Nick Marshall (#14) scores touchdown. (Emily Enfinger | Assistant Photo Editor)
While the Tigers have put themselves into serious contention for the College Football Playoff, a 38-23 loss to No. 1 Mississippi State has reduced their margin of error to zero.
With its playoff destiny resting in its own hands, here are three areas Auburn will need to improve in if they wish to make it to the final.
The rushing attack:
The Tigers are currently averaging 262 rushing yards per game, putting them at No. 15 nationally in that category.
While it might be harsh to say the rushing attack is struggling, it’s hard not to notice the difference between this season and 2013.
Cameron Artis-Payne is well short of the record-breaking pace Tre Mason set as the lead back in 2013, while Corey Grant’s yards-per -carry average has dropped three yards. The senior speedster has also seen his carries gradually diminished through 2014, culminating in a season-low one carry against Mississippi State.
Marshall’s rushing numbers are actually up, with the senior quarterback rushing for 100 yards in all but two games this season, but the zone read still hasn’t clicked with Artis-Payne like it did with Mason. Marshall’s elusiveness while scrambling has provided a somewhat misleading bump to his first half stats this season.
Coming into the season, Mason and No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson were widely seen as the team’s two biggest offensive departures. After six games, one thing is clear: Auburn misses fullback Jay Prosch as much as either one of them.
The pass rush:
Auburn has just 11 sacks through six games this season, a paltry number that forced several changes from defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.
In addition to Cassanova McKinzy’s move to defensive end in passing situations, the Tigers moved senior safety Brandon King to end during the bye week hoping to add some extra speed in the pass rush.
The Tigers probably shouldn’t expect any help from injured defensive end Carl Lawson, whose torn ACL appears to be season-ending.
Johnson is also hoping for a boost in production from sophomore defensive end Elijah Daniel, who may see more time rushing on the inside moving forward.
Nick Marshall’s passing:
It seems like it always comes back to the man calling the signals.
Marshall was praised by the coaching staff in the offseason for his improved passing, but we’ve yet to see that this fall.
The accuracy numbers are slightly worse- 59.4 percent in 2013 to 55.4 percent in 2014- and his tendency of missing open receivers on the deep ball hasn’t changed.
Perhaps most unsettling, though, is his penchant for having balls tipped at the line, a problem that has cost Marshall many turnovers.
The senior quarterback will have moments of absolute brilliance through the air and even more moments of excitement on the ground.
But if Auburn wants to run the table on the road through the likes of No. 3 Ole Miss, No. 9 Georgia and No. 4 Alabama, Marshall will have to cut out the mistakes and sloppy throws.
Eric Wallace is the sports editor of The Plainsman. He can be reached at email@example.com.