Obviously, Auburn's facing a bit of a comedown from the crazy highs of last year, but it's not showing up in the numbers so far. How does this Auburn team stack up to you so far overall?
This Auburn team is in a strange place right now. After the first two games I would have told you we were rolling along and not missing a beat. Then the last two games happened. I don't think people have "figured out" Malzahn's offense so much as we're realizing just how important Jay Prosch and Alex Kozan were to our blocking last season. Sammie Coates being hampered by a nagging injury hasn't helped the deep passes, either. I still think this is a good team, but right now it's because the defense has stepped up in a huge way. I remember Auburn beat writers pointing out how much Ellis Johnson's defenses have historically improved from year one to year two, and we're definitely seeing the proof of that, now. If the offense finds its rhythm again, this will be a very hard team to beat.
How are the new running backs handling the big hole that Tre Mason left in the offense?
I think they're handling it just fine. The problem is that the blockers aren't getting to the second level and getting the big pushes that they got last year. When they do, both Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are threats for big yardage. CAP is more of the power back and Grant the speed guy, but they're virtually the same size (CAP is only five pounds heavier), so Grant shouldn't be thought of as only an outside runner. I think we'll start to see Peyton Barber and/or Roc Thomas a bit more if the blocking struggles continue, if only to see if maybe one of them is capable of making something happen on their own.
A big subplot this offseason was Nick Marshall's development as a quarterback. How had he progressed, and does Jeremy Johnson still have a significant role to play for this team?
Marshall has not really progressed as much as we'd hoped. In many ways he doesn't seem to have gotten any better at all. However, Marshall is always at his best when it's the most important (see the second half of the KSU game), and Auburn hasn't really been in a position this season where we've needed him to be spectacular.
I do think Johnson can have a significant role, especially as Marshall takes on a lot of carries himself in the running game. He's one play away from being the starting QB. The first half of the Arkansas game was a huge experience boost for him, and he's looked excellent in mop-up duty, as well. I don't know what his role going forward this year will be, but I do think the coaches will find ways to use him.
Arkansas seemed to give Auburn all it wanted on defense for about a half, but since then this unit has been able to hold its own. What's different this season on that side of the ball?
The secondary is doing a much better job this season with the play of Rudy Ford and even Trovon Reed. The linebackers have always greatly improved. I don't want to knock any player, but while Jake Holland knew how to organize a defense, he was not the best linebacker in the world by any stretch of the imagination. Cassanova McKinzy took over at the Mike spot for him, and has been doing an excellent job. That has been key for this Auburn defense.
The defensive line took a big hit when Carl Lawson went down with injury. How has that unit stepped up without him?
I'm not so sure they really have stepped up without him. This is the first time in a long while that Auburn hasn't had a real edge rushing threat. The defensive line has been impressive against the run, but there has been very little rush from the four-man front, alone. Auburn has needed blitzes to get pressure. Thankfully, the improved secondary has allowed Auburn the ability to blitz more.
Auburn survived a scare at Kansas State about two weeks ago. Did that game expose anything about this team, or do you chalk it up to Bill Snyder wizardry and a difficult road trip on a Thursday night?
I think it exposed the weak blocking for the running game more than anything. A top 25 Thursday night road game has its own voodoo without adding in Bill Snyder's wizardry, but Kansas State is also a very good and very disciplined defensive football team that took advantage of the blocking woes to shut down the zone read.
LSU will be bringing in a freshman quarterback. To Jordan-Hare Stadium. At night. Scarier for us, or for you, given this rivalry's history?
I really want to be all "True freshman? First SEC road game? At night, in Jordan-Hare? He's gonna diiiiieeeeee." But I can't. I have too many memories of first time starters or back-up quarterbacks giving Auburn fits. Matt Leinart in 2003 is a big one. If Arkansas' back-up QB ever comes into a game against Auburn I'm expecting serious shenanigans. Same with Mississippi State last year when Dak Prescott first entered the game.
I do think it will be an adjustment for Brandon Harris, but I really don't know how much. If Auburn can shut down LSU's offense on the first 2-3 drives and really get the fans into it (which will also require Auburn's offense to do some things, as well), I think it could be a long night for Harris. If Auburn lets him get comfortable, I suspect he'll be as good as he's been so far all season.