Three Things We Know and Don't Know About Auburn | SEC 2013

Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE

From Gus Malzahn's offense to Ellis Johnson's defense and the little matter of who the quarterback is going to be, here are the questions and answers that will define Auburn's season

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. What the offense will look like
This is Gus Malzahn's third go-round in the SEC, even if his Arkansas offense was heavily curbed by Houston Nutt, so we pretty much know what to expect right now. Malzahn is going to run an up-tempo offense built on misdirection, with a dash of trick and "gimmick" plays. (For the record, I like what some people call "gimmick" plays, so that's not meant to diminish Malzahn's offense at all.) Very little of this is going to look completely new to Auburn fans or SEC observers, though that means that very little of it will look completely new to opposing defensive coordinators.

2. A receiver needs to step up
It's nice to have Tre Mason in the backfield, and the likely contestants for quarterback can run. But ultimately, Auburn is going to have to throw -- and while that might be an adventure on the quarterback side of the pass, it currently looks like a question mark on the other side. The Tigers are losing well over half of their receptions and receiving yards from 2012. Malzahn has the ability to use his personnel about as well as anyone in the country, so he'll either groom some top-notch targets for the quarterbacks or work around it -- but the former would be much easier.

3. The defense is likely to be completely different
Given the tentative depth chart that Auburn released after the spring and news stories, it looks like Ellis Johnson is going to install the 4-2-5 defense he used at South Carolina. And if Johnson gets similar results to what he got in Columbia -- the total defense was ranked in the top third of the SEC for for three of Johnson's four years -- it could mark a departure for an Auburn program that didn't have an elite defense even once during the Gene Chizik Era. In any case, it would be almost impossible for Johnson to make things worse on a defense that allowed 5.99 yards per play last year.

THREE THINGS WE DON'T KNOW

1. Who the quarterback will be
There's no shortage of candidates, with Kiehl Frazier, Jonathan Wallace and Nick Marshall being the leading candidates. Neither Frazier nor Wallace apparently set the world on fire during the spring, meaning things are wide-open for Marshall if he can grasp the offense. And while Marshall had a decent completion percentage and yardage numbers at Garden City Community College last year, he also threw for 18 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. Frazier's numbers last year at Auburn were worse in 2012, and Wallace's weren't much better -- but how much can be drawn from that given the nature of last year's offense is an open question. This looks like an all-out position battle going into the fall.

2. What the ceiling is for the offense
Between the offensive dysfunction last year, the quarterback controversy and the question marks at receiver, there are plenty of reasons to bet against the offense. But there's also a wild card that could give the Tigers a little room for growth: 2013 will be the junior year for the offensive players recruited to run Malzahn's offense after the 2010 national championship season. In fact, except for the 2012 class, all of the last five recruiting classes have been shaped at least a little bit by what Malzahn likes to do on offense. There won't be the same square-peg-round-hole syndrome this year that Auburn faced in 2012, which makes it possible -- possible -- that the Tigers offense could get a boost from that alone.

3. Whether Malzahn can handle the spotlight
No offense to Arkansas State -- but being the head coach at Arkansas State is nothing like being the head coach at Auburn. We've seen some midmajor head coaches with distinguished assistant coaching resumes continue to succeed (Kevin Sumlin) and some, um, not succeed (Derek Dooley). Of course, Malzahn has spent more than his fair share of time in the glare given his bizarre season at Arkansas and his wife's outspokenness, as well as the Cam Newton questions in 2010. If there's a coach prepared to handle the stress of being a head coach in the SEC without actually having been a head coach in the conference, it's Malzahn.

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