Auburn will have eight of 15 scholarship linemen with a total of 187 games under their belts. This includes four returning starters with 125 games of experience, which is priceless when it comes to the world of college football.
The transition to Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzahn's system was a success in 2009 with a group that finished No. 16 nationally in total offense, No. 17 in scoring offense and No. 13 in rushing. Of those three Top 20 finishes the one to watch for in 2010 will be Auburn's rushing numbers.
For anyone who ever doubted if Malzahn's style of offense could make it against the challenging defenses featured in the Southeastern Conference, his SEC debut in 2006 at Arkansas and his followup appearance in 2009 at Auburn should lay those concerns to rest.
Through 55 games as a collegiate offensive coordinator, Malzahn's running game has averaged 219.4 yards per contest at 5.19 yards per carry. He definitely is a firm believer in a strong running game with an average of 42.3 rushes per game. If Auburn is to improve on its 8-5 record from 2009, the 2010 run offense will play a pivotal role. Tailback Ben Tate won't be easy to replace, but Auburn has a quality group of runners to fill his shoes.
Inside the numbers…
•Since the SEC expanded to 12 teams in 1992, Auburn has competed in 147 conference games. Former Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville once stated the goal for the running game was to achieve at least 140 yards rushing per game. Auburn has compiled a record of 56-13-2 in conference play since 1992 when the Tigers reach that mark.
•Auburn is 45-10-2 with at least 175 yards rushing and 33-7-2 with at least 200 yards rushing in games played from 1992-2009.
•Auburn out-rushed its conference opponent 90 times posting a 68-20-2 record in those games since 1992, which includes a record of 62-10-2 when the Tigers out-rush their opponent by at least 30-yards.
•Of Auburn's 147 conference games since 1992, when the Tigers have finished those contests with more rush attempts than their opponent they have compiled a record of 69-18-1. When Auburn has at least 55 percent of the total rush attempts (both teams), the Tigers posted a record of 54-8-1 and an amazing record of 32-1-0 with at least 60 percent of the rush attempts.
This is Gus Malzahn's second season directing the Auburn offense for head coach Gene Chizik.
As dynamic as Coach Malzahn's passing offense can be, the heart and soul of his attack is built around the running game. With the Auburn coaching staff still in the process of improving the defense, Malzahn's run offense could be a strong ally in 2010. The ability to sustain drives this upcoming season could mask some of the growing pains the defense might experience.
Over the past 18 seasons Auburn is 36-6-1 in conference games in which the Tigers have at least 45 rush attempts. In those 43 conference games Auburn allowed 298.4 yards and 17.9 points per game. In the conference games in which Auburn had at least 40 rush attempts for at least 4.0 yards per carry, the Tigers are 31-4-2, allowing 315.7 yards and 19.4 points per game. All four losses were by seven points or less.
The longer the Tigers can remain on the field translates to fewer trips to the field for the Auburn defense. Last season 3.75 yards per possession separated the 2009 Auburn defense from the 2004 Auburn defense, which helped the Tigers to a 13-0 record. With the addition of quarterback Cameron Newton to the current personnel in the run offense, there is a strong probability Auburn will add to its 212 yards average per game on the ground.
The Tigers averaged 42.3 carries per game in 2009 and if they can push that up to over 45 it will help chisel away that difference of 3.75 yards allowed. Though subtracting 3.75 yards per possession doesn't seem like much, it adds up to 45 yards per game over the course of 12 possessions.
With four returning senior starters on the offensive line, the foundation for a good running game has already been solidified. Lee Ziemba (38 starts), Ryan Pugh (33 starts), Mike Berry (31 starts) and Byron Isom (23 starts) have plenty of experience with a combined 125 appearances on the field. The only concern up front is replacing Andrew McCain at right tackle, a position that will likely be filled by Roszell Gayden or Brandon Mosley. Although there may not be a dropoff in talent at right tackle, neither of the candidates are as seasoned or experienced as McCain was and it will likely take a few games for them to play at the same level as McCain.
Left offensive tackle Lee Ziemba is the most experienced player on the Auburn team.
Another key this season will be rotating backup offensive linemen such as Bart Eddins, Jared Cooper, John Sullen. A.J. Greene and Andre Harris into the mix to provide depth in 2010 and experience for 2011. The starters in 2009 took a lot of snaps last year and were worn late in games, hindering the overall offensive production.
Sophomore tailback Onterio McCalebb is a speedy threat in Auburn's backfield.
Mario Fannin certainly possesses the skill, size and speed to be a productive running back, but his durability could surface as an issue. This is why it will be essential for Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb to handle some of the payload.
With McCalebb seeing significant playing time as a true freshman early in the season last year, Dyer should have no problem doing the same in 2010 if he grasps the offense right away. It would appear the coaching staff intends to utilize Fannin and Dyer in a 1-2 combination with McCalebb becoming a situational player, especially on third downs. Having Dyer take 10-15 rushing attempts per game could keep Fannin healthier later in the season.
Newton, Terrell Zachery, Travante Stallworth, Kodi Burns and Trovon Reed will also support the running game. Excluding Chris Todd, Auburn's receivers and quarterbacks accounted for 567 yards rushing in 2009. With Newton as the starting quarterback expect the secondary rushers to add to the 567 yards compiled last year.
Quindarius Carr could also play a role in the running game when it comes to the end-around and reverse plays Malzahn likes to call. It's a diverse run-offense that could explode in 2010 just as it did for Malzahn's Tulsa offenses in 2007 and 2008. A successful running game will make it easier for the Auburn offense to control the tempo of the game and could make life for the Tiger defense less demanding.