NCF Nation: Nick Marshall

It’s that time again. Time to count down who the best players in the SEC were this past season.

21. Markus Golden, DE, Missouri
Shane Ray got most of the attention on Missouri’s defense, and rightfully so considering he led the league in sacks. But don’t sleep on Golden, who it could be argued had a more complete season than his running mate. Not only did the senior rack up 8.5 sacks, he had 20 tackles for loss and led the team in quarterback hurries (12), forced fumbles (3) and fumble recoveries (3).

22. A’Shawn Robinson, DL, Alabama
At first glance, Robinson wasn’t the player he was as a freshman in 2013 when he led the team with 5.5 sacks. But as an interior lineman in coach Nick Saban’s 3-4 system, stats don’t tell the full story -- at least not individual ones. Rather, the 6-foot-4, 320-pound sophomore was a vital cog in a defense that ranked 12th nationally, taking on countless double-teams in the running game while also lending a hand rushing the passer.

23. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
Auburn didn’t make it back to the national championship, but it wasn’t the fault of its quarterback. Rather, Marshall’s numbers were actually much better than his first season under center as he went from 1,976 yards passing to 2,531 and his quarterback rating jumped eight points. With a record of 20-7 as a starter, 6,425 total yards and 57 total touchdowns, Marshall’s career stands out in SEC history.

24. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
Speaking of ridiculously talented freshmen, how about Texas A&M’s stud defensive end? On an abysmal defense, Garrett, a former five-star prospect in his own right, shined. The 6-5, 250-pound rookie wound up finishing second in the SEC in sacks with 11.5. He also had 14 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries and one blocked kick.

25. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
OK, so the Heisman Trophy talk was a little premature, but don’t let that obscure the solid freshman season the nation’s former No. 1-ranked recruit had. After all, in a backfield that was plenty deep with Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, it was Fournette who led the team in rushing with 1,034 yards. In his final two games, he showed why there was such eagerness to see him in purple in gold as he ran for 289 yards and three touchdowns against Texas A&M and Notre Dame.
When Sammie Coates declared early for the NFL draft, the future prospects looked bleak for the Auburn receiving corps. Most assumed teammate and fellow wide receiver D'haquille "Duke" Williams would join Coates and put his name in the draft as well, and the Tigers would lose more than 1,400 yards receiving and nine touchdowns from their offense.

However, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn announced Monday that Williams would be returning to school for his senior season.

Hallelujah. That was likely the reaction from quarterback Jeremy Johnson.

Set to take over for Nick Marshall next season, Johnson is already considered by many to be the best backup quarterback in the SEC. He has thrived in the limited opportunities he’s had, and he’s one of the league’s top breakout candidates for 2015.

“Jeremy Johnson has proven himself over the last two years to be as good a backup quarterback as there is in the whole country,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He could’ve started a lot of places, including in our league here.”

But it doesn’t matter how good you are if you don’t have anybody to throw the ball to, and Johnson was in danger of losing the team’s top three wide receivers.

Coates, a junior, will be gone to the NFL and Quan Bray is a senior, so he’s not coming back. But the return of Williams solidifies the receiver position and gives Johnson a go-to target his first full season as the starter, assuming he wins the job.

The two are already familiar with each other. In the season opener against Arkansas, the first SEC start for both players, Johnson and Williams hooked up on seven passes for 138 yards and a touchdown in the first half.

“That was nothing surprising,” Johnson said after the game. “That’s what we expect out of him. He’s an NFL-type player. Duke is amazing. That was nothing to me.”

The NFL will have to wait, though. And ultimately, it might turn out to be a blessing for both Johnson and Williams.

The decision to come back might be perplexing to some, especially considering Williams sprained his MCL late in the season, but can you imagine a full, healthy season catching passes from Johnson? No offense to Marshall, who set the single-game school record for passing yards at Alabama his last time out, but Johnson is the better passer.

So while Williams will help Johnson next year, Johnson will help Williams just as much, if not more. It’s a win-win for both players and ultimately a win for Auburn.

Not that anybody was worried about Malzahn’s offense, but with Johnson taking over at quarterback, Williams turning down the NFL, offensive guard Alex Kozan returning from injury, and a backfield consisting of Roc Thomas, Peyton Barber and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, the Tigers should once again have one of the top offenses in the SEC.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Nick Marshall is not Bo Jackson. He’s not a three-sport star who was named the greatest athlete of all time by ESPN last year. He’s not Cam Newton. He didn’t win a Heisman Trophy or a national championship, let alone both in the same season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesIn only two seasons with the Tigers, Nick Marshall made his mark on the Auburn program.
But Marshall belongs in that conversation.

“He’s definitely one of the more exciting players to ever come through Auburn,” Tigers offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “I think the fans at Auburn are very educated, and they love him for bringing that toughness and that winning mentality back to Auburn.”

Everybody knows the story by now. Marshall signed with Georgia out of high school as a defensive back but was kicked off the team after his freshman season. He ended up in Kansas at Garden City Community College, where he returned to his natural position at quarterback and put up gaudy numbers in his one and only season there.

It was enough to grab the attention of newly hired Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who took a chance on Marshall and offered him a scholarship late in the process.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Marshall won the starting quarterback job after just two months on campus. In his first season, he led Auburn to 12 wins and an SEC championship and came 13 seconds away from winning a national title. He orchestrated one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history.

“He did it from the junior college route,” Malzahn said. “He did it not going through a spring, learning the offense on the run last year. He just had unbelievable playmaking ability, and he’s one of the better dual-threat quarterbacks to ever come through our league.”

This season must have felt disappointing compared to his debut. Auburn only won eight games, and Marshall fell short in multiple big games down the stretch -- uncharacteristic of a guy who seemed to win every big game a year ago. But take a closer look and you’ll see the senior actually played better this season.

Marshall threw for more yards (2,315 to 1,976), accounted for more touchdowns (29 to 26), and even said he was “way better” at making the right reads and the right decisions this season.

In fact, Lashlee believes that if not for the Tigers’ late-season collapse, losing three of their final four, Marshall would have been one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy.

“In my opinion -- the footage and the film speaks for itself -- he’s as dynamic a playmaker as there is in the whole country,” Lashlee said. “There’s not one player that meant more to his team. If we could’ve won more games down the stretch, I think he definitely deserved to have been in New York.”

When asked about Marshall’s NFL prospects, Lashlee took offense to the notion the Auburn quarterback would have to change positions at the next level.

“I think the last game alone, but also the other 26 he’s played in, are plenty evidence that he can play quarterback in the NFL,” Lashlee said.

In that last game, Marshall threw for a career-high 456 yards and three touchdowns on the road at No. 1 Alabama. It was by far the most passing yards allowed by the Crimson Tide in the Iron Bowl, and it also set the Auburn record for most passing yards in a single game.

What does Marshall want to do for an encore in Thursday’s Capital One Bowl?

"He’s trying to go break every record in the Outback Bowl,” Auburn wide receiver Quan Bray said. “He did it in the Iron Bowl, so why not go to the Outback Bowl and break all their records. That's the mindset he's putting on now."

And who’s to say he won’t? Marshall has defied the odds in his time at Auburn. When he showed up, the Tigers were coming off one of the worst seasons in program history. Two years later, they’re back in the upper echelon of the SEC, competing for championships. Marshall has been a big part of that.

He might not have won a Heisman Trophy or a national championship, but Marshall will have left his mark on the Auburn program.

“What he’s done is really amazing,” Malzahn said. “If you look at the big picture and where we were and where he took our program -- how many times he answered the bell with the game on the line -- he just had an awesome career.

"He’ll go down as one of the better quarterbacks to ever come through Auburn.”

SEC helmet stickers: Week 14

November, 30, 2014
Saturday might not have been the SEC's finest day, but the Thanksgiving weekend still provided plenty of impressive, helmet-sticker worthy performances across the conference. Here are the six we think are most deserving from Week 14.

Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn: If not for a guy named Cooper (I'll get to him), Coates would have set the record for most receiving yards in Iron Bowl history. The junior wide receiver torched the Alabama defense all night and finished with five catches for 206 yards and two touchdowns. If he gets a step on the defense, it's over. Quarterback Nick Marshall is as good as there is in the SEC as throwing the deep ball, and he and Coates have a connection that dates back to last season. Marshall was no slouch either. He threw for an Auburn record 456 yards and three touchdowns. But in the end, it wasn't enough. The Tigers lost, 55-44.

Tony Conner, DB, Ole Miss: It was quite a game for the Rebels. Bo Wallace turned in a gritty performance. Jaylen Walton rushed for nearly 150 yards and a touchdown. But it was the return of the Landsharks defense that pushed Ole Miss past rival Mississippi State 31-17 on Saturday, and Conner was especially impressive. The sophomore defensive back finished with seven tackles, three tackles for loss, and a sack. He was all over the field for a defense that held Dak Prescott, Josh Robinson and Co. to a mere 163 yards rushing.

Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: If Cooper does leave early for the NFL, Auburn will not miss him. The junior wide receiver has played some of his best games in the Iron Bowl, and Saturday was no different. He finished with 13 catches for 224 yards (an Iron Bowl record), and three touchdowns. Now, in three career games against the Tigers, he has 24 catches for 511 yards and six touchdowns. On the season, he leads the SEC with 1,573 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns, and he's all but locked up his invitation to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation. He'd be just the fourth wide receiver to make the trip since 1998.

Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: It feels like ages ago since LSU took down Texas A&M, 23-17, on Thanksgiving night, but if you need a reminder, how about Fournette's 22-yard touchdown run in the second quarter? He burst through a hole up the middle, trucked an Aggie defender and bounced outside into the end zone. He looked more like an NFL running back than a college freshman. The LSU star finished with a career-high 146 yards on 19 carries, averaging 7.7 yards per run. SEC defenses could be in trouble next season.

Blake Sims, QB, Alabama: There was a point in Saturday's game when backup quarterback Jake Coker was warming up on the sideline. Sims had just thrown his third interception, Alabama trailed by two scores, and the Crimson Tide were in need of a spark. The coaches opted to stick with Sims, and he delivered. On the very next drive, Sims found Cooper wide open for a 39-yad touchdown pass. He went 10-of-12 for 183 after that third interception, and led Alabama on five consecutive scoring drives, accounting for four touchdowns.

Stanley Williams, RB, Kentucky: We're all about handing out helmet stickers at the SEC blog so why not one more for “Boom” Williams. The freshman was terrific Saturday in Kentucky's 44-40 loss to in-state rival Louisville. He finished with 18 carries for 126 yards and on his second touchdown run to put the Wildcats ahead late, he would not be denied. It was a career day for Williams, who clearly has a bright future in Lexington.

ATHENS, Ga. -- It was supposed to be all about Todd Gurley and his return Saturday night, and while he was great -- 29 carries for 138 yards before leaving the game with an injury -- it was a complete team effort by No. 15 Georgia that propelled the Bulldogs past No. 9 Auburn, 34-7.

How the game was won: Everybody expected a shootout between two of the top offenses in the SEC, but somebody forgot to tell that to Jeremy Pruitt and his Georgia defense. The Bulldogs held Auburn to 292 total yards and just 7 points. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall went 11-of-23 for 112 yards and an interception in his return to Athens.

Game ball goes to: On the night Gurley returned from a four-game suspension, he was overshadowed by fellow running back Nick Chubb. The freshman, who has been tremendous in place of Gurley, finished with 144 yards rushing, 48 yards receiving and 2 touchdowns. Chubb became the second back in the SEC to go over 1,000 yards on the season.

What it means: The pressure is on Missouri now to win the East. If the Tigers lose one more game, Georgia will make the short trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship.

Playoff implication: Earlier this month, Auburn was No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings and the top one-loss team in the country. Now, after back-to-back losses to Texas A&M and Georgia, the Tigers are no longer in contention. Georgia is a long shot, but winning the SEC might give Mark Richt’s team a shot.

Best play: Had he not stepped out of bounds, it would have been a "SportsCenter" Top 10-worthy play, but Chubb’s 27-yard catch in the third quarter was still pretty impressive despite stepping out. He took a short middle screen, ran right, bounced off Auburn cornerback Jonathon Mincy and weaved his way into the end zone. Unfortunately, he just stepped out when he bounced off Mincy.

video What's next: Both Auburn and Georgia host FCS schools next Saturday before finishing the regular season against their in-state rivals, Alabama and Georgia Tech.
From hero to liar to forgotten man: that's Josh Shaw's life from August until now.

The USC cornerback and team captain only has himself to blame for his predicament. He was the one who made up a feel-good story to explain his injured ankles. He was the one who initially hid it from his parents. He was the one who lied to Steve Sarkisian's face when the USC coach asked if he was telling the truth.

Shaw paid the price, suffering physical pain but much more mental anguish as he watched USC play its first 10 games, including Thursday night's home win against Cal. Three months later, it's fair to ask: Does he deserve a second chance? More on that in a bit.

The forgotten man is finally speaking about what happened, telling the Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke that he "hit the bottom" after details of The Lie came to light. Shaw explained that after an altercation with his longtime girlfriend, Angela Chilton, which he insists never became physical, he panicked when he saw police pull up to his building, thinking that she had called them.
"If she did say anything, I'm a black man with dreadlocks, and with everything going on in the country at the time, all that stuff in St. Louis [Ferguson, Mo.] … in my mind, I'm going to leap from the balcony so authorities did not see me."

That's how Shaw hurt himself (though not as bad as he initially thought). But he needed to come up with a better explanation for the injuries than the truth. So he made up the story about rescuing his 7-year-old nephew from drowning.

Shaw tells Plaschke that he thought the lie would hold up and, more important, could live only inside Heritage Hall. When USC's sports information department decided, understandably, to put out a news item explaining the reason for Shaw's injury, it once again gave Shaw the chance to recant. He didn't.

You know the rest: story went viral, Shaw lied to Sarkisian, questions remained from school officials and, eventually, Shaw came clean.
"It gets harder and harder to keep up with lie after lie after lie … the timeline wasn't right ... everything was off ... but I was still lying," Shaw said. "I thought I was in way too deep."

Shaw has stayed away from team activities ever since, even though Sarkisian said in September that he would be welcomed back to the team (Shaw appeared on Thursday's game program, which was printed before the season). He is medically cleared but remains sidelined as school and police investigate the situation. After a police report is filed, USC will conduct its own investigation.

USC has three games left, including the regular-season finale against Notre Dame at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Time is running out, but should Shaw be allowed to suit up one more time for the Trojans?

Yes. But only if what he said about The Lie -- namely that he never became violent with Chilton -- is proven true. The two "adamantly deny" that the argument became physical still live together in the apartment where the incident occurred.

Shaw sounds like a good guy who did a bad, stupid thing by repeatedly lying, and has suffered for it. But he had a strong track record before the incident. He appears remorseful in Plaschke's piece.

There are far worse characters in college football than Josh Shaw, ones who continue to play every Saturday. Second chances are rewarded to athletes who commit more egregious offenses.

So if things check out with the investigations, Shaw should return to the field before the season is done.

Florida State the new Quarterback U?

Whatever you think of Jameis Winston, the Florida State quarterback will leave a production void when he leaves Tallahassee, likely after this season. But the Seminoles are well prepared for life after Jameis. They received a verbal commitment Thursday from quarterback recruit Malik Henry, the top prospect in the 2016 class. Florida State already has commitments from two ESPN 300 quarterbacks in the 2015 class, Deondre Francois and De'Andre Johnson. Like Winston, Henry also intends to play baseball at Florida State and said he's fine with the inevitable comparisons to Winston.

Florida State has a storied tradition at several position groups, but the Seminoles are building quite the pipeline under center through recruiting.

Around the nation
AUBURN, Ala. -- Nick Marshall has been in big games before. He played in both the SEC championship and the national championship last year. He’s faced off against two past Heisman Trophy winners. He recently returned to the state where he rejuvenated his career.

But will any of that prepare him for what he’s going to face Saturday when he goes back to Georgia, the school that dismissed him back in 2012 for a violation of team rules?

“Last year there’s no doubt it was definitely different for him,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “But any time you have that experience one time, it’s not as a big a deal the second time. He’s going to prepare like he normally would, and there’s not going to be any more to it than that.”

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisAuburn's Nick Marshall is aiming to beat Georgia -- his former school -- for the second straight year.
Tell Marshall that. The Auburn quarterback played one of his better games against the Bulldogs last season as he accounted for 318 total yards and three touchdowns in the 43-38 victory, but that was at home in front of his fans. On Saturday, he enters the lion’s den.

The Georgia fans haven’t forgotten about him. His former teammates certainly remember him. It’s not going to be a friendly atmosphere inside Sanford Stadium.

“He knows a lot of those guys over there,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He spent a year there. It’s his home state. He’s human. But at the same time, when that game starts, he’s going to play just as hard as he would any other game.

“At the end of the day, he’s going to do whatever he can to try to help our team win.”

Prior to last year’s Georgia game, Marshall said he wasn’t going to treat it as anything too big because it was just another opponent.

Don’t expect that to change this year. That’s his mindset. It’s why he’s always so even-keeled and calm under pressure. It doesn’t matter if he just threw an interception or if he’s leading his team on a game-winning drive or if he’s about to face his former team.

“He's pretty much the same guy all the time,” Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne said. “His demeanor doesn't change too much. He doesn't go up and down.”

“I think that’s one of his biggest strengths,” added Lashlee. “I think it helps him not make too much of the situation and not make the moment bigger than it is. He can just focus on playing and trying to play his best because that’s what we’re going to need him to do in order to go into a place like Georgia and try to get a win.”

Saturday will be a big game for Marshall, but it will also be a big game for the other 40 players on Auburn’s roster who hail from the Peach State. They might not have started their careers at the University of Georgia, but they’re all returning to their home state.

“I think it’s going to mean a lot to Nick,” teammate Gabe Wright said. “He mentioned that he hasn’t been back since his freshman year.

“But honestly, it goes that way for a lot of guys. Me, [Angelo] Blackson, Jeff [Whitaker], Ben [Bradley], a lot of us haven’t been back in years. It will be as hyped up a game as I can imagine, but I’m pretty sure collectively we’re going to be focused and stay level-headed.”

That level-headed demeanor stems from Marshall, though. If he keeps his cool on the road, in a familiar, yet hostile atmosphere, then so will his team.

“He's just trying to come out and win,” Auburn wide receiver Quan Bray said. “He doesn't care about what's been going on, he just wants to come out and win.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- Statistically speaking, the SEC’s best running back isn’t Todd Gurley or his replacement, Nick Chubb. It’s Cameron Artis-Payne.

The Auburn senior leads the conference with 1,190 yards. In fact, he’s the only back to go over 1,000 yards this season, and his 221 yards against Texas A&M on Saturday were the most yards in one game by an SEC back all year.

And yet, as Saturday’s Auburn-Georgia matchup approaches, all anybody is talking about is Gurley’s return to the Bulldogs following a four-game suspension.

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsWhile Auburn's Cameron Artis-Payne leads the SEC in rushing, his primary focus remains helping his team win games.
What’s it going to take for Artis-Payne to start getting some recognition?

“I don't get to listen to all the talk shows and all that, but he's just a workhorse guy,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He's one of the top running backs in our league, and I think he's proved that time and time again. He's tough. He's very reliable. He's a very good pass protector. He's unselfish. He just does his job.”

Artis-Payne has already rushed for over 100 yards in seven of Auburn’s nine games this season, and he’s getting better every time out. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound back has rushed for 526 yards in his last three games, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. He’s taken over the Tigers’ backfield, similar to how Tre Mason did a year ago.

“He’s running hard, determined,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “I think he’s a very motivated individual. He’s making the most of his opportunity, and he’s been a big part of the reason we’ve been be able to be successful lately.”

But the thing about Artis-Payne is that he’s not a “me” guy. He works hard every day at practice; he spends tireless hours in the film room every week; and he'll be the first one to give credit to the offensive line for his own success. He doesn’t care about recognition. He cares about winning.

That’s why after Saturday’s loss to Texas A&M, he didn’t want to talk about his performance or the fact that he was the first SEC back to go over 1,000 yards. He made it clear that none of that was relevant because his team lost the game.

“It’s fine to lead the SEC in rushing,” Artis-Payne said. “But you know, at the end of the day it’s about getting wins as a team. Individual success will come with that.”

“He doesn’t worry about all the accolades and all that,” added Lashlee. “I think he’s deserving of them. I don’t think there’s been a running back that’s meant more to his team or been any better than him this year. But he’s just not flashy. Sometimes guys that aren’t flashy don’t get as much notoriety, but he’s definitely performing at a high level.”

Normally, Artis-Payne would be a shoo-in to attend the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York City. The last five players to lead the SEC in rushing were invited, and three of those five went on to win college football’s most prestigious award.

Just last year, Mason made the trip. The former Auburn running back finished the season with 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns, but through the first nine games, he hadn’t reached 1,000 yards yet. He was 269 yards behind the current pace set by Artis-Payne this season.

But in spite of all that, Artis-Payne’s name hasn’t been mentioned in the same conversation with the Heisman Trophy. There’s been a bigger push for quarterback Nick Marshall.

“I don't know about all of that,” Artis-Payne said when asked about the Heisman. “A lot of people are having great seasons this year. I'm just trying to finish out strong.

“It would be nice, but I'm not really focused on that right now. We've still got games left, so being the leading rusher now doesn't count for anything.”

Following Saturday’s loss to Texas A&M, it’s unlikely that either Artis-Payne or Marshall make it to New York City, but there’s still hope for this Auburn team. The Tigers can still win the SEC West, and with that could come a spot in the College Football Playoff.

First, though, they have to win Saturday at Georgia.

"The fact that we’ve got Georgia, one of our rivals, this week – it’s been a little easier to put that [loss] behind us,” Malzahn said. "Our guys know that we have to play well, and we still have a whole lot to play for."

It's a game where everybody will be watching Gurley, but Artis-Payne will look to do what he’s done all season. And it's OK if nobody notices.
There will be subplots aplenty when Auburn visits Georgia on Saturday.

As is often the case, the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry will impact the SEC divisional races. It’s the rematch of last season’s “Miracle at Jordan-Hare” when Ricardo Louis caught the game-winning touchdown pass off a deflection from two Georgia defenders. It will be former Georgia cornerback and current Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall’s first game back in Sanford Stadium since Mark Richt kicked him off the team after the 2011 season.

And in case you hadn’t heard, Saturday night’s game will mark the return of Georgia tailback and former Heisman Trophy front runner Todd Gurley.

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AUBURN, Ala. -- It wasn't a Hail Mary that ended Auburn's playoff hopes. It wasn't a field-goal return for a touchdown. It was a pair of fourth-quarter fumbles on routine plays that proved to be the difference in Saturday's 41-38 loss to Texas A&M.

It felt like so many games over the last year and a half. The third-ranked Tigers had rallied from a two-touchdown deficit and were driving to take the lead. A touchdown in the final minutes would earn the type of improbable come-from-behind victory fans had grown accustomed to seeing under second-year coach Gus Malzahn.

When Cameron Artis-Payne fought his way down to the 1-yard line, it was almost a foregone conclusion that they were going to get in the end zone on the next play. The defense was already preparing to come out to make one last stop and win the game.

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Nick Marshall
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonTexas A&M upended Nick Marshall and No. 3 Auburn on Saturday.
"If our offense has the ball inside the 20, there's probably a 90 percent chance they're going to score," Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy said.

But the tables turned. Instead of punching it in, there was miscommunication between Nick Marshall and Artis-Payne on a simple zone-read play, and the Auburn quarterback put it on the turf after taking a shot from Texas A&M linebacker Otaro Alaka.

"It's a play we always run," Marshall said. "It's unfortunate it happened."

"It was a poor exchange on me and Nick's part, something that never really happens," Artis-Payne added. "This whole game was really uncharacteristic for us in a lot of different areas."

After the defense forced a three-and-out, Auburn had a chance to redeem itself. The offense had moved just outside the red zone with about a minute left when college football's most consistent center Reese Dismukes snapped it to an unsuspecting Marshall. The ball bounced off him, and the Aggies recovered it.

Jordan-Hare Stadium, the place where so many miraculous victories have occurred over the last two years, fell silent. It wasn't supposed to happen that way.

"We just didn't get it done when we usually do." Malzahn said. "Like I said, we aren't going to blame anybody. That is just how it goes, and we will be better next time."

It was Malzahn's first home loss since taking over on the Plains prior to last season. He was 13-0 heading into Saturday's game.

Lost in the disappointing finish was an impressive individual performance from Artis-Payne. The SEC's leading rusher coming in rushed for a career-high 221 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries. He now has over 1,000 yards on the season. The only play he remembers, though, is his fumble on the first carry of the game.

It was the theme for the night. Uncharacteristic mistakes.

"It's very disappointing," Artis-Payne said. "Me and my teammates, we felt like we were the better team and if we came out and executed, we'd come out with the win.

"But our execution was poor at the beginning of the game. That was partially my fault with the fumble, which is really uncharacteristic. We just had to play better to win the game today, and we didn't get that done."

The first-quarter fumble led to a Texas A&M touchdown. A blocked field goal on the final play of the first half was returned by the Aggies for a 65-yard touchdown. And the two fumbles at the end of the game prevented Auburn from pulling off the comeback.

The loss, only the fourth in Malzahn's two-year career at Auburn, could very well cost the Tigers a chance at making the College Football Playoff.

"It hurts," Malzahn said. "It hurts our team. We have goals and dreams, and we did not get it done tonight. It is unfortunate, but we didn't get it done.

"But you have to be a big boy; you have to man up; you have to be better in the future. Like I said before, we have a lot of champions. We just have to try to improve. It is not going to affect us in a negative way the rest of the year, put it that way."

Auburn travels to Georgia next Saturday.

AUBURN, Ala. -- It had the makings of another epic win for Auburn. The Tigers trailed by two touchdowns entering the fourth quarter. They cut it to three and had two chances to take the lead, but it wasn't meant to be. Not this time. Texas A&M recovered two fumbles late and hung on to upset No. 3 Auburn 41-38 on Saturday.

How the game was won: Texas A&M came out firing on all cylinders offensively, jumping out to a 35-17 lead. Miscommunication cost Auburn its chance to complete the comeback win, though. First, with the Tigers knocking on the door to score, quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Cameron Artis-Payne bobbled a handoff, and Marshall put it on the turf at the Texas A&M 2 with 2:37 remaining. On the next drive, Reese Dismukes snapped it to Marshall, who wasn't looking, and the Aggies recovered again with 54 seconds left to end Auburn's hopes.

Game ball goes to: The Texas A&M defense made two big stops late in the game, but freshman quarterback Kyle Allen was terrific in his first SEC start and second overall career start. He came out of the gate firing with a 60-yard touchdown pass to Malcome Kennedy on his third throw, and he finished 19-of-29 for 277 yards and four touchdowns. He showed serious moxie on the road.

What it means: This was Gus Malzahn's first loss at home since taking over at Auburn prior to last season, and his first loss as an FBS head coach in the month of November.

Playoff implication: If any two-loss team has a chance to get back in the playoff picture, it's Auburn, based solely on strength of schedule. The Tigers still have road games left at Georgia and Alabama that could boost their résumé. But Saturday's loss makes it mighty tough for Malzahn's bunch to return to the national championship game.

What's next: Auburn will see where it winds up in the latest playoff committee rankings on Tuesday and must regroup before heading to Athens for a battle with Georgia. Texas A&M returns home to host SEC East-leading Missouri.

SEC playoff tracker: Nov. 5

November, 5, 2014
And then there were three. Well, technically there’s still six because crazier things have happened. But after Saturday's games, the SEC has three bona fide contenders for the College Football Playoff. Find out where they stand, along with the three teams still clinging to hope, in this week’s playoff tracker.

Mississippi State
Record: 8-0 (5-0)
Rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Nov. 15 at Alabama

Reason for optimism: The Bulldogs keep cruising along. They will play their final nonconference gimme of the season this weekend against UT-Martin, providing an opportunity to get the starters off the field early ahead of next week’s showdown with Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Cause for concern: Last week’s narrow win against Arkansas provided evidence that Mississippi State can look awfully average if quarterback Dak Prescott isn’t 100 percent. He threw for a career-high 331 yards against the Razorbacks, but also tossed two interceptions and limped around the field for much of the game. The Bulldogs need him to stay healthy or that No. 1 ranking will be in jeopardy.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: LSU over Alabama

-- David Ching

Record: 7-1 (4-1)
Rank: No. 3
Next big obstacle: Nov. 15 at Georgia

Reason for optimism: It hasn't always been easy, but Auburn has navigated through the nation’s hardest schedule with just one loss. Trips to Georgia and Alabama remain, but win out and the Tigers are in the playoff. That’s all you can ask for at this point in the season. It doesn’t hurt that Georgia took a gigantic step backward on Saturday.

Cause for concern: Nick Marshall and this Auburn offense are clicking right now. The same can’t be said for the defense, though. The Tigers were lit up again Saturday at Ole Miss, and if not for two late turnovers, it might have cost them the game. They also committed a season-high 13 penalties for 145 yards against the Rebels.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: If Alabama loses at LSU this week, Auburn could lose the season finale in Tuscaloosa and still win the SEC West (assuming it wins its other remaining games). And it keeps the door open for a five-way tie. Who doesn't want that?

-- Greg Ostendorf

Record: 7-1 (4-1)
Rank: No. 5
Biggest remaining obstacle: Nov. 8 at LSU

Reason for optimism: After Ole Miss' loss to Auburn last weekend, the Crimson Tide control their own destiny. If they win out, they'll finish on top in the West and play in the SEC championship game. A trip to LSU won't be easy, but the remaining two games against ranked teams -- Mississippi State, Auburn -- both come at home.

Cause for concern: They don't call it Death Valley for nothing -- and the Tigers' record there after dark speaks for itself. If Alabama is going to prove it belongs in the playoff conversation, it has to survive this weekend's game at LSU.

Who they’ll be rooting for: If Kansas State beats TCU and Utah beats Oregon, Alabama's chief competition in the debate over the best one-loss team in college football will be much more manageable.

-- Alex Scarborough

Ole Miss
Record: 7-2 (4-2)
Rank: No. 11
Next big obstacle: Nov. 22 at Arkansas

Reason for optimism: After two losses, the Rebels’ hopes seem all but dashed. They didn’t drop too far in the rankings, so that’s a plus. But if Ole Miss is going to have any chance at the final four, the Rebels have to win out and win the SEC. Auburn needs to lose two more, while Alabama and LSU need to lose one, all of which is possible with Alabama playing Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State this month.

Cause for concern: Having two losses is damning at this point. The Rebels need help from teams that are on a roll, especially Auburn. Then there are injuries. Star receiver Laquon Treadwell (leg/ankle) and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche (ankle) are out for the season, while left tackle Laremy Tunsil is dealing with a biceps pull.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Alabama over LSU

-- Edward Aschoff

Record: 7-2 (3-2)
Rank: No. 16
Next big obstacle: Nov. 8 vs. Alabama

Reason for optimism: During their three-game winning streak -- particularly in the last two games against Kentucky and Ole Miss -- the Tigers got back to playing traditional LSU football. They leaned heavily on the run and on a tough defense, earning two wins. After last weekend’s open date, they should be in good physical shape for Saturday’s showdown with Alabama.

Cause for concern: This is Alabama, which owns a three-game winning streak over the Tigers. LSU has to win to remain in the hunt for the SEC West title and for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Tigers look much better lately, but they’ll need to play their best game of the season to beat the Crimson Tide.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Texas A&M over Auburn

-- David Ching

Record: 6-2 (4-2)
Rank: No. 20
Next big obstacle: Nov. 15 vs Auburn

Reason for optimism: This was supposed to be an easy jog to Atlanta for the Dawgs, but after getting routed by Florida, Georgia is now very much on the outside looking in. Georgia has to win out and win the SEC to have a chance. It also needs Missouri to lose one more, which could happen with Tennessee, Texas A&M and Arkansas left on the schedule.

Cause for concern: Well, two losses appears to be the kiss of death, and Georgia lost to a relatively unimpressive Florida team. A trip to Kentucky and a home game with No. 3 Auburn loom. Also, Missouri ends the season playing three teams that have gone a combined 3-12 in SEC play.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Vanderbilt over Florida

-- Edward Aschoff

OXFORD, Miss. -- As Laquon Treadwell knifed his way to the end zone for what looked to be the go-ahead score Saturday, Auburn saw its chances of repeating as SEC champs and returning to the national championship fading away.

There was still a minute and a half left and Nick Marshall has grown all too familiar with fourth-quarter comebacks, but this wasn't last season. That magic was gone.

Or was it?

On a play that felt all too similar to the Prayer at Jordan-Hare or the kick-six, Treadwell fumbled the ball right before he crossed the goal line. Instead of Ole Miss taking the lead, Auburn had the ball on its own 20 with a chance to put the game away, 35-31.

"Last year I felt like every game was that close," Auburn linebacker Kris Frost said. "But being able to be a part of that and being able to make that play is a real blessing for me."

Frost, who made the tackle that caused the fumble Saturday, said the play felt more like last season's Texas A&M game when both he and Dee Ford brought down Johnny Manziel on the final drive to preserve the 45-41 victory over the Aggies.

"Yeah, it feels pretty similar [to Texas A&M]," Frost said after Saturday's game. "It was such a great stage on the road. I love games on the road, the whole atmosphere and getting to go to a different place. Coming up with a big stop like that, two big plays on their drives going into the end zone, was really key for me personally and key for us."

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSenior QB Nick Marshall and the Auburn Tigers are feeling pretty good following their win against No. 4 Ole Miss and improved to 7-1 overall.
The season as a whole is beginning to feel a lot like 2013. Auburn began the season undefeated in the month of September. The Tigers opened SEC play with a win but came up short in their first conference game. Last season, it was LSU. This year it was down in Starkville, Mississippi, against then No. 3 Mississippi State.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

The kicker was Saturday, though. Unlike last season, Auburn hadn't needed a lot of magic in its 2014 wins. Sure, the Tigers escaped with a win at Kansas State early on, and they needed a late defensive stop to hold off South Carolina. But it didn't have that same feel.

The Ole Miss game had that feel. Marshall was playing great. The offense was racking up yards on the ground against one of the better defenses in college football. But the defense simply couldn't stop the Rebels in the second half. Then, when Auburn needed it the most, the defense forced two red zone fumbles -- one as crazy a play as you'll see.

"It does [feel like last year]," Marshall said. "Just like coach says, we're going to find a way to win in the fourth quarter. Our defense stepped up big for us in the fourth quarter, gave us a stop, and we were able to win the game.

"We put our trust in our coaches; they put their trust in us; and that's just something that we believe in -- at the end of the game, we'll find a way to win."

After the game, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn admitted his team had found some bizarre ways to win games over the past two seasons, and Saturday was no different.

"Our guys found ways last year to win when it's close," Malzahn said. "[They] truly believe that they're going to win the game if it's close. They made plays. They made the plays down there to win the game defensively."

At this time last season, the Tigers were 8-1 and ranked No. 7 in the AP poll. With Georgia and Alabama still left on the schedule, nobody saw them winning the SEC, more or less playing in the BCS title game, but we all know how that story ended.

Auburn sits at 7-1 this year, ranked No. 3 in the AP poll, and trips to Georgia and Alabama are looming. It has a 15 percent chance of winning the SEC West, third-best behind Mississippi State and Alabama, according to ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI).

But don't count out these Tigers. Not after last season.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 10

November, 2, 2014
Saturday's SEC games were loaded with players who deserved helmet stickers, including Arkansas' Hunter Henry (seven catches for 110 yards) and Ole Miss' Bo Wallace (341 passing yards, 2 TDs, 61 rushing yards, TD) in losing causes.

We should also mention the impacts that Mississippi State defensive back Will Redmond (intercepted a pass at the goal line in the closing seconds to preserve a 17-10 win over Arkansas), Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett (notched 3.5 sacks to bring his season total to 11, a new record for SEC freshmen) and Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary (matched a school record with five touchdown passes) made on their teams' respective wins, but we can only make five sticker picks.

Here are our choices from another memorable Saturday in college football's toughest conference:

QB Nick Marshall, Auburn: We easily could have gone with running back Cameron Artis-Payne (27 carries, 143 yards, TD) or receiver Sammie Coates (five catches, 122 yards, TD), but we'll take Marshall. The senior coolly led the Tigers back from a 10-point deficit in the second half by repeatedly converting on third down (the Tigers were 5-for-7 in the second half) against No. 4 Ole Miss. Marshall led the No. 3 Tigers to a huge SEC win by completing 15 of 22 passes for 254 yards, two touchdowns and one interception and rushing for 50 yards and two scores.

QB Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee: Making his first start of the season, the sophomore helped Tennessee rally from a two-touchdown deficit in the last five minutes of regulation and then beat South Carolina 45-42 in overtime. Dobbs set a new single-game school record for rushing yards by a quarterback (166 yards, including touchdowns of 7, 36 and 3 yards) and passed for 301 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He hit Jason Croom with a 9-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.

WR Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: Normally we wouldn't hand a helmet sticker to a guy on a losing team, but Cooper can't play defense, too. He caught 11 passes for a school-record 233 yards and touchdowns of 12 and 85 yards. He ran for an 11-yard score. He tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds. And he even recovered a late onside kick. South Carolina surrendered 645 yards to Tennessee, which obviously put a damper on the evening for the Gamecocks, but Cooper was simply phenomenal.

Florida's running game: We're not just giving stickers to running backs Kelvin Taylor (25 carries for 197 yards and touchdowns of 2 and 65 yards) and Matt Jones (25 carries for 192 yards and touchdowns of 44 and 1 yards) in Saturday's 38-20 rout of No. 11 Georgia. Florida's offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, helping their tailback tandem roll up most of the Gators' 60 rushing attempts for 418 yards. Only one opponent (Auburn with 430 yards in 1978) has ever run for more yards against a Georgia defense. Everyone involved with Florida's running game deserves recognition after Saturday's upset win.

DE Shane Ray, Missouri: The Tigers' offense was slightly improved in Saturday's 20-10 win against Kentucky, but the day belonged to Ray and the defense. Ray notched a pair of sacks -- including a fourth-down sack of Patrick Towles on Kentucky's final play -- to raise his season total to 12. In the process, he broke Missouri's single-season record of 11.5 sacks previously held by Aldon Smith and Michael Sam.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 10

November, 2, 2014
It was another fun weekend in the SEC. Here's what we learned on Saturday:

Will Muschamp and the Gators have life: The Gators' 38-20 win over No. 11 Georgia (6-2, 4-2 SEC) means that Florida (4-3, 3-3) is still in the SEC Eastern Division race and Muschamp's seat in Gainesville has cooled a little. Florida's plan was to run, run, run, and the Gators did it better than they ever have under Muschamp, cranking out 418 rushing yards and 31 straight points. New starting quarterback Treon Harris threw it just six times, so the jury is still out on what he can do when forced to throw, but the Gators dominated Georgia in the trenches on both sides of the ball and were just tougher in every phase. There's no way Florida can stay in the East hunt with that sort of passing game, but it didn't matter with how well the Gators ran it. Beat Vanderbilt and South Carolina, and the Gators will be bowl eligible and right in the thick of the East race with some slip-ups from Missouri and Georgia. And how about Muschamp? Wanted to run, did it. Called a crazy fake field goal, watched it go for a game-changing touchdown. Before the game, people were prepping for his firing. Now he's earned more time at Florida. How long? Who knows? But the evaluation of Muschamp is far from over.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Nick Marshall proved clutch in Auburn's win over Ole Miss on Saturday.
There's something about Auburn: So that 35-31 win over No. 4 Ole Miss (7-2, 4-2) really could have gone either way, but third-ranked Auburn (7-1, 4-1) is starting to look eerily similar to the team that won the SEC and played in the BCS title game last year. The offense is churning out yards and points like crazy, and quarterback Nick Marshall is making clutch play after clutch play. And in the past two weeks, the Tigers have had a couple of things go their way. Last week, it was having two players wearing jersey No. 1 going unnoticed on the last play against South Carolina, which should have drawn a penalty. On Saturday, it was the incredibly unfortunate goal-line fumble by Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell, who subsequently suffered what appeared to be a very serious leg injury. The defense certainly has its issues, but Auburn won in large part because of 248 rushing yards and some huge plays on third-and-long. It was an excruciating loss for Ole Miss, but the Tigers just have that feel to them again. It's a good team that's had a little luck to work with.

The ugly East is Missouri's to lose, again: It's no secret that the Eastern side of the SEC isn't great, but someone has to represent it in the SEC championship game. Oh, if only the West could send two teams to Atlanta. With Florida's stunning upset of Georgia, Missouri (7-2, 4-1) is now in sole possession of first place in the division. Even with how average the offense has looked for the better part of the season, the Tigers are winning and control their own destiny. The defense has been great of late -- carrying this team -- and held Kentucky's Air Raid offense to just 260 total yards in a 20-10 win. With the East struggling so much, Mizzou doesn't have to be great. A win is a win, and the Tigers have won three straight since getting crushed 34-0 at home against Georgia. After next week's bye, the Tigers go on the road for games at Texas A&M and Tennessee before closing the season at home against Arkansas. Those are all winnable games for the reigning East champs. Georgia, on the other hand, now has to regroup from getting pummeled by a reeling Florida team with a trip to Kentucky next week before hosting Auburn.

Growing pains continue at A&M: Where do you begin with the Aggies? Starting quarterback Kenny Hill has been suspended for two games for violating team rules and athletic department polices, but backup Kyle Allen struggled in his starting debut Saturday. He threw for just 106 yards with a touchdown and turned it over twice in a rough 21-16 win over Louisiana-Monroe. Outside of Speedy Noil, the receivers are playing poorly. The offensive line continues to struggle. The defense is a liability and is lucky the Warhawks had absolutely no threat of the deep ball in its passing game. With the Aggies playing so many youngsters, these issues are expected, but it's late in the season, and this team is getting worse. It isn't close to being the same caliber of team it was to start the year and now has to change the offense some with Allen starting. There's just no excuse for a team like A&M to let UL Monroe hang around with it at home, especially coming out of a bye week. Kevin Sumlin and his coordinators have a lot of work to do with Auburn, LSU and Missouri still left on the schedule.

Ole Miss' playoff hopes are all but lost: A second loss for the Rebels probably eliminates them from the College Football Playoff. Two losses is going to be hard to sell with the playoff committee. Ole Miss had already greatly surpassed expectations and came up just short against Auburn. But the season is far from over. The SEC championship game is very much in the picture, but the Rebels need help. They need to win out and see Alabama and Mississippi State lose two conference games so they'd own the head-to-head with both. They also need Auburn to lose two more and for LSU to lose at least one more so they'd both have three SEC losses. Go to Atlanta and win, and who knows what the selection committee will think of the Rebels.