2015 Auburn Tigers Football Preview
Head Coach: Gus Malzahn – (3rd year at Auburn: 20-7 and 4th overall: 29-10)
2014 Record: 8-5 overall, 4-4 SEC
Bowl Result: Outback Bowl (1/1/15): Wisconsin 34 Auburn 31 (OT)
After losing a heartbreaker to Florida State in the BCS National Title Game in the Gus Malzahn’s debut in 2013, Auburn was expected to be a top 10 team and possibly contend for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff last season.
The Tigers roared to a 5-0 start, but proceeded to drop five of their last eight. Those struggles were largely due to deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball, as Auburn allowed at least 31 points in seven of their last eight games with the exception being a 31-7 win over FCS foe Samford.
Consequently, Malzahn decided to part ways with coordinator Ellis Johnson and he was able to lure former Florida head coach and well-respected defensive mind Will Muschamp to the plains. Muschamp is no stranger to Auburn, as he spent two very successful seasons with the Tigers in 2006-07 prior to being hired as the defensive coordinator under Mack Brown at Texas.
Muschamp is taking over a unit that struggled to stop the run and was even worse against the pass. The Tigers were ranked 10th in scoring defense (26.7 ppg), 10th in rushing defense (168.8 ypg) and 12th in pass defense (230.1 ypg). However, Auburn did do a good job at winning the turnover battle for the season, as they had seven more takeaways than giveaways—ranking them 27th nationally.
The unit, which returns six starters from a season ago, will have the luxury of welcoming back its top three tacklers and a couple of proven playmakers in the secondary.
Junior safety Jonathan Ford, who was one of four players with three or more interceptions in ’14, led the team with 93 tackles. Meanwhile, senior corner Jonathan Jones was tied for the team lead in interceptions with six.
Junior Cassanova McKinzy, the team’s second leading tackler with 91, topped the team with 11 tackles for loss and is back at mike linebacker.
Last season, Auburn struggled to get pressure on the quarterback, but the good news is that three of the team’s top four sack leaders are back—including senior defensive tackle DeVonte Lambert and senior outside backer Kris Frost.
Junior “Buck” linebacker Carl Lawson, who was sidelined in 2014 due to a torn ACL, should also help that cause as he recorded four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss in a reserve role in ’13.
Offensively, the Tigers lost a lot of production with the departures of running back Cameron Artis-Payne (1,608 yards and 13 TDs) and quarterback Nick Marshall (2,532 passing yards, 798 rushing, 31 total TD).
Those losses combined with the three spots to fill along the offensive line would cause for concern in many programs, but when an excellent offensive mind like Gus Malzahn has experienced back-ups and talented newcomers ready to go, it’s not unrealistic to believe that Auburn’s attack could be just as potent as the last two years.
At quarterback, junior Jeremy Johnson—who stands 6’5” and 240 pounds—will assume the reins after demonstrating tremendous potential in what was primarily a reserve role the past two seasons.
Johnson, who was 28-of-37 for 436 yards and three scores without an interception, does possess the ability to hurt opponents with his legs, but he’s expected to be operating out of more balanced attack than the one that former defensive back Nick Marshall did the last two years.
D’haquille Williams, the team’s top receiver in 2014, returns and will look to build on his solid junior season in which he caught 45 passes for 730 yards and five touchdowns.
Fellow senior Ricardo Louis, who had 21 catches for 261 yards and three scores last year, will look to help Williams account for the production gone with the losses of Quan Bray (39-471-4) and Sammie Coates (34-741-4).
On special teams, sophomore kicker Daniel Carlson will look to build on a solid freshman season in which he made 75 percent of his kicks—18-of-24, but was just 5-of-10 from 40 yards and beyond.
Last season, Carlson also handled the punting duties, but those will be handled by freshman Ian Shannon.
There are also question marks in the return game where the Tigers lost Corey Grant and Quan Gray. Gray averaged an eye-popping 18.1 yards on 15 punt returns and took two to the house.
Following a disappointing 2014, will Auburn be able to rebound to contend in the SEC West and vie for a College Football Playoff spot this season? That will likely depend on how much improvement the Tigers make on defense under the direction of Muschamp.
The unit will get a challenge from Bobby Petrino and Louisville in the opener before traveling to LSU in game three. November will be a challenge. The month opens with a trip to Texas A&M and later features rivals Georgia and Alabama visiting Jordan-Hare Stadium.
By Thomas "Bubba" Rosenbaum
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