Auburn faces challenge in keeping SEC crown

Auburn faces challenge in keeping SEC crown
Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall drops back to pass during a pratice session on Aug. 5. Will the Tigers see a repeat of last year's success? (Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

Acknowledging that college football's new four-team playoff could someday inch toward a larger basketball-style tournament, we continue our Super 16 countdown, with No. 6, Auburn.

The best combination in football is not quarterback and receiver.


It's lucky and good.

Consider Auburn's 14-win, no-loss run to the 2010 national title: Auburn won six games by a total of 16 points. The Tigers rallied from 24-0 down against Alabama and then defeated Oregon on a last-second field goal in the Bowl Championship Series title game. The winning kick was set up by a still-impossible-to-believe run by Michael Dyer.

A season like that could never happen again to any school. But it nearly did, to the same school.

Last season, a year after going winless in Southeastern Conference games, Auburn stunned the preseason pollsters with a run for the ages.

Auburn was unranked in last year's preseason poll. Tigers weren't even listed under "others receiving votes" in the USA Today poll, yet Arkansas State and Toledo each received a top-25 vote.

Then came another circus ride, led by first-year Coach Gus Malzahn. Auburn went from last to first in the SEC to earn a trip to the last BCS title game.

What Auburn did last year was even more impossible than its undefeated 2010 campaign. The Tigers survived a 14-point loss to Louisiana State and then rode two incredible plays to the promised land.

Auburn defeated Georgia on a 73-yard scoring pass that deflected off a Georgia defender into the waiting arms of Ricardo Louis.

Two weeks later, in the Iron Bowl against Alabama, Chris Davis topped that when, with one second left, he returned a missed 57-yard field goal 109 yards for the winning touchdown.

The luck finally turned on Auburn in the title game, when Florida State scored in the final 13 seconds to beat the Tigers at the Rose Bowl.

There is no telling what might happen this year, but, just to be safe, the coaches jumped Auburn over Toledo and Arkansas State and started the Tigers at No. 5. Auburn loses important cogs at key positions, starting with tailback Tre Mason, blocking back Jay Prosch and defensive end Dee Ford.

Auburn's defense took another hit when defensive end Carl Dawson sustained a torn knee ligament during spring practice.

It's hard to imagine Auburn sneaking up on anyone this year while the Tigers navigate one of the nation's tougher schedules. Auburn plays seven teams ranked in the Associated Press media poll's top 25: Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi, Kansas State and Texas A&M.

"This year we know we're going to be circled," Malzahn said.

The task didn't get easier when quarterback Nick Marshall, who passed and rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year, was cited for marijuana possession. He won't start the team's Aug. 30 opener against Arkansas (3-9 last year) but he'll be available, if needed, to finish it.

The new four-team college football playoff opens up even more wiggle room. Auburn might be able to lose twice and still make the playoffs.

"I think it's safe to say the SEC champion is going to be in the Final Four," Malzahn said at SEC media days in July.

No one disagreed.

The countdown so far: 16. Notre Dame, 15. Mississippi, 14. Stanford, 13. Louisiana State, 12. Michigan State, 11. USC, 10. Baylor, 9. Georgia, 8. South Carolina, 7. Ohio State.

Twitter: @DufresneLATimes