Back 4 x 4 Preview: Auburn

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4 x 4 Preview: Auburn

By Matt Smith
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Though Auburn suffered through a winless SEC campaign last fall, there is still plenty of talent available for new head coach Gus Malzahn.

4 Household Names

1. RB Tre Mason (Jr.) – Mason reaching 1,000 yards late in the Iron Bowl was the highlight of one of the most forgettable seasons of all time on The Plains. With Ontario McCalebb off to the NFL, Mason should top 200 carries this year and could come close to doubling his eight touchdowns of a year ago. There’s talent behind him, albeit unproven.

2. C Reese Dismukes (Jr.) – After being suspended for the opener last season against Clemson, Dismukes regained his role as a team leader and will now anchor what should be the Tigers’ best offensive line since the 2010 national title-winning unit. Dismukes started all 13 games as a freshman when new coach Gus Malzahn was the offensive coordinator, after which he was named a freshman All-American.

3. DE Dee Ford (Sr.) – He may moonlight as the next Beethoven, but Ford also excels at his day job as a defensive end. His six sacks a year ago were more than that of third-round NFL Draft pick Corey Lemonier despite missing five games. Ford is more of a speed rusher and can be overpowered at times, but his athleticism will also pose some mismatches in his favor.

4. S Demetruce McNeal (Sr.) – The Tigers will get their entire starting secondary back, but forcing more turnovers is a must. I had zero interceptions last season while sitting either on the couch or in press boxes – which was only two fewer than the entire Auburn team had in 12 games. McNeal is strong against the run, but another 90-tackle season likely means the front seven is struggling.

4 Relative Unknowns Who Will Become Household Names

1. QB Nick Marshall (Jr.) – While Marshall likely won’t duplicate the season of the last Blinn College quarterback to transfer to Auburn, the Tigers offense should at least look more like the one Cam Newton led to the national title than last year’s that averaged just 10 points per game in SEC play. Marshall’s summer arrival (Newton went through spring practice) may prevent him from starting right away, but he’ll eventually assume the reigns as the best fit on the roster for Malzahn’s offense.

2. WR Sammie Coates (So.) – No player with more than 14 receptions returns this season, opening the door for many of the talented receivers that have yet to reach their potential. That includes Coates, who had just six catches as a freshman, although two were for touchdowns. A big play waiting to happen, he’s the fastest of the Tigers receivers. Malzahn will put that speed to use.

3. DE Carl Lawson (Fr.) – While fellow freshman defensive end Robert Nkemdiche will garner more attention at Ole Miss, Lawson may have the better debut as he slides in to replace Lemonier. At 250 pounds, Lawson already has the physique of a college starter. Playing alongside Ford will enhance his production.

4. LB Cassanova McKinzy (So.) – With a name like his, McKinzy should be a household name already. He started two games as a freshman last season, finishing with 23 tackles. New coordinator Ellis Johnson runs a linebacker-friendly system, which should allow McKinzy to take the next step into a top tackler in what should be a vastly improved front seven.

4 Must-See Games

1. Sept. 7 vs. Arkansas State – This should be a fairly comfortable win for Auburn, but the fact that Malzahn coached the Red Wolves to the Sun Belt title last year adds some intrigue to this Week 2 matchup. Arkansas State is coached by former Boise State and Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. Don’t expect many fullback dive plays in this game.

2. Oct. 5 vs. Ole Miss – It will be difficult for the loser of this game to reach its goals, which likely include a January bowl game. While the Rebels will come to Jordan-Hare Stadium a week after playing at Alabama, Auburn gets a week off to prepare for what it hopes will be a fifth straight win over Ole Miss at home. Advantage Tigers.

3. Nov. 2 at Arkansas – The “Tempo Bowl” features a pair of coaches who could not have more differing opinions on no-huddle offenses in Malzahn and Bret Bielema. Arkansas has won four of five in the series, but Auburn gets the Razorbacks following a four-game stretch that has Arkansas playing Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama. At least watch it to see the postgame handshake.

4. Nov. 30 vs. Alabama – Does it really matter that Alabama has won the last two meetings by a combined score of 91-14? It’s the best rivalry in college sports. Four years ago, a 7-4 Auburn team with a first-year coach nearly upset the second-ranked and undefeated Crimson Tide. Like that 2009 game, Auburn will have two weeks to prepare. Could history repeat itself?

4 Bold Predictions

1. Multiple quarterbacks will start. Marshall is the future, but it may take a few weeks until he’s ready to take over the starting role. Malzahn recruited junior Kiehl Frazier during his prior stint at Auburn and coached him in 2011, so he may elect to go with the most familiar option. Ultimately, this should be Marshall’s job, but it may take until SEC play begins on Sept. 14

2. The receiving corps will become a strength. Let’s be honest: Trooper Taylor was the wide receivers coach at Auburn because he’s an elite recruiter, not because he’s necessarily a great molder of talent. With a new staff, a promising group should finally emerge as a unit that can threaten opposing SEC secondaries. Even without Emory Blake, this unit should at least triple the seven touchdown receptions from 2012.

3. Lawson will challenge Jadeveon Clowney’s freshman sack total. 8 ½ sacks is a pretty lofty goal, but Lawson, although unlikely to pass that number, should approach it. Johnson coached Clowney in that 2011 season, and may see some of Clowney in Lawson. Expect Ford and Lawson to combine for at least 15 sacks despite having to face three of the best offensive lines in the country in their final three games.

4. Auburn will play Michigan State in the Gator Bowl. The Tigers won’t be able to pick off one of the four big boys on their schedule, but they’ll take care of the remaining eight opponents in a surprising 8-4 season. A January bowl awaits, as Auburn will face a Big Ten team for just the second time in the past eight years in Jacksonville. The two teams have not met since a 6-0 Auburn victory in the 1938 Orange Bowl.

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Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.