no trouble getting up for its last two home games. On Saturday, the Tigers host No. 25 Georgia, and on Nov. 30, No. 1 Alabama comes to town in what has turned out to be a much-anticipated Iron Bowl.

“That’s very exciting for us with Georgia next week, then you get a bye week, and then come in with Alabama,” running back Corey Grant said. “To finally be done with the road games and be home for big games is something to look forward to.”

“Now it’s time to turn up in Jordan-Hare Stadium,” Therezie said. “It feels good.”

There’s a lot at stake for Auburn in these last two regular-season games. Win both and the Tigers are headed to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. A loss could take them out of contention for a BCS bowl game.

Malzahn knows it will be a challenge, but he’ll have his team ready.

“Anytime you're playing good teams, you have to play your best football,” he said. “We talked about improvement in each practice and each game, and I feel like for the most part we've done that all season. We're going to have to continue to do that because you're talking about two of the better teams in all of college football.”

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- On a day when the offense rushed for 444 yards and the defense allowed just three points in the second half, the Auburn special teams made the biggest impact in the Tigers’ 55-23 victory at Tennessee on Saturday.

“Special teams is key,” running back Tre Mason said. “It's key. You need special teams. It's very important, and you can't forget about that aspect of the game. That aspect can also win games.”

Early in the second quarter, Auburn (9-1, 5-1 SEC) looked like it might be in for a dogfight. The score was tied, and the Tigers had fumbled the ball, missed an extra point and allowed two long drives that resulted in field goals. It was a team in need of a spark.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIChris Davis averaged 63.5 yards on two punt returns at Tennessee.
Chris Davis provided it.

The senior cornerback returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown to give Auburn a 20-13 lead. He initially muffed the punt but picked it up, found a seam and took off down the sideline.

“You never want the ball to hit the ground,” Davis said. “As a returner, you're always trying to field the ball -- that's the No. 1 thing. But when it hit the ground, I saw I still had a chance to pick it up and had a lot of room, and I just went with that.

“I think that was a huge momentum shift. I'm a playmaker at that position, and I try to make plays for my team.”

It was Auburn’s first punt return for a touchdown since 2008 (Robert Dunn against Louisiana-Monroe). It was also the third-longest punt return in school history and the longest since 1970.

For Davis, it wasn’t even his first long return of the game. He ran one back 42 yards in the first quarter that put Auburn in great field position and led to the Tigers' first touchdown.

“Chris Davis, he always says, 'I'm dangerous with the ball, I'm dangerous with the ball,' and he's showing it,” Mason said.

Added Auburn coach Gus Malzahn: “Chris is a veteran guy, and you could see he made some great moves. He went north-south, he didn't dance around, he made a couple of really great moves and had enough speed to take it to the house.”

But the Tigers weren’t done in their return game.

Running back Corey Grant returned the second-half kickoff 90 yards for an Auburn touchdown. It was the first time in school history that Auburn had taken both a punt and a kickoff back for a touchdown in the same game.

“It was a great feeling,” Grant said. “Everybody was cheering, and everybody was happy. It just seemed like the defense was ready to go back at it.”

From there, the SEC’s top-ranked rushing offense took over, but it was the long returns from the special teams that swayed the momentum in Auburn’s favor. The Tigers accumulated 312 combined return yards, a school record, and were just 65 yards away from breaking the NCAA record.

The performance is a credit to first-year special-teams coach Scott Fountain.

“Coach Fountain and his staff have done a great job,” Malzahn said. “We have one of the better kickers in college football; we have one of the better punters in college football; now we're starting to get our return game right. Guys are starting to do their assignments, and if we can continue to improve in that area, it will really help us.”

Running room, tough yards fueling Auburn

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
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Gus Malzahn has the Auburn Tigers at 7-1 and ranked 11th in the BCS standings.

Last season, Auburn finished 3-9, its worst record since 1952. Malzahn served as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2010 when the Tigers won the BCS National Championship. In 2012 he was the head coach at Arkansas State. Under Malzahn, the Red Wolves finished 10-3 and were the Sun Belt Champions.

One of the keys to Arkansas State’s success last season was its running game. The Red Wolves led the Sun Belt in rushing yards per game for this first time since the conference sponsored football in 2001.

While Arkansas State ran through the Sun Belt, Auburn finished last in SEC play in rushing yards per game and yards per rush, while finishing tied for last in rushing touchdowns.

Malzahn has flipped the script for Auburn this season; the Tigers lead the SEC in rushing yards per game and yards per rush. They rank second in rushing touchdowns.

Through eight games, they already have 13 more runs of 10 yards or more and eight more rushing touchdowns than they had all of last season.

What specifically has fueled Auburn’s rushing attack in 2013?

More room to run
Auburn leads the SEC and ranks second among BCS AQ schools this season in rushing yards before contact.

Of the Tigers’ 2,523 rushing yards this season, 1,618 have come before contact. They are the only SEC team averaging more than four yards before contact per rush.

In 2012, Auburn was 13th in the SEC with 815 rushing yards before contact. The Tigers have 117 rushes in which they were not contacted until at least five yards past the line of scrimmage this season, 23 more than any other SEC team.

Tre Mason gaining tough yards
One constant for Auburn the last two seasons has been Tre Mason. In 2012, Mason was one of nine SEC players to rush for more than 1,000 yards, and in 2013 he ranks fifth in the conference with 753 rushing yards. However, Mason has been better at picking up tough yards in 2013 compared with 2012.

This season, Mason has converted 76 percent of his runs on third or fourth down, second-best percentage in the SEC behind Missouri’s Henry Josey (minimum 10 attempts). He has converted a first down on 79 percent of such runs with three yards or fewer to go, including a fourth and one play at the Texas A&M 1-yard line in the Tigers win.

Last season, Mason converted 50 percent of his rushes on third or fourth down, including only half when he had fewer than three yards to go for a first down.

Similarly, Mason has four rushing touchdowns in five goal-to-go attempts this season. He had five such touchdowns in 11 attempts last season.

Others besides Mason stepping up
In 12 games last season, Onterio McCalebb was the only Tiger besides Tre Mason to gain more than 400 rushing yards. In eight games this season, three Auburn players other than Mason have run for more than 400 yards.

Nick Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant each have combined for 1,422 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. Each player has his own strengths: Marshall is averaging 7.1 yards per rush on 44 zone-read rushes, Artis-Payne is averaging 7.0 yards per rush on 39 first-down rushes, and Corey Grant is averaging 11.1 yards per rush on 39 rushes outside of the tackles.

Rushing efficiency
Auburn has added 74.0 expected points on rushing plays this season, ninth most in the FBS. Last season, the Tigers had a -6.3 EPA on rushing plays, 78th in the FBS. Expected points added are the contribution of each unit to a team’s net points in a game, so Auburn has added about nine points per game towards its net scoring margin with running plays this season.

Next up for Auburn is a road game against Arkansas, a team that has struggled to stop the run in SEC play. The Razorbacks are allowing 251.5 rushing yards per game and 5.7 yards per rush in conference games, both worst in the SEC.


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The morning traffic in Birmingham on Saturday was unbearable. One side of the interstate was littered with cars, trucks and campers sporting some combination of crimson and white. Rows and rows of drivers were "On my way to see Bama play," according to the stickers on their vehicles. The caravan inched slowly toward Tuscaloosa, weaving on and off exits and around construction.

The Crimson Tide, the state's pride with back-to-back national championships, would demolish rival Tennessee 45-10 that afternoon to remain undefeated and firmly atop the BCS standings at No. 1 overall.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama has outscored Auburn 91-14 in the last two Iron Bowl games, including a 49-0 shutout last season.
About the same time Alabama's supporters headed west toward Tuscaloosa, another group of cars marched south toward Auburn University, their vehicles sporting the school's traditional orange and blue colors and paw print stickers. Tiger-striped tails whipped in the wind, dangling from antennas and trunks. Almost prideful, their flow of traffic moved quicker than their counterparts on the opposite side of the interstate.

The Tigers, mired in mediocrity since winning the national championship in 2010 but recently resurgent under their new coach Gus Malzahn, would dispatch Florida Atlantic with ease later than night. The 45-10 win would boost Auburn to 7-1 and a No. 11 ranking in the BCS standings.

The wins and the rankings of both schools are one thing. Seeing the line of cars siphoning through the state's largest city, though, was a visual representation of where the rivalry is today. The Iron Bowl, after two years of being so incredibly one-sided in favor of Alabama, is relevant again. The Tide and the Tigers are squarely in the title hunt and only weeks away from a matchup that will determine both programs' postseason hopes.




Alabama's success is taken for granted these days, and for good reason. Coach Nick Saban has built the program into the model of success with only five losses and a staggering .907 winning percentage since 2009. The Tide has won three of the last four BCS National Championships and is well positioned to compete for an unprecedented third straight should it reach Christmas undefeated.

Auburn's rise to national relevance is much more surprising. The fact that Malzahn could resurrect a program left for dead by Gene Chizik is a shock. Auburn finished 8-5 in 2011 and fell further in 2012, ending the year 3-9 and winless in the SEC. To make matters worse, the Tigers were dominated in the Iron Bowl, losing the past two contests with Alabama by a combined 77 points. Off-field problems rotted out the program and Chizik was fired two years after he and Cam Newton led it to a national championship.

"It’s very exciting," said safety Jermaine Whitehead, who signed with Auburn in 2011. "It’s the most live I’ve seen the fan base since I’ve been here. I think everyone has bought in, everyone believes. It kind of looks like the championship year -- the reason that I came here -- and I think we’re going to have a great story to tell when it’s all done."

Their story is already interesting. Two weeks ago Auburn went on the road to then-No. 7 Texas A&M and upset the Aggies in dramatic fashion. Quarterback Nick Marshall, a transfer, led Auburn to the come-from-behind win with a late fourth-quarter touchdown drive.

Corey Grant, who redshirted the 2010 season at Alabama before transferring to Auburn in 2011, said that there wasn't a time last year where he would have believed this season's turnaround could have happened. Beating Johnny Manziel, the defending Heisman Trophy winner, and the Aggies would have been unthinkable. But when Malzahn arrived he said the players were desperate for change and "we always just kept a new mindset and it turned out good for us."

"At the beginning of the season, things started off slow, but as the season got going, and Coach Malzahn kept preaching on what he wanted, and also this coaching staff, and everybody, all the players buying in, it's going good," he added.

As they say at Auburn, it's a new day. How long it will last, though, remains to be seen.




The Iron Bowl will be the ultimate litmus test for both programs.

Alabama has a major hurdle in No. 13-ranked LSU in two weeks, but neither Mississippi State nor Chattanooga in the following two weeks should prove an obstacle on the way to the Iron Bowl.

Auburn, meanwhile, should be favored in its remaining three games against Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia. The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, as the Georgia-Auburn game is affectionately known, will be played at Auburn.

With LSU and Texas A&M currently sporting two losses, the West is either Alabama or Auburn's to steal.

Should both schools reach Nov. 30 without another loss, their matchup in the Iron Bowl would be huge, the biggest in years. It would be the first time the rivalry game comes with a trip to the SEC Championship Game on the line for both schools. The 1994 game did decide the SEC West champion, however Auburn was ineligible to play in the title game in Atlanta at the time.

Imagine the traffic in Birmingham if that happened. Post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping and an Iron Bowl? The roads were bad enough this weekend. Who knows if the state can handle both its teams being in the title hunt a month from now.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Texas A&M’s Kyle Field is one of the most intimidating venues in college football. It’s been around for almost 100 years, but when Auburn comes to town this Saturday, it will mark the first time the Tigers have played in the “Home of the 12th Man.”

“I heard it’s extremely loud, and I’ve heard it’s one of the tougher places to play,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesGus Malzahn is hoping his Auburn team learned from a rough night at LSU when it faces Texas A&M at Kyle Field.
It won’t be the first hostile environment Auburn has faced this season, though, as the Tigers’ lone loss came to LSU in Death Valley. It was a game to forget for Malzahn and his team.

Auburn received the ball first but trailed 14-0 within the first six minutes. They fumbled on each of their first two possessions, and LSU responded with two quick touchdowns. On eight first-half drives, Auburn punted four times, fumbled twice, threw an interception and turned the ball over on downs. It didn’t help that it was pouring down rain.

“We didn’t handle ourself very well the last time, at least the first quarter,” Malzahn said. “We kind of got in a bind and played uphill for the rest of the game. I’ve got to believe that we’ll be more comfortable, and hopefully we won’t make the same mistakes twice.”

After the initial onslaught, Auburn was able to regroup and play much better in the second half against LSU. They scored touchdowns on three of their seven drives and had a chance to make it a one-possession game late in the fourth quarter.

Although they lost 35-21, Malzahn learned a lot about his team in Baton Rouge, La.

“Hopefully it has prepared us,” he said. “Obviously, LSU is a very tough place to play at night. I have heard nothing but great things about this environment. We will do everything we can at practice to simulate crowd noise, but there is nothing like the real thing when everything is going on. I would like to think, because of the experience we had at LSU, it helped us for this one.”

The players gained a lot from the LSU loss as well, specifically the ones who haven’t played as many games away from home.

"I think the experience kind of helped,” running back Corey Grant said. “The different elements that come with playing on the road in the SEC -- I think playing at LSU first is going to help out a lot going to College Station."

Since that trip to LSU, Auburn has gotten its edge back. After an off week, the Tigers upended Ole Miss, a top-25 team at the time. They blew out Western Carolina last week, and now they’re ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since Nov. 12, 2011.

The players know that they’re going to have to bring that confidence with them to Texas A&M this weekend when they face Johnny Manziel and the Aggies.

“They'll have all the fan support and everything out there, but as a defensive player, we've got to feed off of each other as a defense,” cornerback Chris Davis said. “We're going to have to be our own crowd out there. We're going to have to celebrate with the player that makes plays on the team. We've just got to bring our own energy.”

For Auburn to get back to the championship level that Malzahn talked about when he took the job, the Tigers are going to have to win on the road. An upset on Saturday would be a good start.

“This is a big game that we can really make a statement to the world and make Auburn how it used to be,” Grant said.

Instant analysis: Auburn 31, WSU 24

September, 1, 2013
9/01/13
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AUBURN, Ala. -- It wasn't easy, but Auburn used big plays in the first half and key stops in the second half to earn a victory over Washington State in Gus Malzahn's debut as head coach Saturday.

It was over when: Washington State had a chance in the final minutes to tie the game, but on fourth-and-5 from the Auburn 25, Connor Halliday's pass fell incomplete. The Tigers got the ball back, picked up a first down and put the game away.

Game ball goes to: In an unexpected lineup change, Robenson Therezie filled in at the star position for Justin Garrett. He turned out to be the star of the game, literally. Therezie pulled down two interceptions, including one late that killed a Washington State drive.

Stat of the game: Last year, Auburn finished the season with two interceptions. The Tigers matched that number in the first quarter alone. Add the late pick by Therezie, and they finished with three interceptions in the game.

Unsung hero: Running back Corey Grant wasn't even listed on the depth chart before Saturday's game. That likely will change. The former Alabama transfer ran wild against Washington State, finishing with 146 yards on nine carries and a 75-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

What it means for Auburn: It might not have been as convincing as the fans would've liked, but a win is a win, and Auburn already is off to a better start than last year. There were a lot of positives to take away, but there also were a lot of needs to address going forward. Either way, the Tigers are 1-0 under Gus Malzahn.

What it means for Washington State: Even though the Cougars have to fly back home with a loss, they looked much improved from a year ago and battled right down to the end. Halliday finished 35 of 63 for 344 yards and a touchdown, and the offense as a whole racked up 464 yards against Auburn.

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