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Friday, August 22, 2014

Great Expectations: Previewing the 2014 Auburn Tigers

In his introductory press conference as Auburn’s newest football coach, Gus Malzahn confidently uttered the following words: “Our expectations are going to be high.” He continued by declaring that his goal was “to play championship football like Auburn expects.” While the expectations may have been high internally, on the outside Auburn fans were just hoping for a winning season. Merely getting back to a bowl game would have been a big accomplishment for a first year head coach. But Gus Malzahn had bigger plans; it just took some of us longer than others to see his vision.

I was optimistic that Auburn could finish with an 8-5 record and maybe get back to the Chick Fil A Bowl. But on August 31, 2013, my optimism quickly turned into disappointment. The marketing campaign around the 2013 football season was that it was “A New Day,” and the game against Washington State was the first chance for Auburn fans to determine exactly what that meant. I’ll never forget sitting in the press box of Jordan-Hare Stadium before kickoff. Even if it was only for a few hours, Auburn was technically undefeated, and that was an exciting feeling (I mean 0-0 is better than 3-9, right?) I was stunned by what happened next. Washington State received the opening kickoff and in twelve plays marched right down the field for a touchdown. 7-0 Cougars. I remember turning next to my colleague Kasey Langley and whispering, “so much for all that New Day crap.” Auburn came back to win the game in unconvincing fashion 31-24.

For Auburn fans, a narrow win over Washington State was just the beginning of what might go down as the greatest and most memorable season in the history of Auburn Football. We all know what happened next. The heart-stopping win over Mississippi State. The narrow loss in the swamp-like conditions of Baton Rouge. The thrilling upset in College Station. The Miracle in Jordan-Hare. The Kick-Six. The Shootout in Atlanta. And for the sake of preventing negative flashbacks, we’ll
pretend like the season ended right there (note: I still haven’t watched the TV broadcast of the BCS Championship Game). But this article isn’t about reliving the great moments from last season. It’s about zeroing in on the 2014 Auburn Tigers and how the team can possibly deal with the expectations of a second consecutive SEC Championship…and a possible return to the title game.

Historically speaking, high preseason expectations for Auburn have not resulted in disappointment on the field. But Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers have a special confidence about them. They believe the expectations should be high –because they have some serious unfinished business. After the devastating loss to Florida State in the BCS Title Game, Gus Malzahn had a very interesting quote. “I’m going to tell you right now. We’re going to go back.” That’s a very unusual comment from a coach that plays his cards very close to the vest…well…sweater vest. But Malzahn believes that the Tigers have everything that it takes to get back to the last game, and it’s hard to disagree with him.

Auburn returns eight starters on offense and seven starters on defense. That would seem like a big plus, if it wasn’t for the fact that the three offensive starters were Tre Mason, Greg Robinson, and Jay Prosch− three of the biggest components of the best rushing attack in the country a season ago. Fortunately for Auburn, the Tigers will have star quarterback and early 2014 Heisman candidate in Nick Marshall. Here’s your jaw-dropping stat of the day: Nick Marshall will be the first returning quarterback that Gus Malzahn has coached since he first broke into the college game as Offensive Coordinator at Arkansas in 2006 (despite the fact that Nick Marshall won’t technically “start” the season, the concept still applies).

Why Auburn Can Win It All: 
Despite losing a few key starters on offense and defense (Tre Mason, Greg Robinson, Jay Prosch, Dee Ford, Ryan Smith, Ryan White, Chris Davis, etc) Auburn still returns the core of its 2013 SEC Championship team. In fact, you could make a strong argument that this team is better. Think about it: a full offseason for a coaching staff that successfully completed one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of college football. Even with losing a few marquee players, you would expect Auburn to improve on both sides of the ball. Auburn wants to have the best offense in the country, and with new wide out D’haquille “Duke” Williams, the Tigers have a chance of becoming just that. Cameron-Artis Payne will likely carry the load between the tackles, but expect a much more balanced offense in Nick Marshall’s second year. In addition to Artis-Payne, the Tigers have a bevy of talented backs, including Corey Grant, Roc Thomas, and Peyton Barber. Tre Mason may be a house-hold name, but success of Auburn’s running game comes more from the scheme than
anything else. Remember what Tre Mason did before the Tigers started running the read option with Nick Marshall? He didn’t rush for 100 yards in a game until week four. When defenses can’t key in on the running back because of the threat of the QB option, running between the tackle gets a lot easier. There may be a drop off in rushing statistics, but don’t expect much. On the defensive side of the ball, Auburn is already facing the challenge of preseason injuries. The Tigers have already lost standout DE Carl Lawson for the majority of the 2014 season and there’s a laundry listed of other players that are banged up from spring and fall practice. But another year for Rodney Gardner and Ellis Johnson should be enough for Auburn to put at least an average defense on the field. And with the potency of the Auburn offense, that should be enough to get the job done. Despite the strength of the schedule, there isn’t an overwhelming favorite in the SEC this year and Auburn has everything it takes to repeat as conference champions.

Why Auburn Can’t Win It All:
I can make this entire argument in three word: strength of schedule. Auburn faces seven teams ranked in the preseason Top 25, most of any program in the country. The six-week stretch of South Carolina, at Ole Miss, Texas A&M, at Georgia, Samford, and at Alabama is arguably the most grueling of any team in the SEC. While Auburn could still qualify for the SEC Championship and College Football Playoff with an early or midseason loss, the difficulty of this schedule makes more than one loss seem like a very realistic possibility. Not only is the schedule brutal, but Auburn faces another challenge that flying under the radar this offseason. Despite not punting as often as most teams, special teams execution was a critical component to Auburn’s success in 2013. The Tigers lose punter Steven Clark and place kicker Cody Parkey for 2014. Both roles will be taken on this season by redshirt freshman kicker Daniel Carlson. That’s a lot to ask of a freshman kicker, and a few botched plays on special teams could be the difference between winning and losing close games. The defense will be the weakness of this football team, and if the offense sputters in a few games, the Tigers could quickly find themselves with enough losses to knock them out of the championship picture. In 2013, Auburn played spoiler to several teams. This year, the Tigers will have a target on their back – meaning they will get the best shot from every team that they play (especially teams like Mississippi State, Georgia, and Alabama who all have revenge on their mind). Auburn will also have to deal with the pressure of expectations. It’s easy to play loose when there are no expectations. Expect Auburn to play much tighter under the pressures of a high pre-season ranking and SEC Championship hopes.

The Takeaway
In conclusion, the purpose of this article is not to tell you why I think Auburn is going to win the national championship this year. The objective of this piece is to encourage everyone to take a step back and appreciate just how far we’ve come in one season. From a narrow victory over Washington State to being 13 seconds away from a National Champion, last season gave us the greatest thrill of our lives. We witnessed what will go down as arguably the greatest season in Auburn Football history. Let’s not greedy and be disappointed by anything short of another SEC Championship and a return to the National Championship Game. It’s very hard to live up to high expectations, but for the first time since I’ve been at Auburn…it just feels good to have those expectations. That’s what college football is all about: the hope and the hype. Let’s all just enjoy the ride.

Posted by Michael Pelfrey on 8/22/2014 

Friday, August 2, 2013

It’s All About the Quarterback: The Position Battle That Will Make or Break Auburn’s Season

We’re less than a month away from the start of Auburn football, but we’re no closer to knowing who will be the signal caller in Gus Malzahn’s first season as head coach on The Plains. Gus has made it very clear that he does not intend to utilize a multiple quarterback rotation, which makes this decision even more important. Here are the candidates

Name                                Class           Height               Weight                  Hometown
Kiehl Frazier:                      Jr.               6’2”                  224 LBS              Springdale, ARK
Jonathan Wallace:             So.              6’2”                  206 LBS              Phenix City, AL
Jeremy Johnson:                Fr.              6’5”                  219 LBS              Montgomery, AL
Nick Marshall:                     Jr.               6’1”                  210 LBS              Pineview, GA

Kiehl Frazier: “The Question Mark”

Frazier began the 2012 campaign as Auburn’s starting QB. He showed flashes of potential in the narrow loss to Clemson to open the season—then things started spiraling out of control for the Tigers. Auburn lost three of its first four games under Frazier before he was replaced at halftime of the Arkansas game in favor of Clint Moseley who elected to give up football this offseason. Eventually Jonathan Wallace took over for Moseley late in the season, starting the final four games for the Tigers. Frazier finished the season with 62 competitions (53%), 2 TD, and 8 INT.

Why it should be him: Frazier has most SEC football experience on this roster. He was also recruited by Gus Malzahn to come to Auburn specifically to run this offense. Frazier and Malzahn have known each other for years, as Frazier was the starting QB at Shiloh Christian High School in Arkansas where Malzahn used to be the coach. In addition, Kiehl has slimmed down this offseason in order to better condition himself for Gus Malzahn’s Hurry Up No Huddle Offense.

Why it shouldn’t be him: Frazier struggles with his decision making which explains the eight picks and eighteen sacks he accounted for last season. Part of that can be blamed on the offensive line, but most of it lands on Kiehl’s shoulders. He is notorious for holding on to the ball too long, resulting in unnecessary sacks. He also has difficulty reading defenses resulting in throws into double and triple coverage. Frazier is also inconsistent with his accuracy. Even though Frazier has a fairly accurate deep ball, he misses too many easy throws which explains his 53% completion percentage last season.

Jonathan Wallace: “The Safe Pick”

Early in the 2012 season, former Auburn offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler said he wouldn’t even consider starting Jonathan Wallace as a true freshman. It’s funny how things chance we you start the season 1-7. Wallace took advantage of his opportunity as a starter and finished with 46 completions (57.5%), 4 TD, and 4 INT. Despite average numbers, the offense looked the most productive when Wallace was under center. He showed above average poise for a true freshman and has many Auburn fans wondering just how successful he would be in Malzahn’s spread offense versus Loeffler’s pro style.

Why it should be him: Wallace outperformed Frazier last year as a true freshman. What he lacks in physical talent he makes up for in smart decision making, poise, and leadership. He won’t win you any games with elite athletic talent, but he won’t lose you games either. You pretty much know what you’re getting with Jonathan Wallace, which makes him the safest pick of the bunch.

Why it shouldn’t be him: By naming Wallace the starting quarterback, it limits Auburn’s offensive potential next season. Wallace doesn’t have an elite arm, so Malzahn won’t be able to stretch the ball down field as much as he would probably like to.  When Gene Chizik named Wallace the starter at the end of last season, it was a move made in desperation for a season whose fate had already been pretty much decided. If Wallace is named the starting quarterback going into next season, it would say a lot about what Gus Malzahn thinks of the current quarterbacks on Auburn’s roster

Jeremy Johnson:  “The Future”

Jeremy Johson was named Mr. Football in the state of Alabama in 2012 for his successes leading Carver High School last season. Johnson is already at a disadvantage in this race. Having just recently arrived on campus, Jeremy will have to play catch-up with Frazier and Wallace as far as learning the
offense and getting comfortable playing at the next level. Johnson finished his senior season at Carver with 198 completions (68%), 31 TD, and 7 INT. He also rushed for 706 yards and 9 TD as well.

Why it should be him: Jeremy Johnson has the best size of any of the other candidates. Although Johnson is a little more trim, he has similar size to a certain Heisman winning quarterback named Cam Newton. Newton started his first year at Auburn, but had the advantage of going through Florida and JUCO at Blinn College. Johnson provides a running threat as well, rushing for 706 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior.  Jeremy also possesses what Coach Malzahn has described as an “NFL arm” which would allow Gus to stretch the ball down field.

Why it shouldn’t be him: Starting as a true freshman in college football is extremely difficult. Although the upside for Johnson is high, it will probably take him the longest to get comfortable of the four quarterbacks. He does have an NFL arm, but Johnson needs to work on his accuracy and the consistency of his footwork and his release. The best option for Johnson this year would be to spend the season learning on the sidelines as a backup, or to red-shirt and save his eligibility until he’s ready to become the starter.

Nick Marshall: “The Freak”

Marshall comes to The Plains are a JUCO transfer from Garden City Community College. Many Auburn fans are excited about having another quarterback from junior college, but Nick Marshall is not Cam Newton. Even so, Marshall is an athletic freak of nature. Nick was recruited by the University of Georgia to play defensive back which indicates that he has the elite speed it takes to play in the SEC. Taking that speed to the quarterback position could electrify this Auburn offense.  But Marshall isn’t merely a running quarterback; the kid has a rocket arm too. In fact, there’s footage of Marshall throwing passes as far as 75 yards in the air. Last season at Garden City, Marshall threw for 3,142 yards, 18 TDs, and 20 INTS. Marshall also rushed for 1,095 yards and 19 TDs.

Why it should be him: Many people believe that Marshall, who had offers from several big time schools, wouldn’t have chosen Auburn unless he thought he had a serious chance of being the starter. He didn’t come to The Plains to watch from the sidelines…he came to make plays. The offense would be the most dangerous with Nick at quarterback; he can beat you with his legs and his arm. He’s the most talented quarterback of all of the cand
idates, so logically he should be the starter.

Why it shouldn’t be him: Marshall threw 20 interceptions at Garden City Community College. To put this into perspective, Cam Newton threw only 5 interceptions at Blinn College before coming to Auburn. To play quarterback in the SEC and in Gus Malzahn’s offense you have to protect the football. Turnovers are killers and for a team trying to establish a new identity, being carless with the ball simply isn’t an option. Perhaps Marshall threw that many picks because his JUCO offense was asking too much of him…that’s entirely possible. But if he shows the same inconsistencies during fall camp, his chances of winning the starting job will be little to none.

The Prediction: Nick Marshall

I’ve gone back and forth on this for quite some time. I originally thought Kiehl Frazier would win the job because of his relationship with Gus Malzahn. However, it sounds like Kiehl hasn’t done much in the spring to separate himself from Jonathan Wallace. And if push comes to shove, Wallace is the safer pick. If I were in Gus Malzahn’s shoes,   would start Jonathan Wallace (at least for the first few games). Once Marshall is familiar with the offense and the speed of the game, I would start Nick. That may be four games into the season or it may be four games away from the end of it. However, I believe Gus Malzahn believes in his ability to mold quarterbacks to his liking. He did it with Chris Todd and I believe he can do it with Nick Marshall. If Marshall doesn’t take care of the ball, he could lose Auburn a lot of football games this fall. But if Marshall does what Coach Malzahn asks him too, Auburn has a chance to surprise a lot of teams this year. I don’t think Gus will wait until week four to name Nick Marshall the starting quarterback…I think he will be the starter on August 31st against Washington State. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A-Day Preview 2013: It’s a New Day

On Saturday April 20, 2013, Auburn fans will get their first glimpse at the 2013-2014 football team. But this year’s A-Day feels even more special than usual. First, there’s a new regime on the Plains…well, sort of. Gus Malzahn returns to the team he won the national championship with in 2010 as the offensive coordinator, but this time as a head coach. Although many Auburn fans (including myself) were skeptical of the hire at first, it seems like almost everyone has hopped aboard the “Gus Bus.” Second, it’s a bittersweet day for Auburn. After the spring game, everyone will gather at Toomer’s Corner for the final rolling of the fabled Auburn Oaks. Because of the final rolling is after the game, attendance for A-Day is expected to be much higher than last season. Needless to say, it feels like this weekend is going to a special one on the Plains. Before the stands of JHS are filled with eager Auburn fans on Saturday, let’s take a look at some of the key storylines going into A-Day 2013.

It’s the biggest question mark going into the fall: who will start at quarterback for Auburn next season? The two frontrunners are obviously Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace. Frazier began the season under center for Auburn, before being replaced by Clint Moseley, who was subsequently replaced by Jonathan Wallace. However, all signs point to Kiehl Frazier having a bounce back year. After playing in an uncomfortable pro-style offense in 2012 under former offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler, Frazier returns to his natural offensive scheme: the spread offense. Frazier was recruited by Gus Malzahn to run this offense, and Kiehl has reportedly lost weight to better manage the quick tempo that Gus brings to the table. Despite this, Frazier has struggled in his Auburn career in protecting the football, decision making, and pocket presence. Whether Kiehl can fix these issues in the spring will go a long way to determining whether or not he starts the season again in 2013.

Scott Loeffler once said in 2012 that he would never consider starting Jonathan Wallace. After Auburn got off to one of its worst starts in program history, Loeffler’s stance changed. Wallace started the final four games of the season for the Tigers after Clint Moseley got injured, and the true freshman did not disappoint. Wallace provided an offensive spark for an otherwise stagnant Auburn offense, setting the Auburn record for QB efficiency with an average of 139.60. Although Wallace was impressive at times last season, his physical limitations may hamper his chances of winning the starting job. The two wildcards at QB for the Tigers are Jeremy Johnson and Nick Marshall. Johnson, the Carver High School quarterback was Mr. Football for the state of Alabama in 2012. Many people believe he could be the quarterback of the future for Auburn, but would Malzahn be willing to start him as a freshman? Meanwhile, Nick Marshall comes to the Plains from junior college, looking for a chance to be named the starter as well. Remember the last quarterback to come to Auburn straight from junior college? (hint: he has a statue outside of Jordan-Hare). Could Marshall follow in Cam’s footsteps and become the immediate starter? Clearly it’s going to be an intense battle at quarterback for Auburn in the next few months.

Blame it on the lack of production from the offense which kept the defense on the field. Blame it on new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Blame it on the youth and inexperience of last year’s squad. Blame it on the a-a-a-a-a-alcohol (Jamie Foxx voice). Whatever or whomever you blame Auburn’s defensive failures from last year on; the problems need to be fixed…immediately. If Auburn doesn’t fix its defense, all of the expected improvements in the offense will be for not, and Auburn will be a bottom feeder in the SEC for a second consecutive year.

Enter new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. Johnson had a disastrous season last year as a first year head coach with Southern Miss, but he has a strong reputation as a successful defensive coordinator in the Southeastern Conference. Johnson will bring a multiple defensive package to the Plains, highlighted by a base 4-2-5 defense. Johnson wants to bring the physicality and aggressiveness that built Auburn’s defensive reputation over the years, which will be no easy task considering how poorly the Tigers played in 2012. Auburn has several holes on defense, starting with linebacker. Senior Darren Bates has left for the NFL draft, leaving Coach Johnson with a relatively thin linebacking core. Jake Holland, Cassanova McKinzy, and Kris Frost lead the charge at the position, but all three will have to really improve their play for Auburn to be competitive next season. Cornerback was a big problem for Auburn under Brian VanGorder, as the Tigers only managed two interceptions last season. Winning the turnover margin goes a long way towards success in college football, and more takeaways for the Tiger’s defense could be a great equalizer for Auburn in 2013. Auburn has a deep rotation of defensive tackles and ends, but with Corey Lemonier leaving the NFL draft as well, Coach Johnson needs someone to step up and be a leader for the defensive front next season. Finally, according to Coach Johnson the most impressive player in the spring so far has been Justin Garret. Garret is the front runner to play the hybrid “star” safety/linebacker position in the 4-2-5 package. With Darren Bates graduating, Auburn needs an aggressive player to set the tone for the defense and Justin Garret just might fill that role.


Gus Malzahn is an offensive guru…there’s no debating that. But can Coach Malzahn, who has an expanded role that reaches beyond just the offense, fix this horrid Tiger attack and make Auburn competitive again? If you’re hoping to get an answer from watching the offense on A-Day, don’t get your hopes up. It’s unlikely that Gus will reveal any major schemes or plays so that his SEC foes don’t get a preview of what to expect in 2013. One thing you can expect on Saturday is a faster tempo. Much faster. There were many reports that Gene Chizik “limited” Gus Malzahn’s offense while he was the Tiger’s offensive coordinator from 2009-2011. If that’s the case, expect a very new offensive scheme for Auburn next season. If you want a sneak preview, I’d recommend checking out some film from Arkansas State last season, a team that averaged 34.9 PPG, good enough for 26th in the nation. It’s going to be a difficult adjustment for these Auburn players, who ran a slow-paced pro-style offense last season, but based off the athletes on the roster, it’s a much better fit for Auburn. Plus, if the Tigers have any chance of beating Alabama, they need to have a quicker tempo. You aren’t going to beat the Tide at their own game (power football). If Auburn wants to take down the Tide in 2013, the blueprint lies in the tape from the Bama-Texas A&m game last season. The best way to wear down the best defense in the country is by running as many plays as possible…simple as that. And with Gus Malzahn at the helm in Auburn, and to the delight of most Auburn fans…we can expect a lot of plays. And a few wrap around draws as well. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Show Preview: Monday April 8th, 2013

Join us on Monday at 4PM CT/ 5PM ET for this week's edition of The Final Score! Topics include:

  • The Men's College Basketball National Championship Game
  • Allegations at Auburn
  • Major League Baseball opening weekend
  • Masters preview 
  • Auburn sports roundup, and more!
Tune in to WEGL 91.1FM locally on your radio dial or streaming live online at auburn.edu/WEGL

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Weekend Game Picks

Stanford at Notre Dame
Kasey: Notre Dame
Michael: Notre Dame

Texas at Oklahoma
Kasey: Texas
Michael: Oklahoma

Tennesssee at Mississippi State
Kasey: Mississippi State
Michael: Tennessee

South Carolina at LSU
Kasey: South Carolina
Michael: South Carolina

Cowboys at Ravens
Kasey: Ravens
Michael: Cowboys

Giants at 49ers
Kasey: 49ers
Michael: 49ers

Packers at Texans
Kasey: Texans
Michael: Texans

Broncos at Chargers
Kasey: Chargers
Michael: Broncos

Monday, October 8, 2012

Weekend Game Picks

Nebraska at Ohio State
Kasey: Ohio State
Michael: Ohio State

West Virginia at Texas
Kasey: West Virginia
Michael: Texas

LSU at Florida
Kasey: LSU
Michael: Florida

Georgia at South Carolina
Kasey: South Carolina
Michael: Georgia

Eagles at Steelers
Kasey: Steelers
Michael: Steelers

Falcons at Redskins
Kasey: Falcons
Michael: Falcons

Broncos at Patriots
Kasey: Patriots
Michael: Patriots

Chargers at Saints
Kasey: Saints
Michael: Saints

Monday, October 1, 2012

Weekend Game Picks

Tennessee at Georgia
Kasey: Georgia
Michael: Georgia

Ohio State at Michigan State
Kasey: Ohio State
Michael: Michigan State

Baylor at West Virginia
Kasey: West Virginia
Michael: West Virginia

Arkansas at Texas A&M
Kasey: Arkansas
Michael: Texas A&M

49ers at Jets
Kasey: 49ers
Michael: 49ers

Giants at Eagles
Michael: Giants

Bears at Giants
Kasey: Cowboys
Michael: Cowboys

Panthers at Falcons
Kasey: Falcons
Michael: Falcons