It's fair to say that Gus Malzahn's first year as head coach of the Auburn Tigers was a success. All he did was turn a three-win team into the SEC champions and come within 13 seconds of winning the BCS National Championship.
Statistically, the turnaround was also staggering. The Tigers gained just 305 yards per game in 2012, but Malzahn's offense in 2013 gained 501.3 yards per game—the second-highest mark in the SEC.
A big reason for that offensive turnaround was running back Tre Mason, who rushed for 1,816 yards, 23 touchdowns and was invited to New York City after the regular season as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
Since Mason jumped early to the NFL, Auburn's running game will struggle, right?
Auburn's running game won't miss a beat without Mason in the backfield, and here's why.
Loads of Talent
Tre Mason was awesome last season and when he rushed for 1,002 yards in that ill-fated 2012 season when everybody on the planet knew not only that Mason was getting the ball, but where the play was going.
But he wasn't the only running back on campus.
Cameron Artis-Payne was "1B" to Mason's "1A" for the early part of the 2013 season, before Mason got hot and put the Tigers on his back. Artis-Payne, now a senior, rushed for 610 yards and six touchdowns last year, including 100-yard games versus Arkansas State and Western Carolina.
Artis-Payne said last week that he could put up similar numbers, given the opportunity.
"I definitely feel like with those carries that I could do something similar," he said according to AuburnTigers.com. "I could put up those types of numbers."
He could, but he has plenty of competition.
Corey Grant was used primarily as the changeup/outside-the-tackles back last year. After rushing for 647 yards and six touchdowns for a whopping 9.8 yards per carry average, he's almost assured of that same role again in 2014. But the 5'11", 203-pound senior wants more, according to AL.com's Joel A. Erickson.
"That’s one thing I do want to do, establish myself, because you know it’s a question if I can run between the tackles," he said. "I want to get that established throughout spring and going into the fall."
Whether he takes over some of those inside carries or stays outside, Grant's ability to hit the home run will still be a big part of the Auburn rushing attack.
Behind the two veterans, 5'11", 225-pound redshirt freshman Peyton Barber has the build to be Tre Mason 2.0, and 5-star signee "Roc" Thomas will join the mix for fall camp.
The crowded backfield is a rich man's problem. Malzahn was comfortable letting Mason emerge as the star during the 2013 season, and he'll likely follow the same path with this talented group of running backs in 2014.
Malzahn's Track Record
In Malzahn's eight seasons as either a college assistant or head coach, he has produced at least one 1,000-yard rusher in every season and his offenses have produced 11 total 1,000-yard rushers.
Let that sink in for a second.
Regardless of the school, the talent he had on the roster or the hand he was dealt coming in, he finds ways to make things happen on the ground at an elite-level consistently, without exception. Malzahn's scheme is the most important part of Auburn's running game, not the specific running back.
That's not to say Mason isn't a phenomenal running back. He is. You don't rush for 164 against Alabama's defense—which finished with the SEC's best rush defense (106.23 YPG), follow it up with 304 in the SEC Championship Game versus Missouri and then break off 195 against Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game without being talented.
Plus, two of the three pieces of the puzzle are already put together.
Quarterback Nick Marshall rushed for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns last season and is back to lead that dangerous read-option attack. Grant will, at the very least, play the same role he did last season on the edge. All Malzahn has to do is find the final piece of the puzzle to complete the running game picture.
His track record suggests that won't be much of a challenge.
|Gus Malzahn's 1,000-Yard Rushers as a College Assistant or HC|
|2012||Arkansas State||David Oku||1,061||16|
Opening Things Up
Whether Auburn was one-dimensional by choice or necessity last season, it was one-dimensional and it didn't really matter.
The Tigers wore down defenses with that diverse running game led by Marshall and Mason, and then, when the time was right and defenses stacked the box, they took the top off of them in the passing game.
But what if Marshall takes the next step and progresses as a passer?
He was only the starter for two-and-a-half weeks heading into last season, but still managed to complete 59.4 percent of his passes (142-of-239) for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns. Now he has all offseason to work with the coaching staff to become more efficient in the passing game. The goal, according to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee (via Brandon Marcello of AL.com), is for Marshall to complete 65 percent to 70 percent of his passes this season.
If he meets that goal, that means opposing linebackers and defensive backs will have to respect the passing game a bit more and won't creep up into the box as much to stop the run. That means more room for Marshall and all the running backs in the running game.
Don't focus on the absence of Mason.
Sure, he is a tremendous running back with a bright future in the NFL. But Auburn has the pieces, starting with head coach Gus Malzahn, to withstand the loss.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports and all statistics are courtesy of www.sports-reference.com.