Coach: Guz Malzahn (20-7, entering third season; 29-10 overall)
2014 results: 8-5 (4-4 in SEC, fourth in West Division)
Look back: The Tigers were due for a letdown after coming within 13 seconds of the 2013 national title, but no one expected them to stumble as they did last year.
Gus Malzahn’s high-octane offense carried its weight during his second season as head coach. It outgained SEC foes by an average of 82.3 yards and averaged 35.8 points overall. But Auburn’s defense gave up at least 34 points during four of five SEC losses.
Following a 55-44 loss to Alabama, Malzahn fired defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. Two weeks later, Auburn hired former UF coach Will Muschamp, who fielded top-10 defenses each of his four seasons leading the Gators.
Offensive starters returning: 5
Offensive starters lost: 6
Defensive starters returning: 6
Defensive starters lost: 5
Key losses: QB Nick Marshall, RB Cameron Artis-Payne, WR Sammie Coates, C Reese Dismukes, DT Gabe Wright
Top returnees: WR D’haquille Williams, CB Jonathan Jones, LB Cassanova McKinzy, LB Kris Frost, OT Avery Young
Strengths: The Tigers lost some top playmakers, including dual-threat quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Cameron Artis-Payne, who led the SEC in rushing. But few expect Malzahn’s offense to skip a beat.
Quarterback Jeremy Johnson now gets his chance after two seasons as Marshall’s back-up. More of a pure passer than the fleet-footed Marshall, Johnson completed 73.1 percent of his throws for nine touchdowns and two interceptions during limited action. Johnson will look often for senior D’haquille Williams, who surprised many when he did not leave for the NFL Draft. The 6-foot-2, 224-pound Williams is an impressive physical specimen and finished last season with 45 catches for 730 yards and five scores despite missing three games with injury.
The loss of center Reese Dismukes, the 2014 Rimington Award winner, leaves a hole on the offensive line. But the Tigers return six players with starting SEC experience, led by right tackle Avery Young, who started 25 games the past two seasons.
Defense has some question marks, but Muschamp also inherits some top talent, led by cornerback Jonathan Jones. Jones tied for the SEC lead with 18 passes defended and had six of his team’s 22 interceptions in 2014.
Weaknesses: The Tigers do not have a featured back like Artis-Payne last season or Tre Mason in 2013, but Roc Thomas and Jovon Robinson give Malzahn options. Thomas is faster and shiftier than the hard-running 235-pound Robinson, the nation’s No. 1 junior college prospect.
Auburn hopes the return of pass-rushing end Carl Lawson from a torn ACL bolsters a pass rush responsible for just 21 sacks last season. Muschamp likely will have to rely on two freshmen — end Byron Cowart, the nation’s No. 1 recruit, and freshman linebacker Jeffrey Holland – to shore up the edge of the defense.
Outlook: Last season likely was an aberration under Malzahn. If Johnson thrives as the starting quarterback, Malzahn’s offensive wizardry paired with Muschamp’s defensive mastery should be a powerful 1-2 punch.
Sept. 5 vs. Louisville in Atlanta
Sept. 12 Jacksonville State
Sept. 19 at LSU
Sept. 26 Mississippi State
Oct. 3 San Jose State
Oct. 15 at Kentucky
Oct. 24 at Arkansas
Oct. 31 Ole Miss
Nov. 7 at Texas A&M
Nov. 14 Georgia
Nov. 21 Idaho
Nov. 28 Alabama
College Football / College Basketball Handicapper. 2011 won 74%, 2012 won 72% 2015 SPECIAL. CALL, 877.WIN.ATS9 EMAIL,V@VincentRizzoSports.com