Chad Slade and Alex Kozan, left, gave Corey Grant and Auburn a lift last season
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. — Defending SEC champ Auburn begins the football season, depending on you ask, as a Top 5 team.
A year ago, the Tigers were nary a blip on the radar.
Auburn was coming off a disappointing season when it opened things last year with a new head coach, but quickly turned things around and played for the national championship. The expectations are not one of surprise this season, but of playing for another title.
The march toward that begins against Arkansas at 3 p.m. Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium, and that makes this season different from the last.
"We've talked about it all the time," says offensive lineman Chad Slade. "We don't look at the rankings as 'oh, yeah, we're ranked high.'
"We know the expectations are high, we know that we went from being the hunter last year to being the hunted. We know that we have a target on our back. We know that as a senior group, we don't want to leave that Auburn legacy as that losing senior group, and we all have big expectations for all the team. We always respect each other, and we always have the leaders come out whenever. We know what's on our backs, and we know what we have in store for us."
Arkansas comes into this game like Auburn came into the 2013 season. The Razorbacks were 3-9 overall, 0-8 in the SEC last season. Auburn bounced back last year with a 12-2 overall record after winning the SEC with a 7-1 record.
Auburn starts the new season without some of its most dynamic players: Tre Mason, who rushed for 1,800 yards, is in the NFL; Greg Robinson, who blocked everybody, was the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL; sack leader Dee Ford is in the NFL; offensive lineman Alex Kozan is out following back surgery and defense lineman Carl Lawson is following knee surgery.
Some last-minute good news: Robenson Therezie, who led Auburn with four interceptions last season from the Star position, was cleared to play Friday night after overcoming what Gus Malzahn had called eligibility questions.
Auburn has plenty coming back, starting with quarterback Nick Marshall, who passed for 2,000 yards and ran for a 1,000 more last season, and promises to be better after learning the offense on the fly last season. This season, he'll have junior college wide receiver Duke Williams paired with leading receiver Sammie Coates as big, fast targets.
Auburn, which threw only nine passes against Arkansas last season, says it will pass more this year.
When it doesn't, Marshall can run, or tailback Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and maybe Roc Thomas.
The offensive line, so critical in helping lead the nation in rushing last year, has a new look. Robinson is gone, and Kozan who will miss the season following back surgery. Shon Coleman steps in for Robinson in one of the feel-good stories of the year. Slade, who played on the right side last year, is back on the left side this year, in for Kozan.
"It has been good. It’s something I had to get back used to," he said. "It’s just something I work hard for in every practice and something I have to watch extra film on just trying to get back used to the left guard. I have transitioned to every position on the O-Line but center, but it’s just something I have to get back used to switching again.
"I'm working on my technique. I’m not perfect, but nobody is perfect on their technique. I’m working with Shon trying to be that good double-team on the left side that Malzahn wanted. We lost a great tackle in Greg and we lost Kozan. Shon and I have some big shoes to fill so it’s going to be a good year trying to get me and him back the way it used to be.”
"We have a great potential to be one of the best offensive lines in the SEC."
That front line features Slade and Coleman on the left, Reese Dismukes at center, and Pat Miller and Avery Young on the right side.
"We have a lot of people coming back and a lot of experience," Slade said. "We have all bonded. We don’t play as five, we play as one. It’s something great to have that brotherhood with each other that we can trust that person next to us to get better. It’s something we worked for all day this summer. We had extra practices with the O-Line and extra film work. It’s just getting everything back like we were last year. We are working to be better than we were last year."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine