Auburn made a miraculous run in 2013 that earned the Tigers the SEC title and a shot against Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game.
That shot fell 13 seconds short, and now second-year head coach Gus Malzahn will spend the entire offseason working to do whatever he can to get his team in position to finish on the game's biggest stage should it get back following the 2014 season.
He's going to have plenty of his pieces that posted the SEC's second-best offense in 2013 (501.3 YPG), including quarterback Nick Marshall and wide receiver Sammie Coates.
Only three members of Auburn's entire offensive two-deep are gone from last year's depth chart—running back and Heisman finalist Tre Mason, offensive tackle and likely first-round draft pick Greg Robinson and fullback and all-around bruiser Jay Prosch.
They're only three pieces, but they were three incredibly important pieces.
Mason's accolades are well-known. He rushed for 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, taking over games in the second half and putting his team on his back in the SEC Championship Game and BCS National Championship Game.
A big reason he was so successful was Robinson's ability to fire off the ball, open up holes and get to the second level to spring Mason for big gains. Prosch was also a big part of that mix, routinely gobbling up linebackers at the line so Mason can get going.
So what will Auburn's offense look like with the majority of its players returning but three stars gone?
Running Game Won't Change
Mason was great, but backup Cameron Artis-Payne is certainly capable of looking like a Tre Mason clone.
He rushed 91 times for 610 yards and six touchdowns a year ago, and was a big part of the offense early in the season before his carries dropped off as Mason emerged. He topped the 100-yard mark on the ground twice in the season's first six games, but averaged just 34.25 yards per game over the final eight games of the season.
The Grind Never Stop Workouts Start Tomorrow #strivingforgreatness— Cameron Artis-Payne (@ThaRealKillaCam) January 21, 2014
The 5'11", 210-pound rising senior has the size to be durable between the tackles and take the same kind of punishment Mason did. He isn't as explosive when he gets in space, but as we saw in the SEC Championship Game versus Missouri, he has the vision and quickness to be dangerous enough when he gets to the second level.
Combine Artis-Payne with redshirt freshman Peyton Barber or incoming true freshman "Roc" Thomas, and Malzahn has plenty of options at the feature running back spot.
The Tigers know what they'll get from Marshall in the running game, get jet-sweep specialist Corey Grant back as well as wide receiver Ricardo Louis, who's also used on jet sweeps and reverses.
The biggest question facing the running game is whether 6'6", 299-pound tackle Shon Coleman can fill in for Robinson. Coleman was a former 4-star recruit in the class of 2010, but was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after national signing day. He sat out two seasons and redshirted in 2012 before finally seeing action as a freshman in 2013. He has the talent for sure, and now he has the opportunity.
Brandon Fulse played more of a hybrid fullback/tight end role last season, and will likely slide over to Prosch's spot full-time at fullback in 2014.
Simply put, Auburn has the pieces to make it look exactly like last year's team. But it doesn't necessarily have to...
Options at Wide Receiver Create Options in the Passing Game
Auburn's wide receiving corps was essentially "Coates and everybody else" in 2013. "Everybody else" got a boost this January when junior college stud D'Haquille Williams enrolled in class as part of the class of 2014.
|Auburn's Top 5 Returning Receivers From 2013|
|C.J. Uzomah (TE)||11||154||14.00||3|
Williams is a 6'3", 215-pounder from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. He boasts 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash and has the size to be a dangerous possession receiver over the middle. The combination of Williams and Coates—who stands 6'2"—creates matchup issues in the secondary of opposing defenses.
Since both can excel deep or over the middle, it will allow Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee to exploit matchups that they recognize at the line of scrimmage. That means more high-low combinations, more passes over the middle in third-down situations and an increased ability to keep defenses honest in the back end, which will benefit the running game when Auburn wants to grind it out.
Tight Ends Reappear in the Game Plan
Only 12 passes last season were completed to Auburn tight ends, with 11 of those going to rising senior C.J. Uzomah. That's a departure from the norm for Malzahn, who used former Tiger Philip Lutzenkirchen as a major weapon for the offense when Malzahn was Auburn's offensive coordinator from 2009-2011.
It will be back to the future in 2014. Uzomah was a big part of Auburn's game plan in 2013 in the red zone, and that will expand to 3rd-and-medium situations, and also to get the Tigers to 2nd-and-short when they want to mix things up and break tendency.
Former tight end Ricky Parks was dismissed prior to the 2013 season, and will rejoin the Tigers, according to AuburnSports.com's Justin Hokanson (subscription required). At 6'4", 263 pounds, he's known as a well-rounded tight end who can block well but also has the hands to be dangerous between the hash marks.
Auburn now has the luxury of getting into two tight end sets and still have the entire playbook at its disposal due to the receiving ability of Uzomah and Parks.
The Evolution of Nick Marshall
Marshall burst onto the scene last year, passing for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns while adding 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. As B/R's Justin Lee pointed out, he's just scratching the surface.
He only had five weeks in the offense and two-and-a-half as a starter before the season-opener versus Washington State. Just two years removed from playing defensive back for Georgia, there was some rust in Marhshall's game. His arm strength was obvious from Day 1, but his accuracy was what needed some work—particularly on intermediate routes that required a bit more touch.
He's got seven months to develop that aspect of his game, and essentially the same supporting cast to do it.
Expect Auburn's offense to become more balanced in 2014. All of the pieces are in place for the Tigers to replicate last year's success on the ground, while adding in the added element of a multi-dimensional passing game to keep defenses honest.
Call it "Malzahn 2.0" if you want, but opposing defensive coordinators will probably just call it "frightening."
*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.com.