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AU’s O-line making the difference

Published 9:49am Wednesday, October 9, 2013

By Andy GrahamSports Columnist

The Auburn Tigers officially surpassed their win total of 2012 on Saturday night by defeating the No. 24 Ole Miss Rebels 30-22 before a raucous Jordan Hare Stadium crowd.
The Tigers have come an extraordinarily long way from the bitter disappointments of just one year ago and exacted some measure of revenge now for two embarrassing losses at the hands of the Magnolia State.
Auburn didn’t crack the Top 25, so the national respect is still lacking. That’s to be expected until the Tigers defeat an upper echelon SEC opponent and rightly so.
In a normal year, Auburn beating Ole Miss and Mississippi State shouldn’t be impressive. It should be expected.
However, this isn’t a normal year.
I don’t think any rational person could have predicted anything better than a 4-1 record through Auburn’s first five games.
Therefore, the win Saturday night was very impressive, and Gus Malzahn is doing some serious early campaigning for SEC Coach of the Year.
There has been significant improvement across the board offensively and defensively, but one group stands out to me above the rest.
The Auburn offensive line has played phenomenally in 2013 and seems to be getting better each week.
The Tigers have risen to second in the SEC (18th nationally) in rushing at 242.2 yards per game.
While Gus Malzahn’s offense bears the moniker of the spread, his philosophy is based heavily on running between the tackles and play action.
The big uglies up front for Auburn have opened enough holes to allow four different players to gain more than 100 yards rushing in four different games this season.
The Tiger O-line has also given up the least number of sacks in the SEC at four, which ranks ninth nationally.
Nick Marshall came to Auburn with zero experience as an SEC quarterback.
The tremendous protection he has received upfront has been invaluable to his maturation process.
Last season, the offensive line gave up 37 sacks in 12 games and every quarterback Auburn rotated in had to run for his life.
This season, Marshall has had the benefit of a strong running game (which is a quarterback’s best friend) and has been allowed to survey the field without being under duress for the most part.
Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes deserves a lot of credit for bringing this relatively young group together and pushing them to realize their potential.
To everyone else’s dismay, all five starters and backups should return in 2014.
With the win Saturday night, Auburn has practically assured itself of bowl eligibility.
In August, there were serious and legitimate doubts from national pundits and everyday fans about whether the Tigers could reach that plateau.
I only predicted Auburn to go 7-5 myself.
It appears now that Gus Malzahn and this Tiger team may have set their goals a bit higher.
Auburn has displayed flashes of brilliance on both sides of the ball but hasn’t been able to put it all together in one game yet this season. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen.
I don’t think anyone is afraid of the Auburn Tigers quite yet, but I fully believe everyone in the SEC is beginning to take notice.
Graham is a sports columnist for The Outlook.