NCF Nation: Corey Grant

It was midway through the first quarter, and Auburn found itself in a 21-0 hole on the road against Mississippi State. The Tigers needed a spark in the worst way, and so head coach Gus Malzahn called on freshman running back Roc Thomas.

It didn't matter that the only carries in his career had been in the fourth quarter with Auburn well ahead of its opponent. It didn't matter that the kid who had yet to play a true road game was facing the most hostile atmosphere in college football that day. All that mattered was when his number was called, he was ready.

[+] EnlargeRoc Thomas
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsFreshman running back Roc Thomas provided a lift on three consecutive carries for the Tigers' offense in a tough divisional game at Mississippi State.
Thomas ran three straight times and picked up 11, 8 and 18 yards in succession. The drive would ultimately end with a missed field goal, but his appearance provided a lift to the Auburn sideline. It provided an extra hitch in the Tigers' step.

"I've just been trying to prepare myself the same way every week," Thomas said after the game. "Just trying to be patient and trying to wait until my name gets called."

The freshman finished with six carries for 42 yards, a stat line that would not typically stick out in a box score, but his performance not only swung the momentum, it also showed the coaches he's capable of playing a bigger role, regardless of the situation.

"I was proud of him," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "I thought he looked fast. I thought he looked fresh. I thought he looked confident. He protected the football. He ran hard. When he was in there in protections, he knew what to do on the road, in a hostile environment.

"He didn't look like the moment was too big for him. That's what you look for as coaches. If you feel like they had a little bit then you're ready to give them more."

Before the season, Thomas was buried on the depth chart behind Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Peyton Barber. The talent was there -- he was ranked No. 28 in the ESPN 300 -- but he would have to wait his turn.

As Auburn enters the second half of the season, his turn might be now.

"We do have a strategic plan for the second half," Malzahn said Tuesday. "And Roc will have a bigger role."

Don't expect the freshman to unseat Artis-Payne, who is fifth in the SEC with 664 yards rushing, but he might be used more to spell Artis-Payne down the stretch, similar to what he did against Mississippi State the last time out.

"We want to keep our running backs fresh," Lashlee said. "He's a true freshman, but things are slowing down and the talent he has is obvious. We just think that it's time to really start fusing him into things and trying to keep Cameron fresh throughout the game. It also adds that extra dimension to what we're trying to do."

Next up for Auburn is a home date with South Carolina this Saturday. The coaches have had an extra week to prepare, and Thomas has had an extra week to catch his breath and get that much more acclimated to the offense.

There's no telling how much he'll play against the Gamecocks, but he'll be ready when the coaches call on him.

"It's just a matter of being patient and waiting until my name gets called," Thomas said. "I'm just trying to play my part in the offense."

Three key factors in LSU-Auburn

October, 3, 2014
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Nick MarshallAP Photo/Butch DillContaining Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall will be one of LSU's main tasks this week.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- This will become a familiar scenario for No. 15 LSU (4-1, 0-1 SEC) for at least the foreseeable future. Entering Saturday's game against No. 5 Auburn (4-0, 1-0), LSU probably can't afford another division loss if it wants to remain in contention in the SEC West -- much less a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

That's a tall order this weekend, considering Auburn hasn't lost at Jordan-Hare Stadium since Gus Malzahn became coach last season (11-0) and LSU will have a true freshman quarterback, Brandon Harris, making his first career start.

LSU has won six of the past seven games in this series, but getting a win Saturday will be a major challenge. Let's look at three key factors as kickoff approaches, with some help from ESPN's Stats & Information group:

Who can run and who can stop it

Both starting quarterbacks -- Harris and Auburn's Nick Marshall -- are understandably getting plenty of attention ahead of this game. But it's the teams' respective running games -- and whether the defenses can slow them -- that might be the most important factors.

Auburn ranks 17th nationally with 260.5 rushing yards per game and boasts two of the SEC's most productive runners in Cameron Artis-Payne (86 carries, 468 yards, 5 touchdowns, fourth in the SEC with 97.2 YPG) and Marshall (42 carries, 273 yards, 2 touchdowns).

Meanwhile, LSU has struggled against the run, ranking 12th in the SEC and 70th nationally by allowing 161.6 rushing YPG. Coordinator John Chavis' defense is thin at defensive tackle, and its problems there were evident against Mississippi State, which rushed for 302 yards against LSU two weeks ago. Wisconsin also rushed for more than 250 yards against LSU.

Auburn is 13-0 when it runs for at least 250 yards under Malzahn and 3-2 when it does not.

On the other side, LSU's struggling run game got a boost last week when it picked up 363 yards on 54 attempts against New Mexico State. LSU is sixth in the SEC with 226.2 rushing YPG, but Auburn has been stingy against the run (third in the SEC with 90.8 YPG). If coordinator Ellis Johnson's defense is able to shut down Leonard Fournette (LSU's leading rusher with 322 yards on 56 attempts, 64.4 YPG), Kenny Hilliard (57 carries, 298 yards, 59.6 YPG), Darrel Williams (33 carries, 165 yards, 41.2 YPG) and Terrence Magee (34 carries, 144 yards, 28.8 YPG), that will place even more pressure on Harris' shoulders.

Defending the zone read/QB run

Let's dig a little deeper into the running game. To have any chance on Saturday, LSU must contain Marshall and Auburn's option runs.

Auburn has been one of the nation's most effective teams at using the zone-read run since the start of last season. It is averaging 144.39 rushing yards and 6.8 yards per carry in those games.

It's worth noting, however, that Kansas State kept itself in the game against Auburn two weeks ago by slowing Marshall and the zone-read runs. The Wildcats held the Tigers to just 62 yards and 3.1 yards per carry off the zone-read, holding them below 200 total rushing yards for only the second time in Malzhn's tenure as Auburn's coach.

LSU was atrocious against the zone-read in its 34-29 loss to Mississippi State two weeks ago. The Bulldogs ran 20 times for 192 yards from that look, averaging 9.1 yards per carry and breaking five runs of at least 10 yards.

The key element here is slowing Marshall, but LSU has struggled to do that against mobile quarterbacks. LSU has allowed the sixth-most rushing yards to opposing quarterbacks (56 carries for 260 yards) of all FBS programs this season. That includes a 79-yard touchdown last week against New Mexico State and a 56-yard run by Mississippi State's Dak Prescott.

Marshall has 1,341 rushing yards since the start of last season, which ranks third among active FBS quarterbacks.

Harris vs. Auburn pass defense

This subject has been beaten to death all week, but Harris is in rare air for an LSU quarterback. He's the first LSU true freshman to start at the position since Jordan Jefferson in 2008 and the first since Jamie Howard in 1992 to start by Game 6.

He clearly outplayed Anthony Jennings against Mississippi State and New Mexico State, but both of those outings were off the bench. Making his first road start against a better-than-average Auburn defense -- Johnson's defense is fourth in the SEC in total defense (313.2 ypg) and sixth in scoring defense (16.2 ppg) -- won't be easy.

However, Auburn has yet to face a prolific passing team. Its opponents thus far rank 107th nationally (Arkansas, 167.8 ypg), 62nd (San Jose State, 243.0), 59th (Kansas State, 246.3) and 55th (Louisiana Tech, 248.4) in passing offense and yet Auburn still ranks seventh in the SEC in pass defense at 222.5 ypg.

We'll see whether Harris can settle his nerves enough to exploit it, but Auburn is vulnerable against the pass -- especially if veteran safety Jermaine Whitehead remains on suspension for a third straight game.

Auburn, LSU swap roles from 2013 game

September, 30, 2014
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Every championship team faces adversity at one point or another. For last year’s Auburn team, it came in the form of a September road trip to Death Valley.

The Tigers began the season 3-0, snapping their SEC skid against Mississippi State along the way. But in the first half at LSU, Auburn simply looked outmatched. It was pouring rain; the offense couldn’t move the ball; the defense couldn’t stop Jeremy Hill; and it was 21-0 after the first 30 minutes. It felt like the team should get back on the bus and head home.

Auburn didn’t, though. As the rain tapered off in the second half, Gus Malzahn’s team fought back and nearly made it a one-possession game before eventually losing 35-21.

Looking back, the game can be remembered two different ways. On one hand, it was the lone blemish on an otherwise flawless resume heading into the BCS title game and a contest Auburn would rather forget. On the other hand, it was a turning point for Auburn, a loss that would create momentum and ignite a nine-game winning streak.

As for the players, all they remember is the rain, or the “very stiff, wind-driven dew,” as LSU coach Les Miles so eloquently put it.

“It was raining in Death Valley, and that’s always a good time,” Auburn center Reese Dismukes said. “It was a night game. I remember that was kind of our turning point in our season. We lost the game, but it really showed that we had fight. It came down to the wire at the end.”

“Wet, rainy,” running back Corey Grant said. “Started off slow. Came back second half, made some adjustments and we kind of got back on track, but it was a little bit too late.”

“I kind of remember the rain a lot,” defensive tackle Montravius Adams said. “It was really slippery. It was my first road game as a college player and I didn’t know I was going to play that much, but coach put me in so I tried to do what I could.

“And I remember losing. That’s the big thing I remember. I think it’s going to be better this year. I hope we get the win.”

“We didn’t really come out the way we should’ve,” cornerback Jonathon Mincy said. “We didn’t have that edge. By the time it was time for us to adjust, we didn’t really put the proper points on the board or we didn’t make the correct stops, fill in gaps.”

It’s been more than a year since that game, and Malzahn admits it still leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. To this day, it’s his only SEC loss as a head coach.

However, he also remembers the second-half comeback and how it was a defining moment for Auburn last season. He remembers how the players responded after halftime and how they were an onside kick away from making things interesting.

“Our guys came back,” Malzahn said on Monday’s Tiger Talk radio show. “They responded like champions in the second half, and it gave us momentum the rest of the year.”

This is a new year, though, and the roles have reversed. Auburn is the overwhelming favorite at home against a young, inexperienced LSU team that has a quarterback in Brandon Harris who is making his first road start in a hostile environment. Sound familiar? Nick Marshall made his first road start in Baton Rouge last year.

The good news for Harris is there’s no rain in the forecast this year. The bad news is Auburn is hungry for a win.

“I haven’t beat them all four years and I’m coming up on the last time playing them, so I’ll be excited and especially motivated to play those guys,” Dismukes said.

"We lost last year in their house," added Adams. "They’re coming to our house now, so we’re going to try and get that win."
Quan Bray Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsQuan Bray scored half of the Tigers' six touchdowns against Louisiana Tech.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Before the season, Gus Malzahn talked to his team about the seniors and how this is their year, their last opportunity before their time at Auburn comes to an end. He asked all of his seniors to simply play the best they have ever played before.

Quan Bray took that message to heart.

"My coaches look at me as a leader," he said. "I'm a vet. I've been here a long time. Coach Malzahn said at the beginning of the year that our seniors are going to need to step up and play big. We took the challenge, and we're trying to do just that."

The senior wide receiver had a career game Saturday, finishing with three catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-17 win over Louisiana Tech. He added a third score on a 76-yard punt return, his second return touchdown of the season, and he currently leads the nation with 36.8-yard average on his five punt returns through the first four games.

Has Bray ever had a game like that, at any level?

"Probably high school," he said. "Everybody probably had games like that in high school because you were probably the best player on your team and this and that, but from what I've been through and the things that we've been doing, the hard work is really paying off.

"It had to be my senior year, but it doesn't take nothing but a year for us to be successful."

A year is all that he has left, but Bray is making the most of it. He had as many touchdowns Saturday as he had his first three seasons at Auburn, and he's well on his way to setting a new career high for receiving yards in a season.

Nobody was happier to see him break though than this fellow seniors, who have been with him every step of the way.

"Any time a guy has a day like he did, you've just got to be excited for him," center Reese Dismukes said. "We're close with all the guys on the team, and the seniors -- we've been here for a while -- and you're happy for one of your guys you came in with."

"It's a great feeling," added running back Corey Grant. "He's been working his butt off and been though a lot. To see him come out and to see all that hard work pay off, it kind of motivates me and it just excites me."

This is a senior-laden team at Auburn. From quarterback Nick Marshall to Saturday's captains Dismukes and Gabe Wright, there are 14 seniors listed on the two-deep depth chart which didn't include safety Jermaine Whitehead.

If the Tigers want to repeat as SEC champions, it's up to them.

"It's like we got a bond," Bray said. "From when we first connected, it was like we're going to grind together, we're going to leave here together, we're going to graduate together and we're going to try to win most all of our games. We're going to try to win a national championship.

"That was our goal -- to win a national championship. We fell a little short [last year], but we still got this year to finish it off."

Auburn will need that senior leadership the rest of the way as six of its final eight games are against teams currently ranked in the top 15, beginning with Saturday's game against No. 15 LSU, a team that most of the seniors, Bray included, have never beaten.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Through the first two games, Cameron Artis-Payne has rushed for 289 yards and four touchdowns. His 42 carries are twice as many carries as Corey Grant, the team's No. 2 running back. So does that mean Auburn has found its workhorse? Have the Tigers found their replacement for Tre Mason?

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Butch Dill/AP PhotoCameron Artis-Payne, Auburn's leading rusher through two games, is out to prove he can carry the ball, as well as the Tigers' offense.
Not quite. At least not according to head coach Gus Malzahn.

"He did a good job," Malzahn said after Saturday's game. "Corey did a good job in there, too. We utilized both those guys. Nothing's changed as far as that goes. We've got to have two of those guys. And you saw the young guys get in there -- Peyton Barber and then Roc [Thomas], too. It's good to get those guys some carries in a game-type situation."

And so we're back to square one.

Technically, Artis-Payne is Auburn's starting running back. He started the first two games, and he will likely start next Thursday's game at Kansas State. But for some reason, Malzahn has been reluctant to acknowledge that he's the guy.

To be fair, more than one back is needed in Malzahn's offense -- it's why the Tigers led the nation in rushing a season ago -- but by the beginning of SEC play last season, they settled on Mason as the featured back. That's the role Artis-Payne wants to have.

"Selfishly, yeah of course, everybody wants to keep getting the ball," Artis-Payne said after Saturday's game where he rushed for 112 yards and three touchdowns. "But at the end of the day, we have to go with the looks that they give us and what the defense is giving us.

"It's a team game. We've got a lot of really, really good running backs in the backfield."

That attitude is why Artis-Payne's position coach Tim Horton calls him "a pro before he's a pro." It basically means he's the same every day. He doesn't have bad days. He's professional in meetings, professional in work. As offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee put it, "he's all business and all work."

It's the same way when he faces the media. There's plenty of personality, but there's a certain edge to him, too, a chip on his shoulder that's likely a reminder of where he came from.

"I'm sure there are some personal aspects in his life that he draws from, but also, he didn't have any offers coming out of high school," Lashlee said. "He goes out to junior college, and he earned his way here. He didn't have the typical road that a kid playing at a big school in the SEC would have as far as recruiting goes.

"So I think he's constantly out to prove himself, and he's out to prove that we don't have to miss a beat with him back there."

Even Artis-Payne admitted to having a little chip on his shoulder coming into this season.

"Yeah, ya'll saw me sitting on the bench last year," he said. "I read everything that everybody puts out, talking about how the running game is going to be. I'm here to prove that it's going to be all right."

After two games, it's been more than all right.

Auburn leads the SEC in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. It doesn't matter that Mason is gone or that Greg Robinson left early for the NFL or that Alex Kozan is out for the season with an injury. The Tigers still feature a dominant rushing attack, and whether Malzahn wants to admit it, Artis-Payne is quickly becoming the driving force behind that.

"I'm just getting more comfortable knowing that I'm going to get in the game and not have to worry about playing time and all that type of stuff," Artis-Payne said.

So is he OK with 20+ carries a game from here on out?

"Oh yeah, I definitely enjoy that," he said. "I'd like for that to continue if it can."

SEC 1,000-yard rushers for 2014

August, 12, 2014
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On Monday, we checked out the SEC quarterbacks who could hit the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2014. After so many good quarterbacks left the league after the 2013 season, I went with four making it to 3,000.

Next up, we're looking at the folks who like running the ball. This is where the SEC could really strike gold this fall. There are a plethora of talented running backs returning in 2014 who could really wear down some of those stout defensive fronts around the league.

Last year, eight players (including a quarterback) rushed for at least 1,000 yards:
The league lost four of those players, but it shouldn't have a problem replacing them. As for how many players will hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2014, I'm going with nine:

1. Todd Gurley, Georgia: Even with the nagging injuries he's dealt with in his past, Gurley enters the 2014 as arguably the nation's best running back. After sitting out a month last season, Gurley still rushed for 989 yards and 6 yards per carry. He has that rare combination of size, strength and explosion.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesT.J. Yeldon will once again be a key cog in Alabama's offense this fall.
 2. Yeldon: He's the only back in Alabama history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first two years on campus. There are a lot of offensive weapons for Alabama to work with this fall, but Yeldon's breakaway speed and grinding ability make him a back to be reckoned with.

3. Derrick Henry, Alabama: Yeldon might be the starter, but Henry will get plenty of carries this fall. Alabama is no stranger to having multiple 1,000-yard rushers, and with a new quarterback coming in, expect Nick Saban to give his backs the ball as much as possible. This freak, tank-like athlete should blow past last year's 382 yards.

4. Davis: He's one of the toughest, most explosive backs around. Somehow, Davis' legs never seem to stop moving when he gets going. He finished with 1,183 yards and had seven games in which he rushed for more 100 yards or more in 2013.

5. Tra Carson, Texas A&M: He only rushed for 329 yards last year, but now that he's the lead back for the Aggies, he'll be asked to do more than just be a short-yardage guy. Carson has home-run speed, a ton of strength and is tough to bring down in space.

6. Jonathan Williams, Arkansas: You might not have noticed the fact that he barely missed the 1,000-yard mark last year by 100 yards because of Arkansas' forgettable season, but Williams is the real deal. He's strong, fast and tough. Arkansas will use more than one back, but that won't stop Williams from reaching 1,000 yards.

7. Leonard Fournette, LSU: The freshman version of Michael Jordan, Fournette will have every opportunity to hit 1,000 yards. He wasn't the nation's No. 1 player in the 2014 recruiting class for nothing. Fournette has everything you'd want in a feature back, and he'll immediately make an impact for the Tigers.

8. Collins: He'll continue to battle Williams for carries this fall, but that won't be a problem. He dropped off a little after a fast start last season, but he still became the first freshman in SEC history to begin his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games and the first true freshman in the NCAA to record three straight 100-yard rushing games to start his career since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson had nine in a row in 2004.

9. Marshall: Yes, he's working to throw more and become more confident in the passing game, but Marshall knows that his legs are his bread and butter. As long as Gus Malzahn is running the zone-read, Marshall will continue to pile up rushing yards.

10. Cameron Artis-Payne/Corey Grant, Auburn: The Tigers aren't afraid to use multiple backs. Both of these guys ran for more than 600 yards and had six touchdowns last fall behind Tre Mason. One of these guys could be the lead back, or they'll work together. Either way, Auburn will be deadly on the ground.

11. Kelvin Taylor, Florida: The sophomore is faster, leaner and more agile this year after rushing for 508 yards last fall. He's still a handful to bring down and the hope in Gainesville is that Kurt Roper's offense opens up the running game even more.

12. Russell Hansbrough, Missouri: He's an incredibly explosive back, who could be primed for a breakout season this fall. With his strength and speed, he should have no problem surpassing the 685 yards he had last year.

13. Josh Robinson, Mississippi State: A wrecking ball in a smaller package, Robinson is finally taking over as the Bulldogs' lead back. Behind LaDarius Perkins last fall, Robinson rushed for 459 yards and 5.9 yards per carry.

14. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: He led the Bulldogs with 829 rushing yards last season, but his coaches would like him to throw the ball a little bit more this fall. You just can't take the runner out of the player, so Prescott could still push for 1,000 yards.
AUBURN, Ala. -- It’s never easy to replace the SEC’s leading rusher, but Auburn doesn’t have just one guy to replace Tre Mason. It has five.

“We have some really good cards,” running backs coach Tim Horton said. “When you’re playing cards, it’s nice to have some good ones to play, and we’ve got some good players. Now it’s just our jobs to figure out how to use these cards we have.”

As expected, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant have distanced themselves from the rest of the pack in the Tigers’ backfield hierarchy. The two have been around the longest and they know the offense, so when the time comes for Gus Malzahn to name a starter, expect one of the two seniors’ names to be called.

However, that doesn’t mean you can just write off the freshman trio. Regardless of whether or not they start, Peyton Barber, Racean Thomas and Kamryn Pettway are all capable of contributing right away.

“I think all three of them are talented,” Malzahn told reporters Saturday. “And that’s the main thing. You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Are you talented enough to play?’ If they’re talented enough to play, then (come) all the little things. Who’s coachable? Who will protect that football? That’s what’s on my mind. Who’s going to protect the football, especially being young?

“Hopefully, we’ll give them enough chances during fall camp to show who can do that, who can execute our offense and who we can count on.”

Barber is a year ahead of the other two after redshirting last season. He turned heads this spring and was primed for a breakout performance at A-day, but a foot injury on his first carry forced him to miss the rest of the game. A missed opportunity, no doubt, but he’s back now and ready to compete.

Thomas arrived this summer, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he’s handled himself through the first week and a half of fall camp.

“He’s done well,” Horton said. “The thing that’s really been impressive is his knowledge of the game. He’s really a good learner and has made very few mental mistakes.

“We’ve put him in scrimmages and walked away. I think sometimes you can get up there and coach them every play, whisper every play, and we haven’t done that. We’ve thrown him in the fire, and he’s done really well with that.”

Of the three freshmen, Thomas was the most highly regarded coming out of high school. He was ranked No. 28 overall in the 2014 ESPN 300 and was named Mr. Football in the state of Alabama. When it came time to talk goals with Malzahn, the Auburn coach went as far as to say he wants to get Thomas a Heisman Trophy before he leaves Auburn.

“I’m just trying to learn a lot,” Thomas said in April. “I want to get in the system and be a dynamic playmaker.”

Pettway, the other incoming freshman, might not be as decorated as Thomas, but he’s impressed the coaching staff to this point and also has an opportunity to be in the mix.

As Horton alluded to earlier, it’s now time for the coaches to figure out how to best use this talented group of running backs. Who starts? Who plays? How do you get all five backs involved?

“It’s a great problem,” Horton said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to understand, and unfortunately I’m old enough to have had this happen to me, is you have five guys that you think are really good and next thing you know, two of them are out for the season, one of them is out with a hamstring for two weeks and you’re down to two.

“You better have depth in this league because I do know this: Those guys are going to get hit.”

Auburn will likely name a starter in the coming weeks, but this backfield isn’t strong because of just one running back. It’s strong because of all five backs, freshmen included, and all five need to be ready in case the coaches decide to play their card.
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
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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
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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."

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