SEC: Ellis Johnson
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.
1. The offense is scary good: Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense made quite a splash in his first season as head coach at Auburn, and although star running back Tre Mason is gone, the offense could be even better in Year 2. Quarterback Nick Marshall is back and looks more confident running the show. He has a deeper and more talented group of skill players at his disposal, and the offensive line returns four starters. SEC defenses beware.
2. D’haquille is the real deal: The expectations were high for D'haquille Williams, the No. 1 junior college player in the country in the Class of 2014, but he not only met those expectations, he exceeded them. The coaches say he’s further along than they thought he would be at this point, and it was evident during the spring game as he had five catches for 88 yards and a touchdown.
3. Depth remains a concern: Injuries took their toll on Auburn during spring practice, and while it might have created opportunities for some, it also showed what little depth the Tigers have at certain spots. Players had to play out of position in some cases, and the second-team offense and defense looked completely outmatched in what turned into a lopsided spring game.
Three questions for the fall:
2. Who will be the starting left tackle?: It was clear early on that the staff would wait until the fall to make a decision on who would replace Greg Robinson. After the spring, Shon Coleman seems to be in the driver’s seat, but Patrick Miller is still in the mix, and there’s also the theory that he moves to right tackle and Avery Young moves to guard.
3. Where does Holsey play?: The emergence of junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief at safety has created a logjam in the secondary. Moncrief impressed the coaches so much this spring that they are now considering keeping him at safety and when Joshua Holsey returns from injury in the fall, they would try him at either cornerback or the Star position.
One way-too-early prediction:
If the offense is as good as advertised, then there’s no way that Marshall won’t be invited to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation. He led all quarterbacks with 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing last season, and he’s made it a point to improve as a passer this offseason. In a league where most of the elite quarterbacks have moved on, Marshall has a chance to be special for Auburn this season.
That answer remains unclear.
The 58-3 final score looks bad, but more than anything, it shows a lack of depth on the defense, which is understandable given the number of injuries that ravaged the Tigers this spring. Last week, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he had about a dozen guys who either missed all of spring practice or a good portion of the spring. Saturday was no different.
“I feel like the defense did good,” defensive lineman Gabe Wright said after the game. “It’s hard to say that when the team has got 50-something points, but the first-team unit, we did better. There wasn’t a lot of loafs, according to the coaches. Guys were making plays, so overall I feel like it’s a win for us.”
Wright, who started at defensive tackle last season, played defensive end in the spring game because of all the injuries. He was one of the many players who moved around this spring, and he’s another reason why the grade for the defense is incomplete.
One positive that came from all of the attrition was that it gave several younger players a chance to compete.
With Joshua Holsey out this spring, junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief stepped up and earned himself some playing time at one of the safety spots, while versatile sophomore Johnathan Ford played well at the other spot in place of Whitehead on Saturday.
“They looked pretty well,” Robenson Therezie said of the two safeties. “Those are the type of guys we can count on in a big game. They’re not rookies anymore, especially Derrick Moncrief. He came in, and he just got it. He caught up with everything. We feel pretty comfortable with the secondary right now.”
It was no different at linebacker, where injuries limited both Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy and paved the way for Kenny Flowers. The former junior college transfer was named defensive MVP of the spring game after he finished with seven tackles, 2.5 for loss and a sack.
“It felt great,” Flowers said. “I wasn’t a big factor last year, but I hope to be this year.”
Ultimately, the defense that Auburn rolled out Saturday probably isn’t capable of winning a conference championship, let alone a national championship, but it’s going to look a lot different in the fall, when everybody is back and healthy. That’s when the true test will come.
“This defense is going to be really good,” Therezie said. “Probably better than last year, because we have some guys coming back. We understand the concept of what Coach Johnson is running and everything, so it’s going to be really good. I can’t wait to see it.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- Shortly after a string of grueling 6 a.m. offseason workouts and just before spring practice began on the Plains, Auburn’s offensive players gathered together. Around the same time, the defense locked itself away, too.
There was no discussion of mutiny or complaining about the harsh offseason that was. These meetings were strictly business and about progress.
Offensive players anonymously wrote down their ideas on what it was going to take to push forward and what would hinder their growth, while defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson preached to his unit that it was much easier to build on losses than success.
“We’ve not arrived,” Tigers coach Gus Malzahn told ESPN.com in early April. “We had a really good season and we came a long way. We were 13 seconds away from winning the whole thing, and we’re trying to use all of that in a positive way moving forward and not let any of the things that come with success seep in. We have a heightened alert of it.”
More than a year removed from the dark stain that was 2012, the Tigers embark on a season in which they’ll be viewed as favorites more often than not, but they’re looking to evolve. Last year has vanished, and while it was a special season, everyone on the Plains feels something was left out in California with the loss to FSU.
Complacency isn’t an option for this year’s Auburn Tigers.
“Getting to the national championship was one of the hardest things to do,” senior defensive lineman Gabe Wright said, “but let’s face it: Getting there and then not winning it probably puts more fire in you than getting there and winning it. I know this team is highly motivated, highly driven, and that’s not coach-talk -- that’s talk in the locker room, and that’s exactly how we feel.”
Beyond hunger, this team has talent. Important pieces such as running back Tre Mason (a school-record 1,816 rushing yards and 2,374 yards of total offense), defensive end Dee Ford (10.5 sacks), cornerback Chris Davis (15 pass breakups and the Alabama kick-six) and left tackle Greg Robinson (future first-round draft pick) are gone, but the Tigers are stockpiled with more than adequate personnel.
Auburn has an All-SEC candidate quarterback in Nick Marshall, a healthy stable of running backs, older and improved receivers, and a young, yet beastly, set of defensive linemen that could be budding stars.
This team isn’t perfect, but it isn’t learning so much this spring as it is adjusting and growing. There’s less installing. Practices have been more technical than anything, with extra wrinkles being thrown in.
There’s also a healthy nucleus of veterans and youngsters who were key to last season's success, creating a great balance of camaraderie and skill.
Going 12-2 with an SEC championship and some miraculous victories set the college football world ablaze, but it hasn’t satisfied an Auburn team looking for more.
“It’s going to be tougher next year,” senior center Reese Dismukes said. “Now, everyone is going to have a target on us. You can’t let the little things slip ... you have to focus on everything being right.
“You can’t ever sleep. You gotta keep working hard and keep getting better because someone is always going to be coming after you.”
With a schedule that features trips to Kansas State, both Mississippi schools, Georgia and Alabama, Auburn will get all it can handle during its run to repeat as SEC champs. To attack that road, the no-longer-sneaky Tigers must make sure their defense can keep up with what should be another potent offense.
After allowing 466.6 yards and 29.6 points per game in conference play, Johnson described last season's defense as not very good. It gave up too many yards, had too many missed assignments, made too many adjustment mistakes, and allowed too many “cheap plays,” Johnson said.
But with the experience returning, instead of rebuilding and re-coaching, Johnson said he’s been able to work with a more comfortable group. Players know what they are doing now and aren't making the same silly mistakes that plagued them last spring and fall, which has made the defense "so much better" this spring, Johnson said.
“It’s a fine line sometimes between panic and recklessness,” Johnson said of his defense. “We’ve got to keep that recklessness and intensity if we’re going to have a chance. We’re still not one of the most talented teams in America, but we’re talented enough if we continue to focus like we did last year and keep trying hard and improving.”
It would be easy for the Tigers to rely on their talent and past success. But that's not the mindset. The mindset is that this team has so much more to show in 2014. The Tigers want to get comfortable with a championship lifestyle.
“Really and truly, I don’t think the confidence level could be too high," Wright said. "It’s not anything about overconfidence, it’s just that we don’t want to maintain to stay here. We know there’s another level to go.”
If the season opener was this Saturday, Auburn defensive back Joshua Holsey would be playing. It’s not, though. It’s only the spring game, and that’s why Holsey will be held out just like he has been for the majority of spring practice.
“We’re just erring on the side of caution,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said last month. “He’s doing some one-on-one and out there in a little bit of pass scale. If we were getting ready to line up and play next week against Arkansas, he’d be ready to go.
“He’s been playing here. He’s got two years under his belt, one year under our system. We know what he can do. We’re just kind of erring on the side of caution with him.”
If it were up to Holsey, he’d be out there with his teammates. Fellow defensive back Jermaine Whitehead said Holsey was sneaking in and taking reps on the first day of practice, and even when he’s not been out there, he’s still finding ways to help his secondary mates.
“He’s been one of the better guys as far as helping us with what he sees, what he thinks the offense is going to do,” Whitehead said.
Once fall camp rolls around, the question won’t be whether Holsey returns, it will be what position is he going to play when he does return?
As a sophomore, he started every game at boundary safety before the injury occurred. However, junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief has stepped in and found a home at the same position this spring. The newcomer has played so well that the coaches might look to move Holsey when he does return from injury.“We feel like with Holsey coming back that we’ve still got a wild card,” Johnson said Tuesday after practice. “We feel fine about the guys that went this spring, but in the back of your mind, you have to feel like Holsey was a legitimate starter. And who’s job is he going to take?
“The four that finished the spring -- [Jonathan] Jones, [Jonathon] Mincy, Whitehead and Moncrief -- all had good springs. And then Johnathan Ford, he and some of the other guys made great progress, and we’ve got confidence in them right now.
“[With] all that being said, I just have to believe that Josh Holsey will come back and probably get in the fight for a starting job. Is he going to be the boundary safety? Is he going to be a boundary corner? Where are we going to need him the most?
“We’ve got some question marks, but they’re not the type of question marks where we’re not sure who can do this. It’s more of who’s going to win that battle and who’s going to be that No. 1 guy and who’s going to be that No. 2 guy.”
Ultimately, that’s not a bad problem to have if you’re Auburn.
The secondary looked depleted at times last year, and it was never more evident than when Holsey went down midway through the season. The Tigers lost top cornerback Chris Davis and safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White this past offseason, but when Holsey returns, they’re going to be better off than they were a year ago, regardless of his position.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Gabe Wright isn’t a defensive end. At 6-foot-3 and 284 pounds, he simply doesn’t fit the bill. He’s too big, too valuable a space-eater inside at defensive tackle. Moving him to end would be like chasing a sports car with a tank. Some things just don’t make sense. Some players just aren’t built to play in space.
Yet there he is during practice this spring, lining up on the edge of the defensive line, pinning his ears back and rushing the passer. In doing his best Carl Lawson impression, Wright has gotten some fans on The Plains excited. But, as defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson cautions everyone: “I don’t foresee that being permanent.”
Wright and fellow tackle Montravius Adams aren’t the new wave of roughly 300-pound ends, though. They’re tackles through and through. Their time spent at end this spring has been only by necessity, making up for a shortened rotation of ends as Dee Ford and Craig Sanders were lost to graduation. Auburn took another hit when LaDarius Owens broke his foot, Keymiya Harrell went down with an unspecified injury and Elijah Daniel hurt his groin, leading to one of the more perplexing out-of-context quotes of all time from Johnson: “Groins can be funny.”
When asked if Auburn was thin at end, head coach Gus Malzahn responded, "We definitely are."
On the bright side, it's making things interesting for the rest of the defensive line.
“It’s a blessing for me to get on the edge,” said Wright, who played some end in high school. “We had some guys go down, some depth issues this spring. So guys had to step up.”
The blessing, for someone like Wright, is obvious.
“Let’s see: End, you get maybe 30 percent of a double team,” he explained. “When I’m inside, I get 90 percent of a double team.”
Wright, who finished second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and third with three sacks a year ago, said that spending time at end has helped him work on his pass-rushing skills. No longer struggling for space to move in a double team, he can get off the line and either rush the edge, swim inside or go one-on-one and bull-rush an offensive lineman.
Versatility, though, might the biggest benefit to having both Wright and Adams at end this spring. When opposing offenses go into jumbo packages, expect to see a few more big bodies along the defensive line this season.
“I think it does nothing but help us moving forward,” Malzahn said.
Said Wright: “The fact that we can maybe go four D-tackles at one point, that just amazes me. It’s like, What do you do? We can bull-rush the tackles and we can bull-rush the ends.”
When asked point blank whether he genuinely expected to play outside, Wright hedged his bets.
“When we do have teams like Arkansas, Alabama, LSU -- and this is not what coaches have told me -- I just believe it will be a factor,” he said. “You’ve got two-, three-tight-end sets. Why not be able to put a D-tackle out there?”
Whether he's at end or tackle, one thing will remain the same: Defensive line coach Rodney Garner will be there in his ear shouting words of, say, encouragement.
“All the same,” Wright said of Garner's colorful vocabulary. “It’s all 'exciting', 'exquisite' and 'extraordinary.' ”
“Expletive,” he said. “Very expletive.”
What’s new: After a complete overhaul of the coaching staff last offseason, Auburn’s current coaches will all be back for a second year on the Plains. There were rumors involving head coach Gus Malzahn (University of Texas, Cleveland Browns), as well as some of his assistants, but now that the dust has settled, they will be one of five coaching staffs in the SEC that will remain intact next season.
On the mend: Safety Joshua Holsey injured his knee in practice just days before the Texas A&M game and missed the rest of the season. It was a costly blow to an already thin Auburn secondary, and with the loss of three seniors back there, his return next season is paramount. However, he’s questionable for spring and will likely not participate in any contact drills. Offensive lineman Jordan Diamond is also expected to be no-contact per Malzahn. There’s been no word on the progress of wide receiver Jaylon Denson, who tore his patellar tendon early in the season against LSU, but he’s considered doubtful for spring practice.
New faces: Auburn will have five early enrollees this spring but none bigger than wide receiver D’haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player, and he has the size, skill and potential to make an immediate impact for the Tigers. The next month will give him the opportunity to get acclimated, work with the quarterbacks and learn the offense. His teammate in junior college, Derrick Moncrief, is also expected to push for early playing time at either safety or the Star position. He’s the lone newcomer on defense.
Question marks: Auburn’s defense struggled at times last season, but it still improved under first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson. The stats prove it. However, Johnson will be the first to tell you that his unit needs to play better if the Tigers want to have any chance of duplicating last year’s success. It won’t be easy, though, as they need to replace five starters on defense including the team leader in sacks, Dee Ford, and the team leader in tackles, Chris Davis. With plenty of depth up front and budding stars like Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, the defensive line shouldn’t be a problem, but the secondary is a different story. The coaches will have to mix and match back there before reinforcements arrive this summer.
Key battle: When Greg Robinson left early for the NFL, it didn’t come as a surprise -- he’s a surefire top-five pick -- but it left a gaping hole at left tackle for Auburn. Malzahn said that offensive line coach J.B. Grimes will open it up to Shon Coleman, Robinson’s backup last fall, and Patrick Miller, a former starter at right tackle. But there’s more. The second-year coach also mentioned Avery Young and Robert Leff as possibilities to win the job. Young is the one to keep an eye on. He’s entrenched as the starter at right tackle after taking over midway through the year, but there’s a good chance the staff moves him over to left tackle at some point this spring, especially if neither Coleman nor Miller emerge as the favorite.
Breaking out: On Friday, I wrote about running back Peyton Barber and defensive end Elijah Daniel (read here), who could both emerge this spring, but junior wide receiver Ricardo Louis is another player who falls in the same category. He’s more established than the other two, finishing second on the team last season with 28 receptions for 325 yards, but he has yet to live up to his potential. With Williams now on campus, along with ESPN 300 wide receiver Stanton Truitt, it might be now or never for Louis.
Don’t forget about: On the subject of breakout performances, who can forget what Justin Garrett did last spring? He impressed the coaches so much so that he earned a starting role on Auburn’s defense heading into the fall. The problem was that he never made a start. Multiple injuries kept him off the field and prevented him from ever truly making an impact last season. The junior accepted a medical hardship and is now eager to return this spring, finally healthy. The coaches loved his versatility at the Star position, and if he can replicate what he did last spring, he could push Robenson Therezie for playing time.
All eyes on: There are plenty of talented players and key pieces on Auburn’s 2014 roster, but the Tigers will go where Nick Marshall takes them. The senior quarterback was absent last spring after transferring from junior college and arriving in the summer, but it didn’t seem to faze him during the season. He threw for 1,976 yards, rushed for 1,068 yards and combined to score 37 touchdowns. Now he’s a legitimate Heisman candidate heading into the upcoming season. The scary part is that he’s still improving as a passer. That’s the area where the coaches want to work with him this spring, but with all of his receivers back and the additions of Williams and Truitt, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t take the next step as an all-around quarterback.
Spring start: March 15
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
- What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
- Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
Spring start: March 16
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
- A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
- Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
- Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
- Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 5
What to watch:
- Jennings next at QB?: Anthony Jennings engineered a memorable, game-winning drive in the regular-season finale against Arkansas, leading the Tigers 99 yards downfield, capped by a 49-yard touchdown pass. His performance in the Outback Bowl was far from impressive, though, as he went 7-for-19 passing for 82 yards and an interception in the Tigers’ win over Iowa. Still, he is considered the favorite to replace Zach Mettenberger. Competing with Jennings is Penn State transfer Rob Bolden and freshmen Hayden Rettig and Brandon Harris.
- Starting over at WR: LSU loses two 1,000-yard receivers in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, plus a senior (Kadron Boone). That’s a lot of production to replace. Travin Dural, who made the game-winning catch against Arkansas, is back, as is Quantavius Leslie and Armand Williams. The Tigers have a host of redshirt freshmen joining the mix (John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears) and bring in several freshmen (Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark) to compete for playing time. But replacing 72 percent of the 2013 receiving yardage will be challenging.
- Finding safeties: Craig Loston has moved on, and the Tigers don’t have a returning starter at safety. But they do have Jalen Mills, who slid from his cornerback spot to safety to start in the Outback Bowl. Corey Thompson, Ronald Martin and Rickey Jefferson all return, and ESPN 300 recruit Edward Paris Jr. is already on campus and will participate in spring practice.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
- Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
- Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 5
What to watch:
- Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
- Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
- A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
Spring start: Feb. 28
Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)
What to watch:
- Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
- Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
- New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.
Auburn's numbers on defense weren't pretty. The Tigers ranked 12th in the SEC in total defense (420.7 yards per game) and gave up way too many big plays for defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's liking. A prime example was the 49-yard catch and run by Florida State's Rashad Greene on the Seminoles' game-winning drive in the BCS title game. The Tigers had two players in position to make the tackle for a 10-yard gain, but it instead turned into a backbreaker. Nonetheless, Auburn's defensive plan in the championship game was outstanding, and the Tigers' defense played well enough overall to win. They made clutch plays all season on the defensive side of the ball and were excellent on third down and in the red zone. Senior defensive end Dee Ford developed into one of the best pass rushers in the league. This grade is a little higher on defense than maybe the numbers would suggest, but the Tigers played big when they had to.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-
Punter Steven Clark was one of the best in the country at pinning teams deep and was one of the stars of the BCS National Championship. The Tigers were second in the SEC in net punting and second in punt return average. They also had three overall returns (two kickoffs and one punt) for touchdowns, not to mention the special teams play of the year in college football -- Chris Davis' kick-six to beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl. The downer was giving up the kickoff return for a touchdown to Florida State in the national title game, which completely changed the complexion of that contest. That's the only thing that keeps this from being a solid "A."
What a storybook season on the Plains. The Tigers, a year removed from going winless in the SEC, turned in one miraculous and/or thrilling finish after another to win the SEC championship and come within an eyelash of winning the national title. Malzahn did a masterful job in turning this program around, and his staff was equally superb. When you consider how far the Tigers came from where they were to end the 2012 season, this probably ought to be an A+. But we reserve those for national championship seasons. It wasn't quite a national championship season for Auburn. But, boy, was it a memorable one.
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson wouldn't have missed this for the world.
The only question, as it turns out, was which side of the field he would be on Monday night in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.
But one of the first calls newly hired Auburn coach Gus Malzahn made after getting the job was also to Johnson, who was fired after one forgettable 0-12 season as Southern Miss’ head coach.
“It was close. I guess I could have been on the other side,” Johnson said Saturday during media day. “I actually got a call from someone Jimbo and I both know before I even got fired at Southern Miss.”
To say the least, Johnson was intrigued and remembers telling his wife, Caroline, that the Florida State situation was ready-made.
“We really thought we were looking at a three-year deal here at Auburn,” Johnson said. “Nobody expected this, but I knew they were going to win at Florida State.”
After meeting with Malzahn, Johnson was scheduled to meet with Fisher, but didn't want to drag it out any further; he knew Auburn was where he belonged.
Getting back into the SEC was important for Johnson, as was getting a chance to work under Malzahn. But, ultimately, Johnson made his decision for family reasons.
He’d taken his family out of Columbia, S.C., which was home to his wife, to accept the Southern Miss job and felt as though they’d be happier in Auburn. Plus, he wasn't too far away from locking in a nice pension from the state of Alabama after working previously on Alabama’s coaching staff.
“There were a lot of reasons to go to Florida State, and I knew Jimbo was on the verge of something special there,” Johnson said. “But there were some other reasons outside football that made Auburn the right choice for us, and it’s been unbelievable the way this season has unfolded.”
Johnson’s first defense at Auburn has had its moments, both good and bad. But the Tigers have consistently made key plays during crucial situations and were second in the SEC in red zone defense.
“We’re going to have to play a lot more consistently in this game,” Johnson said. “If we give up some of the cheap plays we have this season at times, we’re going to have a hard time.”
Well, here’s some good news: If the Longhorns hire Jimbo Fisher, they’ll get a two-for-one deal, scoring the Heisman Trophy winner, too.
The odds of that happening don’t look good, of course, especially because Fisher recently signed a new contract with Florida State. And Texas already had its chance at quarterback Jameis Winston.
“Through the whole recruiting process, I said to my coach, ‘We got to get Texas on the phone,’ ” Winston said.
Winston even tried to get Brown on the phone himself.
“I tried to call him a couple times because I really like Texas,” he said.
It’s probably better it didn’t work out. After all, Winston said he was an Oklahoma fan.
SWINGING FOR THE STARS
Who says Winston can’t play both baseball and football at the next level?
“You can do anything you put your mind to,” the two-sport star said. “A lot of people are going to say, ‘No way, he’s a quarterback.’ Bo Jackson was a running back. The one thing I always seem to do is gain the trust of my teammates. Even being in the NFL, if I can convince those guys I can be your quarterback, I can go play baseball for the Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees. I can’t talk about that, because I’m living in the moment right now.”
On Tuesday, he’ll be ready to talk baseball again.
“Right now I got one thing on my mind, win the national championship on Monday. Tuesday comes, I’ll be ready for it then. I’m pretty sure [Florida State baseball] coach Mike Martin, he’ll talk to me about it then. I know he’s not saying nothing about baseball to me right now.”
Prior to this season, Auburn's Chris Davis had not returned any punts or kicks during his college career, but it wasn't because he didn't try.
"I'd been asking. I never got the opportunity," said Davis, who led the SEC in punt return average this season and also returned the missed field goal against Alabama 109 yards for a touchdown.
Asked what reason the previous coaching staff at Auburn gave him for not giving him a shot to return kicks, Davis said, "They didn’t have an answer for me."
Auburn's current special teams coach, Scott Fountain, was the director of player personnel on the previous staff and made it known when the new regime arrived that Davis was plenty capable as a return man. Davis had excelled as a return specialist in high school.
The rest, as they say, is history.
"I’d mention it every year. I’d go back and catch punts and kicks at the beginning of the season, but I never got the opportunity," Davis said. "I thank Coach Fountain and Coach [Gus] Malzahn for the opportunity."
NOT BACKING DOWN
Florida State's receivers, led by 6-foot-5, 234-pound sophomore Kelvin Benjamin, are big, physical and explosive.
Benjamin has 14 touchdown catches entering Monday's Vizio BCS National Championship, which presents quite a challenge for an Auburn pass defense that ranked last in the SEC this season.
But the Tigers are adamant they're not going to all of a sudden change it up.
"We’ve mixed it up, but man[-to-man coverage] is our base," Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. "We’re going to play man. LSU had great receivers. Georgia had good receivers. Missouri’s got bigger receivers than Florida State’s got. We’ve seen all types. We’ve seen some of the best. At all times, we haven’t stopped them, but you can’t just give up on something.
"I think a lot of people have been intimidated out of man coverage against them early in the game because they can’t score on them. If we score on them and hold the ball on them a little bit, we’ll have a chance to be more aggressive. If we don’t, we’re going to have a hard time."
Florida State junior running back Devonta Freeman said he turned his papers into the NFL draft evaluation board but hasn’t heard back from it yet. Freeman said when he does, he will talk to Fisher about possibly entering the draft.
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Way back before Chris Davis had even dreamed about making the play of the year in college football (maybe the play of the decade), his head coach knew how important Davis would be to this Auburn team.
“One of the keys to our season is Chris Davis staying healthy because of all the different ways he can impact our team,” Auburn’s Gus Malzahn said.
Malzahn made those comments back in late July, just weeks before the start of preseason practice.
Not even he knew how prophetic he would be.
“He’s not a guy of many words, but he’s our captain for a reason,” Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “He goes out there and leads by example. And when it comes to needing a big play to be made, you know No. 11 is the guy who will make that play.”
Perhaps the best perspective on what Davis has meant can be traced to a conversation after the season among Malzahn and all three of the Tigers’ coordinators. They were discussing the different team awards, and Davis’ name kept popping up in every category.
“We didn’t know whether to give him most valuable player, most valuable special teams player or most valuable defensive player,” said Ellis Johnson, Auburn’s defensive coordinator.
“He made so many big plays. If you take Chris Davis out, does somebody make those plays? I don’t think they make all of them. The play at the end of the Alabama game was one of them, but he made a lot of them. He matched up most of the time on the best receiver, and he’s given up some balls, too, but he can play with anybody in the country one-on-one and has shown that most of the time.”
Davis’ plight since arriving on the Plains, in a lot of ways, has mirrored Auburn’s incredible turnaround this season. Coming out of Birmingham, Ala., he wasn’t very highly recruited and has had an injury-plagued career.
In fact, he suffered a high ankle sprain on the opening kickoff of the 2011 BCS National Championship win over Oregon and missed the rest of the game. Even this season, he missed the Mississippi State and LSU games with an ankle injury.
“Growing up, this is what I dreamed of, to be in these types of situations,” Davis said. “I had my ups and downs here, fighting injuries every year, but I never gave up. That’s kind of how we came into this season because we were going to face adversity.
“We stuck together through it all, and this is a season to remember, especially coming off last year. It’s one of the biggest turnarounds in college football, and now we’re trying to finish it off with this game.”
Davis, a senior, became a household name following his stunning touchdown return against Alabama. He jokes that he can’t get away from that play no matter how hard he tries. When he returned to class that next week at Auburn, he received a standing ovation.
“That was one play, one I’ll always remember, but we have more to do,” Davis said.
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was greeted by crowd of television cameras as he stepped out of the shiny black Chevy SUV that had escorted he and several of his teammates to the Newport Beach Marriott on Friday morning for the Seminoles’ offensive news conference.
Sipping on his Starbucks, Winston was once again unfazed as the center of attention.
“It's going to be a big factor,” Ellis said. “The play in the box, they have tremendous skill out on the edges, but the pressure in the box is going to be one of the biggest keys to any defensive success that we have. There will be some other things in the game we can't control, kicking game, offense, all are going to contribute. But as far as us performing defensively and giving our football team a chance to win, there's got to be pressure on the quarterback.”
Somehow, pressure doesn’t seem to get to the 19-year-old first-year starter.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, on plays Winston is pressured (knocked down or hurried), he completes an AQ-high 62 percent of his passes and is averaging 11.1 yards per attempt. The AQ average for a quarterback when pressured is 35 percent and 4.7 yards per attempt.
It’s a statistical mismatch in Florida State’s favor, but Auburn’s hybrid safety, Robenson Therezie, isn’t deterred.
“With our game plan I feel like when we execute and do our jobs, I feel like we can keep him outside his comfort zone,” Therezie said. “With our front four, I don't think he's seen the front four he's about to face on January 6th. It's a completely different front four than he's ever faced. With our secondary, I don't think he's seen the secondary that he's seen all year with our secondary. It's completely different from all the other leagues he's played in.”
The good news for Auburn’s defense: It has had a little experience with elite SEC quarterbacks. Now the bad news: Against the offenses of Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger and James Franklin, Auburn allowed 7.3 yards per play.
"I think seeing those type of players, week in and week out, definitely gets you ready," defensive back Jermaine Whitehead said. “I mean, seeing previous Heisman winners gets you ready for a guy that just won the Heisman. Playing against those guys a couple years now, watching them grow and watching how they transpired over the years, the depth of exactly what Winston has the capacity of ...
“I think being in those situations, also, has shown us how to be resilient, not give up when they make a big play. We understand that their college football team is one of the best in the country, and they’re going to have big times in the game, and how we respond is going to be the test of the game.”
The Tigers and first-year coach Gus Malzahn have done a myriad of things right to get to this point.
But it’s no coincidence that the first hire Malzahn made on his staff was veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who in a year’s time has gone from one of the most forgettable experiences of his long and illustrious coaching career to one of the most memorable.
“This has almost been like a fairy tale, to be here winning like we are and doing something that nobody thought we could,” Johnson said. “But I don’t connect the two situations. I really don’t. I know that may sound strange, but what’s happening here is fun because winning is fun and losing is miserable.”
It’s a losing streak that eventually reached 23 in a row and was finally snapped, ironically, last Saturday against UAB on the same day Auburn delivered its stunning 34-28 upset over then No. 1 Alabama.
As happy as Johnson was for the players and the entire community at Auburn, he was equally relieved to see Southern Miss finally end its drought.
“I really loved that place, and it hurt to see it in such disarray,” said Johnson, who had been at Southern Miss as defensive coordinator in 1988-89.
“Last year was painful for me professionally, but it was painful for me to watch that place and know through my years of experience what was wrong and nobody wanted to listen. They wanted to blame somebody other than their own problems, and I was the guy they wanted to blame because I was the guy there at the time.”
Again, though, Johnson is too much of a pro and too much of a bottom-line guy to get bogged down in what did or didn’t happen in the past.
So about three days after being fired, he gladly took Malzahn’s call. Not long after that, Johnson was back in the SEC at his fourth different school as defensive coordinator.
“I’m blessed to be here, back in the SEC and one of the best schools in the conference, one of the best places to live and great people,” Johnson said. “It’s been a blessing for me because I left a wonderful situation [at South Carolina] and being at home in Columbia and then got into that mess at Southern Miss.
“Looking back at it, I must be extremely lucky to have escaped with just a knot on my head instead of absolute destruction.”
The Tigers were even luckier that someone of Johnson’s caliber was available, and Malzahn acted quickly to land him with Florida State also interested.
“He was one of the keys to putting together our staff,” Malzahn said. “I knew how valuable he would be and knew we had to get him.”
While Auburn’s total and passing yardage numbers on defense this season haven’t been eye-popping, the Tigers have been significantly better where it counts -- keeping people out of the end zone.
They’re fifth in the SEC in scoring defense (22.5 points per game) after finishing 10th a year ago (28.5 points per game). They’re also second in the league in red zone defense and came up with one of the biggest defensive plays of the season last week in stopping Alabama on fourth-and-1 from the Auburn 13 in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve given up too much trash yardage on defense and way too many big plays, but we’ve gotten better,” Johnson said. “We’re playing a lot of young kids, and one of the things that’s so encouraging is that we’ve come up with a lot of big plays in the second half. We’re not where Auburn should be or will be on defense by any stretch, but we’ll get there.”
This will be Johnson’s fifth SEC championship game appearance with his third different team. He also went with Alabama and South Carolina.
The fact he’s even here still seems a bit surreal given how painful last season was. But after 38 years of coaching, Johnson isn’t surprised by much.
“When you’re in this business, you get so caught up in the day-to-day grind,” Johnson said. “The fun is in the winning and seeing the kids improve and having success. That’s what is so rewarding.
“The rest of it, when it doesn’t go the way you want it to, you just learn to live with it and know a lot of things you can’t control. But, yes, this sure has been a lot of fun.”
- There’s more hype surrounding this year’s Iron Bowl than there’s ever been in this rivalry, but for Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, it’s just another game.
- Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, a former assistant coach at Alabama, is excited to be a part of the Iron Bowl again, this time with the Tigers.
- Thanks to losses by Baylor and Oregon, Missouri has moved back into the BCS top five with one game left on the schedule -- a visit from Texas A&M.
- South Carolina has won four in a row in the The Battle of the Palmetto State, and the senior class is looking to stay perfect against Clemson with a win on Saturday.
- Because of players such as cornerback Rashard Robinson, the future looks bright for LSU’s young but talented defense.
- Texas A&M will be well represented in Walt Disney World next month for the Home Depot College Football Awards show.
- Despite rumors swirling about his future, Florida coach Will Muschamp is comfortable with the support he has from the university.
- Josh Harvey-Clemons forever will be linked to Auburn’s Hail Mary two weeks ago, but the Georgia safety rebounded well against Kentucky last weekend.
- Win or lose Saturday, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has done enough in his five seasons to warrant more time to build the program.
- On Monday, Kentucky unveiled plans for a smaller, "more fan-friendly" Commonwealth Stadium.
12:00 PM ET Louisiana-Monroe Texas A&M 3:30 PM ET Florida 11 Georgia 4:00 PM ET Kentucky Missouri 7:00 PM ET 3 Auburn 4 Ole Miss 7:00 PM ET Old Dominion Vanderbilt 7:15 PM ET Arkansas 1 Mississippi State 7:30 PM ET Tennessee South Carolina