SEC Countdown: No. 2 Auburn

Gus Malzhan's plan to open up the passing game could pay dividends for Sammie Coates (above), who caught 42 balls for 902 yards and seven TDs last season.

Kevin Liles/Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

The Immaculate Deflection. Kick Six. Auburn without question lived a charmed life during last season’s stunning run to the final BCS Championship Game.

But in Year 2 under Gus Malzahn the Tigers won’t be catching anyone by surprise, and in order to defend that SEC title they’ll have to navigate a daunting schedule with seven teams in the preseason AP Top 25, the most of any ranked team. That gauntlet includes No. 2 Alabama, No. 9 South Carolina, No. 12 Georgia, No. 13 LSU, No. 18 Ole Miss, No. 20 Kansas State and No. 21 Texas A&M.

Still, with triggerman Nick Marshall getting a full offseason with the playbook, an impressive one-two punch at wide receiver and a deep backfield, the Tigers offense should remain potent. The defense — which for the first time in three years won’t be adjusting to life with a new coordinator — should also show improvement over last year’s No. 86 ranking when it allowed 420.7 yards per game.

Marshall arrived last summer as a junior college transfer and went on to throw for 1,976 yards and 14 scores and run for another 1,068 yards and 12 scores.

With Malzahn’s onus on opening up the passing game, Marshall will get every opportunity to answer any doubts about what he can do with his arm (though we may only see him in a limited role in Week 1 with Jeremy Johnson getting the start after Marshall’s offseason marijuana citation). It won’t hurt having Sammie Coates (42 receptions for 902 yards and seven TDs) and Ricardo Louis (28 catches for 325 yards and two scores) to throw to and a line a that has four starters back.

The defense brings back its leading tackler in Cassanova McKinzy, along with senior Gabe Wright and 6-foot-4, 306-pound space-eater Montravius Adams, though there are some holes to fill with this group.

The Tigers are down three of their biggest names from last year in Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason at running back, tackle Greg Robinson, the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft and pass-rushing end Dee Ford.

Replacing Mason’s 1,816 yards will fall on a deep stable of backs in seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and freshman Roc Thomas. It could be a running-game-by-committee approach, but with the way Malzahn showed a desire to lean on a lead RB last season, expect him to try and find a similar level of comfort with one of these runners.

Shon Coleman steps in for Robinson at left tackle four years after a diagnoses with leukemia. It will be his first start since 2009, when he was a high school senior.

SEC Countdown

The Tigers knew they were going to have to replace Ford, who had 10 1/2 sacks a year ago, but an injury has further complicated matters. Which brings us to …

Carl Lawson had 20 tackles, including 7 1/2 for loss and four sacks as a true freshman, putting him in line to take over Ford’s role at end. But Lawson injured his knee late in spring practices and underwent surgery performed by Dr. James Andrews the extent of which hasn’t been made public.

Malzahn said during SEC Media Days he hopes Lawson can rejoin the Tigers before season’s end, but it doesn’t help the fact that this D is going to have trouble making up for his absence.

The plan with Wright, who will play end along with his normal position of tackle, will help as does the return of LaDarius Owens after he battled an infection as a result of offseason surgery. But the bottom line is the Tigers pass rush looks like it’s going to be without a lot of the bite it had a year ago.

The unexpected SEC title in Year 1 under Malzahn only increased the expectations, especially when you consider that Marshall will be the first starting QB that Malzahn has had a season with since Mitch Mustain when they were together at Springdale (Ark.) High.

Auburn should be in contention for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but even if that doesn’t happen, another double-digit season should be a success given the schedule at that after having every ounce of mojo in its corner last season, the Tigers may not be as lucky this time around.

Nov. 29 at Alabama: The game may not have the same stakes, as the winner of last year’s game went on to the SEC title game, the first time it had ever carried those implications.

But with the way last year’s Iron Bowl ended, as Chris Davis returned a missed field goal 109 yards for the game-winning TD, the bad blood should be at an all-time high.

While the non-conference slate does include a Sept. 18 trip to Manhattan to face Kansas State and the Iron Bowl looms large for all that it means in the Yellowhammer State, its the stretch of Oct. 25-Nov. 15 that should weigh the heaviest on the Tigers’ season.

That stretch sees them host South Carolina, travel to Ole Miss, then return home vs. Texas A&M before heading to Georgia.

Its difficult to see Auburn getting through that run unscathed and with that trip to Tuscaloosa looming in the regular-season finale, it should come as no surprise to see the Tigers head into the postseason on a two-game losing streak in the SEC.