1. Well for starters, we're about a quarter into year one of the Gus Malzahn era at Auburn. Early returns?
Auburn won three games during all of 2012, and the Tigers have already won three this year. So yeah, things are a little better. He has this team showing much more fight than it did last season, and pretty much every position is showing improvement. Obviously, it's early and we don't yet know what Auburn's ceiling is under Gus, but fans are pretty excited about the future.
2. Nick Marshall drew a lot of praise through training camp, and has improved in every game this year. What can you tell us about him?
Three things really stand out about Marshall: he has plenty of poise, he's really fast and athletic, and he has a cannon for an arm. That last attribute is a double-edged sword because he struggles with putting touch on the ball, and as a result he can be fairly inaccurate. But, he seems to be getting better each week, and he has the arm strength to make any thrown on the field.
Marshall's best attributes are definitely his decision-making skills and the ability to never get rattled. He's always cool, calm and collected, and I don't think he's made one bad throw into coverage yet. This was perfectly embodied in the game-winning drive against Mississippi State. Down three with 1:56 left, Marshall drove the offense 88 yards, completing 6 of 8 passes for 66 yards and rushing three times for 19 yards, and he threw the winning 11-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds remaining.
3. Overall, how does this year's Malazhn attack differ from some of the previous incarnations? Aside from not having Cam Newton, of course.
Since the 2010 version with Cam Newton set the standard, we'll always compare every Malzahn offense to that. This year's edition features fewer quarterback runs, mainly because Marshall (6'1, 210) doesn't have the size to withstand a heavy workload like Newton (6'6, 250). Auburn definitely wants to run the ball first, and Cameron Artis-Payne, the bruiser back, sort of replaces that Newton role in the power running game. Returning starter Tre Mason is more of a feature back who can run inside or outside, and Corey Grant is working in the Onterio McCalebb speed back role.
In the passing game, Malzahn likes the wide receiver screen a lot and is also a fan of hitting running backs and tight ends/H-backs in the flats and on other shorter routes. All those shorter throws -- and the running game -- will be used to set up deep throws down the field, usually to Sammie Coates.
4. On defense, there have been struggles, but what have you seen from this unit under Ellis Johnson?
There seems to be a lot more intensity, and there's definitely a better grasp of fundamentals, especially in the secondary. Auburn's DBs have given up some yards on underneath routes, but they're much better in coverage and are actually making plays on the ball this year. The defensive line is pretty inconsistent, but it has shown signs of real ability at times -- 41 QB hurries and 22 tackles for loss so far this year.
The real weakness on defense is at linebacker. This group has had trouble with the run and covering the short pass, and senior starting MLB Jake Holland has struggled so much throughout his career, he was actually booed by a few cretins in Jordan-Hare Stadium before the Arkansas State game. Kris Frost, who subs in for Holland, and Cassanova McKinzy at weakside have talent, but they have also struggled with inconsistency.
The biggest revelation in Johnson's 4-2-5 scheme is Robenson Therezie at the hybrid safety/linebacker "star" position. He's been all over the field in coverage and in run support, and is probably the defensive MVP so far this year.
5. In the spring, we talked about relatively reasonable expectations for Auburn this fall. Any changes in that area through three games?
For me, the expectations are pretty much the same as I had in the offseason. I think Auburn will make a bowl game, and there's a chance the Tigers could jump up and surprise a team that they shouldn't beat. Marshall should continue to progress throughout the season, and the offense with him, and the defense will show some modest improvement, too. Auburn will finish the regular season 6-6 or 7-5, and after a bowl win, fans will really look forward to 2014.
6. There have been a lot of...unusual occurrences in this series, and our two fan bases don't always have the best relationship. What are your expectations for Saturday, and will you be making the trip to Baton Rouge?
Unfortunately, I won't be making the trip this year. Win or loss, I'll regret that just because of the tailgating.
I think Auburn will hold its own. The offense will do some good things with both the pass and the run, but I think LSU's defense is good enough to get a fair number of stops. On defense, I think we'll see some good play from the secondary and spurts of pressure from the defensive line, but LSU should be able to attack Auburn's linebackers with the run and pass and be able to move the ball and score some points. The home-standing Tigers will win, but the visitors will keep it a little closer than Vegas is expecting. LSU 33, Auburn 20.