The Other Huddle: Auburn

The #2 Auburn Tigers visit Davis Wade Stadium this Saturday for a 2:30 nationally televised kickoff against the #3 Mississippi State Bulldogs. Inside the Auburn Tigers publisher Mark Murphy was kind enough to share some knowledge about what to expect when the Tigers come to town in this week's edition of The Other Huddle.

The Gus Malzhan offense gobbled up yards last year at break neck pace. The 2014 edition looks to be just as potent, but so far the Tigers have not been able to effectively pound the ball on the interior like they did a season ago.

"Last year’s starting offensive left guard, Alex Kozan, will not play this season because he is recovering from an injury," explained Murphy. "A Freshman All-SEC selection in 2013, Kozan played a major role in the Tigers becoming the first SEC team to lead the nation in rushing yards per game.

"With Kozan out and the tackle next to him, Greg Robinson, leaving early for the NFL where he was the second player selected in the draft, the Tigers shuffled the offensive front. Chad Slade, the starter at right guard, moved to the left side to play next to the new and inexperienced starting left tackle, Shon Coleman. Avery Young, the 2014 starting right tackle, moved to right guard, making room for Patrick Miller to start at right tackle.

"Miller was injured in game four vs. Louisiana Tech, prompting more changes. Young moved back to right tackle and Devonte Danzey made his first college start at guard. That lineup, with Shon Coleman at left tackle and All-SEC senior Reese Dismukes at center, helped the Tigers rush for 298 yards last week vs. LSU so Auburn may go with it against the Bulldogs even if Miller is cleared to play."

The Auburn linebacking corps has seen its' share of mixing and matching as well, but some lost time from the projected starters has allowed their capable back-ups some meaningful game experience.

"Both starters, Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost, were injured vs. Louisiana Tech, which was a concern going into the LSU game because they had practically no practice time. However, both came into the game early last Saturday night and performed well in relief of starters Anthony Swain and Tre Williams," reported Murphy.

"Javier Mitchell has played solidly off the bench this year so Ellis Johnson, the defensive coordinator who coaches the linebackers, says his group is playing better than the 2013 linebacker corps."

The straw that stirs the Tiger drink is senior quarterback Nick Marshall. Marshall has blossomed in the Malzhan offense, but Murphy believes there is still some room to grow as a passer.

"The senior has improved his footwork as a passer, his knowledge of the offense and confidence in directing the team. However, he still needs to take another step forward with his accuracy. He has completed 57.9 percent of his passes and his position coach, Rhett Lashlee, would like to see that number improve, especially considering Auburn’s wide receiver group is more talented than the one he threw to last year," said Murphy.

"Marshall has a very strong arm and one of the areas he has been working to improve as a senior is to throw the short balls with more touch. He has made strides in that area and needs to continue that trend.

"Last week vs. LSU the quarterback was given more opportunities to throw early in the game and on first downs, something we could see more of this Saturday if Mississippi State brings its safeties up close to the line of scrimmage for run support."

A surging Mississippi State team presents some unique challenges and according to Murphy the Tigers expect a serious test in Saturday's match-up.

"I have been thoroughly impressed with the way Dak Prescott is directing the Mississippi State offense," said Murphy. ""He is a more polished quarterback than the player we watched at Jordan-Hare Stadium in September 2013. Prescott has stepped up considerably as a passer and is surprisingly elusive for a guy who can bulldoze would-be tacklers. The big guy looks like he can cause real problems for any team he faces.

"Defensively, the Bulldogs feature one of the better-looking group of linemen and linebackers in the SEC. Combine that with a willingness to play physically and I see that as a team strength.

"Something else that stands out about this year’s Mississippi State team is the large number of experienced players the Bulldogs put on the field both offensively and defensively. That, combined with an eight-game winning streak, adds up to a team playing with confidence. Throw homefield advantage into the mix and the Tigers will have to play very well to get out of Starkville with a win."

Despite the Tigers being essentially one ballot away from a number one ranking in the Associated Press poll, Murphy believes the Tigers' best football lies ahead and that this weekend's game should serve as a solid measuring stick for a Tiger team with national title aspirations.

"There are not many teams Mississippi State will face this year that are as experienced as the Bulldogs, but Auburn certainly is," explained Murphy. "The Tigers put a large number of players on the field, both offensively and defensively, who contributed to the 2013 SEC Championship run.

"Offensively, this group is still looking to get in sync like it was in the second half of the 2013 season. The Tigers are not there after five games, but are showing signs of moving into a higher gear. Coach Gus Malzahn has a lot of talented playmakers to get the ball to on Saturday. If Marshall is sharp with his passing the Tigers are difficult to defend.

"Defensively, Auburn is playing better than it did last year, but the jury is still out on how much better. Saturday’s game against a team averaging more than 500 yards per contest will give us a better read on that subject."

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