Is Auburn or Alabama Better Set Up for a National Championship Run in 2014?

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Is Auburn or Alabama Better Set Up for a National Championship Run in 2014?
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Over the last five seasons, the winner of the Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama has gone on to play for the national title.

During that time, Alabama has enjoyed sustained success at an elite level, while its intra-state rival has gone from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the valley and back near the peak again.

For the first time in this modern era of success, both programs will enter the 2014 season in the conversation for the national title and will likely land in the Top 10 of the major preseason polls.

Butch Dill/Associated Press
Alabama head coach Nick Saban (left) and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn

But which one is set up better for a national title run?

Auburn came out of nowhere last season in head coach Gus Malzahn's first year at the helm, using a multidimensional, punishing rushing attack to lead the Tigers to within 13 seconds of the crystal football.

Eight starters from that offense are back, including quarterback Nick Marshall, who passed for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns while adding 1,068 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in his first season as the starter. 

Meanwhile, at Alabama, head coach Nick Saban is bringing back a small village of stars at skill positions including wide receiver Amari Cooper and running backs Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon.

There are some questions at quarterback and on defense, but the front seven looked stout this spring and there is talent to work with in a secondary that was hit hard with roster attrition.

So who's got the edge? It's the Auburn Tigers. Here's why.

 

Quarterback

Marshall's return marks the first time in Malzahn's college coaching career that he's had a starting quarterback return for his second season. His goal for Marshall this spring was to become more proficient in the intermediate passing game, and the 6'1", 210-pound senior passed that test with flying colors.

"He's got a better understanding now," Malzahn told Bleacher Report last week. "You can tell he's more confident. His eyes are in the right spot, he's throwing the ball on time and his checkdowns are right. He's just got an overall better feel for the offense."

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Auburn QB Nick Marshall (left) and head coach Gus Malzahn

Over his eight seasons as a college assistant or head coach, Malzahn has produced 11 1,000-yard rushers.

He will be able to replicate last year's offense, which was predicated on a multidimensional rushing attack and Marshall taking the top off the defense. 

If Marshall adds an intermediate passing game to that mix, the offense will be difficult to stop.

Meanwhile, all of Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's eggs are in Florida State transfer Jacob Coker's basket. Senior Blake Sims looked uncomfortable in the offense in the spring game, so the bar for Coker to reach now that he's on campus is still relatively low.

Is he the second coming of AJ McCarron? He certainly has a big reputation, but it's built largely on closed-door practice reports and the notion that he pushed 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston late into fall camp for the No. 1 job in Tallahassee last season.

Whether you believe he did or not, he's still a mystery.

First-year starters have won four of the last five national titles, so there's reason for hope for Coker and Alabama. But wouldn't you rather have a known commodity heading into the season?

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Alabama QB Jacob Coker

 

"Just Enough" Defense

A stifling defense has been a staple of Alabama during the first seven years of Saban's tenure in Tuscaloosa, but times, they are a-changin'. Defense doesn't win championships anymore. "Just enough" defense wins championships.

That's a moving target for each team based on the offense it runs.

Butch Dill/Associated Press
Alabama DE Jonathan Allen (right)

Alabama has struggled with no-huddle teams that boast mobile quarterbacks and has adjusted with some freakish athletes at defensive end in the 3-4 scheme like Jonathan Allen and A'Shawn Robinsonboth of whom are likely starters at defensive end this year.

Their athleticism should allow them to slow mobile quarterbacks, but can they do it consistently?

Five, and perhaps even seven, of Alabama's eight SEC opponents in 2014 will have mobile quarterbacks.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press
Auburn LB Kris Frost

Auburn's defense was more punch line than power last season, but the Tigers made it work thanks to a deep defensive line that stayed fresh and a linebacking corps that got better as the season progressed.

TeamRankings.com indicates the Tigers finished 18th in the country in fourth-quarter points per game, giving up just 4.8 per game in the final frame in the regular season.

The Tigers will follow the same blueprint again in 2014, with a deep defensive line, starting linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy returning off their solid title-game performances, and a secondary that is healthy, has options and got a talent injection thanks to the class of 2014.

Auburn's defense isn't what's typically known as a championship-level defense, but it's effective. That's the goal for any team, particularly one that's going to light up the scoreboard.

 

Offensive Scheme

It's safe to say that Malzahn's offense can be diverse, even when it's one-dimensional.

The ability of Marshall, edge-rusher Corey Grant, whoever emerges as the power back between the tackles and the offensive line to get downfield and open holes is difficult to stop when it's clicking, and Marshall's ability on the ground should let it click again in 2014.

Malzahn isn't a one-trick pony, though.

Five different quarterbacks have passed for more than 2,500 yards and 20 touchdowns during Malzahn's career as a college assistant or head coach.

Prolific Passers Under Gus Malzahn
Player Year Team Pass Yds. TDs
Paul Smith 2007 Tulsa 5,065 47
David Johnson 2008 Tulsa 4,059 46
Chris Todd 2009 Auburn 2,612 22
Cam Newton 2010 Auburn 2,854 30
Ryan Aplin 2012 Arkansas State 3,323 24

CFBStats.com

He'll simplify the offense and keep it simple if it works, but that's not all he does.

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Over at Alabama, the new offensive coordinator has a mixed resume. He helped USC win a national titlewhich was later vacatedin 2004 and got the Trojans to the brink following the 2005 season before Vince Young happened.

However, his reputation has been sullied a little bit after USC's struggles during the final year-plus of his tenure as head coach.

Now that he can focus on X's and O's and ignore some of the other distractions associated with being a head coach, he could reignite his offensive prowess. 

But what if he falls back in love with screen passes when he shouldn't? What if he forgets that Henry and Yeldon are in the backfield? He's still very much a mystery in this new era as an offensive coordinator.

USA TODAY Sports
Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin (right)

Yes, Alabama's schedule looks relatively easy and Auburn's looks dauntingespecially from October 25 through the end of the season. I wrote last week that it's unfair to Alabama to label its schedule "soft" in the offseason, and the same argument holds true for labeling Auburn's "difficult."

Auburn has talent returning and a scheme that it knows works at an elite level.

That's a recipe for success and has the Tigers on the inside track within the state to make this year's run at the national title and a berth in the College Football Playoff.

Just don't be surprised if Alabama joins them.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.com. 

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