Auburn Tigers season preview

Previewing the 2014 season for the Auburn Tigers:

2013 record: 12-2, lost to Florida State in the BCS National Championship

Final grade for 2013 season: What a season it was for Gus Malzahn. He takes over in December after Auburn finished 3-9 the year before and leads the Tigers to 12 wins and an SEC championship and comes a play or two away from winning the national championship. How about that for a debut? The only reason it’s not an A-plus is because of the loss to Florida State, but an A seems more than deserving.

Key losses: RB Tre Mason, HB Jay Prosch, OT Greg Robinson, DT Nosa Eguae, DE Dee Ford, CB Chris Davis, S Ryan White

Key returnees: QB Nick Marshall, WR Sammie Coates, C Reese Dismukes, OL Avery Young, DT Gabe Wright, LB Cassanova McKinzy, CB Jonathon Mincy, S Jermaine Whitehead

Projected 2014 starters: QB Nick Marshall, RB Cameron Artis-Payne, WR Sammie Coates, WR Ricardo Louis, WR D'haquille Williams, TE C.J. Uzomah, LT Shon Coleman, LG Chad Slade, C Reese Dismukes, RG Avery Young, RT Patrick Miller, DE LaDarius Owens, DT Gabe Wright, DT Montravius Adams, DE Elijah Daniel, MLB Cassanova McKinzy, WLB Kris Frost, Star Robenson Therezie, CB Jonathon Mincy, S Jermaine Whitehead, S Derrick Moncrief, CB Jonathan Jones

Instant-impact newcomers: RB Roc Thomas, WR D'haquille Williams, OL Braden Smith, DL DaVonte Lambert, LB Tre Williams, S Derrick Moncrief

Breakout player: If you can count on anything with Malzahn running the offense, count on him having a productive running back. He had Ben Tate when he was offensive coordinator on the Plains, and last season Mason led the SEC in rushing. Next up is Artis-Payne. The former junior college transfer hasn’t won the starting job yet, but he seems to have a leg up in the competition and showed flashes last season, rushing for 610 yards and six touchdowns. He’s a bruiser but has quick feet to complement his size.

Most important game: The easy answer is Alabama because, well, it’s the Iron Bowl. But a visit from LSU in early October could set the tone for the rest of the season. Auburn has beaten LSU only once in the past seven years, and though the Tigers still made the BCS title game after an early loss to LSU last season, this year’s team can’t afford the same result. The second half of the schedule is brutal, and it’s crucial that Auburn gets through the first half unscathed.

Biggest question mark: What’s life going to be without Alex Kozan and Carl Lawson? Kozan is expected to miss the entire season with a back injury, and Lawson could miss the majority of it recovering from ACL surgery. Both players had All-SEC potential, and their losses cannot be understated. Auburn has capable bodies to fill in on both the offensive and defensive lines, but the production will still take a hit. Can the offensive line block the way it did a year ago without one of its top interior linemen? Can the defensive line get pressure on the quarterback without its top pass rusher?

Upset special: A nonconference road trip to Manhattan, Kansas? On a Thursday night? That just screams upset. Auburn has an extra week to prepare for the game, but don’t sleep on Kansas State. The Wildcats are ranked No. 21 in the preseason coaches’ poll. They have one of the best wide receivers in the country in Tyler Lockett and a solid quarterback in Jake Waters. This is a huge test early in the season for Auburn, and did I mention it’s on a Thursday night?

Key stat: If Jeremy Johnson starts against Arkansas, he will become the eighth different quarterback to start the season opener for Auburn in as many seasons. The last Auburn quarterback to start back-to-back season openers was Brandon Cox in 2006 and 2007.

They said it: “Last year, we snuck [up] on some people. This year, we’re going to be circled, and we told our players that. We’re going to have to be better in every phase, especially early in the season. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot. Really, that’s where you want your program to be. Last year at this time, we were just trying to get it back to that point, and we did that. Obviously, we’re disappointed we came up 13 seconds short of winning the whole thing, but we’re extremely motivated from a players’ standpoint and from a coaches’ standpoint moving forward.” -- Head coach Gus Malzahn, at SEC media days in July.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 9.2 wins

Bovada over/under: 9

Our take: Despite losing two first-round draft picks and the SEC’s leading rusher, this season's Auburn team might actually be more talented than last year’s squad. Marshall is back at quarterback, Malzahn said this might be the most talented group of wide receivers he’s ever had on the Plains, and the defense is deeper than it was a year ago. The problem is the schedule. The Tigers travel to both Georgia and Alabama, and there’s a four-game stretch beginning the last weekend in October that’s as rigorous as you’ll see in college football. Auburn would love to duplicate what it did last season, but don’t be surprised if the Tigers have two losses heading into the Iron Bowl. Nine wins seems about right for this team.