Louisville's defense was one of the best in the country last year and many feel that they could be improved this year. Auburn has an offense that will definitely put that notion to the test. Head coach Gus Malzahn is known as an offensive mastermind and the results over the last decade back that up. Malzahn has been the architect of some of the most prolific offenses in college football history and he has had some of the most talented players at his disposal over that time. However, Auburn enters this season with the question of whether or not they can reload at the skill positions.
Malzahn has had the fortune of having very good quarterbacks over his career as an offensive coordinator and head coach. Cam Newton, Ryan Aplin, and Nick Marshall aren't all on the same level, but one thing they all had in common was the ability to be accurate in Malzahn's system. Malzahn being able to turn Nick Marshall (a defensive back, really) into a 60% passer is remarkable. With his new starter Jeremy Johnson, he won't have to work nearly as hard from a passing standpoint. Johnson is a prototypical pocket passer that has the ability to utilize his legs when needed. He's a career 70% passer but most of his time on the field has been in mop up duty. I did, however, get to watch Johnson in his only meaningful time last year when Marshall was suspended for the first half of Auburn's opener against Arkansas last year. Johnson torched an Arkansas defense that finished in the top 10 in scoring defense.
Johnson will be tabbed as a dual threat quarterback but that would be about the same thing as calling Teddy Bridgewater a dual threat. They both have the ability to use their legs when needed, but both are guys that prefer to stand tall in the pocket and deliver. Malzahn's offense isn't as reliant on read option as some think. Against Arkansas last year Johnson was utilized solely as a pocket passer. Malzahn utilized quick slants, tunnel screens, skinny posts, and other quick and easy throws which Johnson succeeded with. I would imagine we could see the same against a pressure defense like Louisville's.
The Auburn offense will potentially feature its best running back since Michael Dyer ran for over 1,200 yards in 2011.As good as Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne were for the Tigers, Javon Robinson has more talent than both. Robinson is a stout 230 pounds and he has the speed to take off if he gets in the open field. Robinson has shown a great ability to make quick cuts while also being able to get back to top speed quickly. Malzahn hasn't had a true power back at Auburn and I think how he chooses to utilize Robinson will be a key factor in the game. Robinson will likely be spelled by Roc Thomas, who averaged nearly 5 yards per carry as a third option last year. Peyton Barber is also a back that Malzahn has spoke highly of. If, for whatever reason, Robinson isn't the feature back that I'm expecting him to be, there isn't a huge dropoff with the other two backs.
We saw last year that having a star receiver can really change your entire offense. Duke Williams is that guy for Auburn. Williams is a monster of a receiver at 216 pounds and he had his biggest games last year against four top 25 teams. Duke just tends to show up when the spotlight is the brightest. The question mark for Auburn's offense is who else steps up at wide receiver. Outside of Ricardo Louis there isn't a lot of game experience on the roster. Auburn will likely rely on Williams a lot more than they might like to in order to keep the offense from being too run heavy. Other receivers that could step up into a more prominent role are Melvin Ray and Marcus Davis, with JUCO transfer Jason Smith as a wildcard right now.
Auburn returns 5 players that have notched starts in the SEC. The loss of Chad Slade and Reese Dismukes could be big for the Tigers, but their replacements have experience under their belt and some feel that they could actually be improved this year. The line, along with a mobile Nick Marshall, only allowed 15 sacks and 74 tackles for loss on the season. Both numbers are solid and the sack number was one of the best in the country. Auburn's reliance on quick passes as well as no huddle principles helps to keep defenses tired as well as limiting their ability to really pressure the quarterback. In my opinion, this will be the key to the game. If Johnson is able to stand tall in the pocket and deliver the ball around the field Louisville will be in for a long day.
KEY PLAYERS: QB Jeremy Johnson, WR Duke Williams, WR Ricardo Louis, LT Shon Coleman, RT Avery Young