Don’t look now but it’s possible that the Auburn Tigers could be even more talented than last year’s squad — particularly on offense — which was 13 seconds away from procuring the BCS National Championship.

Despite losing the second-overall pick in the most recent NFL draft (left tackle Greg Robinson), in addition to losing an 1,800-yard rusher in running back Tre Mason, the Tigers return plenty of firepower along the line of scrimmage and at the skill positions.

Head coach Gus Malzahn has installed one of the most exciting offenses in recent college football memory, if not ever, and it only looks to be evolving on a game-by-game basis.

The season-opening win against Arkansas saw sophomore QB Jeremy Johnson carve up the Razorbacks’ secondary into pulled pork (which thinking about made my stomach growl). The subsequent game saw the Spartans of San Jose State end up like the characters from the movie 300 behind the Tiger’s back-breaking ground game.

His total numbers alone, 12-of-16 for 243 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, were enough to phone home about.

But when you consider he did the majority of his damage in the first-half, as incumbent starter Nick Marshall was serving a suspension, it really becomes eye-opening for fans of offensive football.

But make no mistake about it, The Tigers are a high-powered rushing outfit with a plethora of ways of attack both the perimeter and interior.

Experienced running backs Cameron-Artis Payne and Corey Grant are two of the very best in the conference.

This thunder-and-lightning duo can be placed against any two-deep tandem in the conference: T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry (Alabama), Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall (Georgia), Mike Davis and Brandon Wylds (South Carolina), Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins (Arkansas) and Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor (Florida) immediately come to mind.

However, when you factor in the presence of highly-touted newcomers like Peyton Barber and Roc Thomas you can plainly see how the backfield stacks up.

But what undoubtedly puts the Tigers’ rushing attack over the top is the talent of Marshall. In fact, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he should be considered the best with the ball in his hands — especially in the manner in which head coach Gus Malzahn schemes the offense up.

The Tigers’ combination of scheme and talent — at times — seems downright unstoppable.

Mr. Inside

Artis-Payne is the most underrated runner in the conference. Most couldn’t notice how effective he was running behind the great Tre Mason — who amassed over 1,800 yards last season as a Heisman Trophy finalist.

But Artis-Payne contributed 610 yards of his own on just 91 carries for a 6.9 average per attempt.

At 5’10”, 210 pounds, he reminds me of my all-time favorite Auburn back, Ben Tate (Cleveland Browns). Both of them are exceptional in all facets of running: vision, burst, angles and hands.

They even share the same No. 44 jersey number.

But most of all they share similar ability to be proficient in the between-the-tackles run game.


Here’s Artis-Payne showing off his short-area agility which is very reminiscent of Tate’s. On this particular zone-read play, Artis-Payne initially encounters traffic where “daylight” was. After he breaks that guy’s ankle, he once again finds himself in front of daylight.

From there he toys with defenders on his way to paydirt.

Artis-Payne reportedly dropped 10 pounds to be quicker. It’s certainly paying dividends as he’s broken several long runs, thus far. But it’s his short-area agility that will make him a household name by season’s end.

Unless he’s constantly mistaken for Tate…

Mr. Outside

As someone who predominantly covers the Alabama Crimson Tide (I know you guys just love to read that), I have an affinity for Corey Grant (wait, not like that!) — the one time member of the Tide (2010).

Once Malzahn took over the reins, I immediately thought of Grant’s blinding speed meshing well with the “mad scientist’s” run-game stylings. With similar back Kenyan Drake finding success in the  Tide’s pro-style attack, it’s easy to see the role Grant would’ve played had he stayed the course.

Drake and Grant are two of the, if not the, fastest backs in the game. Surprisingly both aren’t built anything like scatbacks with Grant listed at 5’11”, 205 pounds, and Drake going 6’1″, 201 pounds.

But as always, it’s Malzahn’s scheme that highlights Grant’s skill set almost down to a tee.


Check out Grant on this Jet Sweep. Even with blinding speed, he manages to decelerate and let his blocking take shape.

Many players with that type of speed will run up the backs of their blockers, but Grant is more than a speed back. He could be a lead back in the mold of Mason with his vision and overall running prowess.

But it’s in Malzahn’s best interest to use Grant’s speed to his advantage. But when it all boils down to it, it’s the running prowess of the QB that sets Auburn apart from the rest.


QB Nick Marshall is such a great athlete that he deserves to be mentioned alongside Auburn’s great backs. The 6’1″, 210-pound Georgia native is the perfect fit for Malzahn’s system due to his 4.4 40-yard dash speed.

Furthermore, his ball-handling skills are top notch — which coincides with the Tigers’ read-option package of plays.


Here we see Marshall’s ability to effect the run game in a major way. People don’t realize how hard it is to make a split-second decision on whether to keep the ball or hand it off on a read-option play; Marshall makes it look easy.

Additionally, his open-field running ability is every bit as electric as Artis-Payne and Grant’s — as you can see here.

While Marshall is a sizzling runner, his ability to effect the game from the pocket is wildly inconsistent.

Johnson, on the other hand, may be the very best at it.

The Passing Attack

I wholeheartedly believe that Johnson is the most talented QB in the entire conference. He has the type of skill set that could land him in the top-10 of an NFL draft. He can generate outstanding velocity with his passes; he throws a tight spiral; he’s as accurate as it gets.

But Auburn is so talented that Johnson will be relegated to backup duties and packaged plays. While Marshall doesn’t possess the arm talent of Johnson, he may not have to as he’s throwing to one of the most talented receiving corps in football.

I’ve already waxed poetic about the 6’2″, 201-pound man-child Sammie Coates (click here to read my breakdown of him). So when I heard reports that No. 1-ranked JUCO receiver “Duke” Williams was en route to Auburn, and he was possibly better than Coates, I immediately became intrigued.

To even be mentioned in the same breath as Coates is an accomplishment. But for some to think he has a chance to surpass him is downright flabbergasting.

Well, thus far Williams has exceeded the hype.

While he’s not better than Coates, I’ll vouch that he is every bit his equal — and that’s a scary proposition for the rest of the Southeastern Conference.


Here we see the combination that took the SEC by storm on opening weekend. After a play-action fake, which completely takes the attention of the linebackers, Johnson hits Williams in stride allowing for some serious yards-after-catch action.

Williams, much like Coates, is equally effective in the long and short game. Both can muscle cornerbacks, and both have the ability to turn a five-yard gain into a 50-plus yard explosive play.

When you factor in the presence of tight end C.J. Uzomah (who’s an absolute freak), along with receivers Quan Bray, Ricardo Louis and the sizzling Melvin Ray, to say the Tigers are loaded may be an understatement.

While Marshall deserves to be the starter at QB, having Johnson on the field with him at the same time, with Marshall as a running back, would be a defensive coordinator’s worst nightmare.

Make it happen, Gus.