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Five ways the game has changed for Auburn in 2014

Auburn University head football coach Gus Malzahn addresses his team during practice (Photo: YouTube)
Auburn University head football coach Gus Malzahn addresses his team during practice (Photo: YouTube)

My how things have changed in a little over a year.

Long gone are those scrappy, underdog Tigers who snuck up on the likes of Texas A&M and the rest of the SEC West last season.

As I’ll get into later, much remains the same for Auburn this fall, but implementing and adjusting to offseason changes will decide whether or not the Tigers can become the first repeat SEC Champions since Tennessee in 1997-98.

No. 1: Stability

It’s funny thinking back to the state of the Auburn football program at the end of August 2013. Uncertainty loomed over almost every position, and the most meaningful seniors from the 2012 season, the late Philip Lutzenkirchen, Emory Blake and Daren Bates, were lost to graduation.

Some ex-Georgia defensive back had won the starting quarterback job halfway through the month and no one really knew who’d be catching passes since no returning receiver had more than 120 career receiving yards.

That’s not the case now, however.

The Tigers are a model of stability in 2014, returning eight starters on both offense and defense. The biggest quarterback question looming over Auburn is if they’re even starting the right one, which is always a good sign when the starter has top-5 Heisman odds.

An experienced offensive line, led by four-year starter Reese Dismukes, will be forced to replace one of its youngest members with the loss of No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson, but Shon Coleman looks prepared to step right in to the job.

And by “looks” I mean he is literally one of the biggest human beings I’ve ever been around.

Losing Dee Ford is certainly a blow, but the defensive line is one of the most experienced units on the entire roster.  Gabe Wright, LaDarius Owens and “Old Man” Jeff Whitaker pace the younger talent of sophomore Elijah Daniel and Montravius Adams, softening the sting of Carl Lawson’s ACL injury.

No. 2: A more physical Corey Grant

Malzahn’s offensive system has always placed an importance on a speed back role. In past seasons this spot was manned by the lightning quick Onterio McCalebb, but the emergence of Corey Grant last fall added an extra dimension to the position.

Tre Mason may have broken out in the second half of the 2013 season, essentially ending the committee running back system, but Grant still found carries as a compliment to the relentless bowling ball that was Mason.

With no clear cut leader between Grant and fellow senior Cameron Artis-Payne heading into the season, it will be interesting to see how long the committee system lasts and the sort of roles the two backs ultimately take on.

Grant spent much of the offseason touting his renewed focus on being a more physical and complete back, but Artis-Payne, despite being just a few pounds heavier, tends to be the more punishing runner between the tackles.

Grant excelled in the speed back role last season, averaging 9.8 yards per carry on a variety of speed sweeps and outside rushes, but could find more carries inside if he proves capable of handling the punishment.

He may never take on the role of lead back for Auburn, but Grant’s pure speed is a weapon Malzahn will look to take advantage of as often as possible. And if this quiet senior back truly expands his game, we’ll be seeing “Tail Lights” from Grant a lot more often this fall.

No. 3: D’haquille

I could go on for a long time about the physical specimen that is junior college transfer D’haquille Williams.

I could go on and on about how the former No. 1 JUCO prospect provides a more physical leaping threat to the flash (and size, honestly) of Sammie Coates.

But I’ll just leave you with this video from an Auburn practice and let you decide if Malzahn and staff have found another suitable option for Nick Marshall this fall.

No. 4: Schedule

Phew. This is where the sunshine that I’ve been pumping gets reeled in a bit.

The schedule is absolutely brutal for the Tigers in 2014, and they don’t get the benefit of having their most difficult matchups at home this time.

Auburn will have to travel to Tuscaloosa and Athens, where two teams will revenge on their minds, as well as to Ole Miss, Mississippi State and the unknown of Kansas State.

Meanwhile, one of the favorites in the SEC East, South Carolina, comes onto the schedule in place of the Tennessee game last year.

That game, along with LSU, will at least be in the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare, but making it through that schedule unscathed will be an enormous task.

A seven week stretch from Oct. 25 to Nov. 15 pits the Tigers against five teams ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 with the sixth, Mississippi State, falling just outside the rankings.

And falling before the Iron Bowl on Nov. 29 would put the Tigers in a tough position to make the College Football Playoff.

It’s a move that every college football fan has been craving for years and specifically for Auburn, it comes one decade after the disappointment of being the odd team out on the BCS National Championship in 2003.

The Committee, however, has already indicated that it will prefer conference champions; this despite its stated goal being to select the top four teams overall.

Walking out of Bryant-Denny undefeated would certainly increase the Tigers’ Playoff odds, but even a loss to an undefeated or one-loss Alabama wouldn’t entirely eliminate their hopes. (Alabama fans can certainly attest to the effectiveness of having your one loss come against the undefeated SEC Champions.)

But losing prior to the Iron Bowl forces Auburn into a nearly must-win situation and, assuming the Tide continues to roll like a machine, it’s not really a position Auburn wants to be in.

So that’s where we move get into our next topic:

No. 5: Expectations

Players have repeated throughout the offseason that the goal for 2014 is to be “13 seconds better,” obviously in reference to the moment at which the Tigers lost the 2013 BCS National Championship.

I imagine that is likely the hope and expectation of every Auburn fan, student and sports editor who wants to go cover an event like that.

So how do players, who just over a year ago were flying below the radar after a 3-9 season, handle the national attention and expectations now surrounding their program?

There’s little reason to think the Tigers will fold, considering the veteran leadership that appears to have developed this offseason. As a whole, Auburn is an even better team this year talent-wise. The expansion of the passing game is an added component to the nation’s top rushing attack from last season.

But the SEC is whacky and Miracles and Kick-Sixes sometimes go the other way.

Even if the Tigers don’t return to the National Championship, this team looks to be one of the most fun Auburn squads in recent memory. With speed and talent to burn, who knows what the offensive maestro Malzahn has cooked up this offseason.

So take it from the guy who grew up watching Tennessee football when I say to enjoy the fun as it happens. The glory days are fleeting.

(And seriously, enjoy Nick Marshall. He’s really, really good.)

Follow Eric on Twitter @EWall14

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