AUBURN, Ala. – The theme around Auburn's football building since January has been about being "13 seconds better."
Just being better than '13 is a lofty enough goal.
The Tigers won't be able to sneak up on anyone again after winning the Southeastern Conference and making it to the brink of the 2013 national title, before Florida State's game-winning touchdown with 13 seconds remaining in the championship game.
"This year we're going to be circled," said coach Gus Malzahn, who directed the biggest one-year turnaround in SEC history during his debut season. "We told our players that. We're going to have to be better in every phase, especially early in the season."
The Tigers might be better and still not duplicate last year's run that included one win on a deflected Hail Mary (Georgia) and another on a last-play return of a missed field goal (Alabama).
Shon Coleman replaces the second overall NFL draft pick Greg Robinson at left tackle four years after being diagnosed with leukemia. The Tigers also must replace defensive end Dee Ford, also a first-rounder, and Heisman Trophy finalist tailback Tre Mason. Quarterback Nick Marshall, receiver Sammie Coates and leading tackler Cassanova McKinzy are back.
Center Reese Dismukes said the "13 seconds" anthem has been a motivator but a big takeaway from last season is "knowing that we're never out of it. Anything can happen."
5 Things to watch during Auburn's upcoming season:
PASSING MORE: Fans will have to wait a bit to see how much Marshall's work on his passing has paid off since he won't start against Arkansas as punishment after being cited for having a small amount of marijuana in his car. Sophomore Jeremy Johnson will open the game but it's not clear how long Marshall will remain on the bench. Marshall became such a threat with the zone read and his running ability, that he only averaged 150 yards a game passing. Now, he's got deep threat Sammie Coates and top junior college prospect D'haquille Williams heading a receiving group that could become a strength of the offense. "We knew coming into the season that we have to be more dynamic in the passing game," tight end C.J. Uzomah said. "That's something that he's been emphasizing. We plan on stretching the field vertically and horizontally."
LATE-GAME MAGIC: The Iron Bowl and Georgia game weren't the only times Auburn pulled out a win in the final minutes either with late touchdowns or defensive stands. It was a knack that only failed in the title game with Florida State. Now the question remains if one or two of those type games could go the other way this season.
MISSING STARTERS: Guard Alex Kozan and defensive end Carl Lawson, two of Auburn's best linemen, could both be lost for the season. Kozan is out after back surgery. Lawson had knee surgery in early May and the Tigers haven't ruled out a return this fall. Auburn has an experienced replacement at guard in Avery Young. Replacing Lawson's pass rushing ability could be more challenging, with Gabe Wright moving over from tackle and a package that has linebacker Cassanova McKinzy up front in passing situations.
DIVVYING CARRIES Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne both ran for 600-plus yards behind Mason last season, when Auburn became the first SEC team to lead the nation in rushing. They're joined by five-star freshman signee Roc Thomas. Grant averaged 9.8 yards a carry last season. All three should get plenty of chances to establish themselves as the go-to back.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Auburn must replace punter Steven Clark, placekicker Cody Parkey and dangerous return men Mason and Chris Davis. Clark became an effective weapon by burying 26 kicks inside the 20. Grant had a 90-yard kick return last season and could be the answer in replacing Mason. They're still searching for a punter but redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson appears poised to take over for Parkey.
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