No. 6 Auburn entered the season with big aspirations after last year produced a national championship appearance. The team earned a 45-21 victory against Arkansas on Saturday, but it certainly didn't come easy out of the gate.
The Tigers offense looked different with Jeremy Johnson under center. The 6'5" sophomore padded his stats quickly, completing a short pass to Melvin Ray, who dodged a tackler, turned upfield and raced down the sideline for a 49-yard score.
Here's a look at the play that put Auburn up 7-0, via Auburn's Twitter account:
The Razorbacks didn't take long to respond.
Thanks to a punishing running game, Arkansas quickly marched down the field, and quarterback Brandon Allen capped off the drive by completing a 14-yard strike to Hunter Henry to even the score at seven.
Razorback Football enthusiastically followed along:
The even game soon shifted back into Auburn's favor. On the following drive, Johnson led his team 75 yards in six plays, and running back Cameron Artis-Payne plunged into the end zone from one yard out to finish it off.
Early in the second quarter, the Tigers kept up the pace. After starting on his own 2-yard line, Johnson marched down the field in just seven plays, completing a very impressive 98-yard drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to D'haquille Williams.
Former Auburn running back Tre Mason chimed in:
It's already starting to speed up in AUBURN!— Tre Mason (@TreMason) August 30, 2014
Williams proved to be Johnson's go-to guy, as he compiled seven receptions for 138 yards and a score in the first half. Johnson showed his ability as a legitimate starting quarterback, completing 12 of his 16 attempts for 243 yards and two touchdowns.
In fact, Johnson's first-half performance was so impressive that he received plenty of praise from Twitter. Former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow weighed in:
Solid start by Auburn's J. Johnson 12 of 16, 243 yds and 2 TDs. Should be a great second half! #SECNation— Tim Tebow (@TimTebow) August 30, 2014
ESPN Stats and Info compared the signal-caller to a former Auburn quarterback who was also pretty darn good:
Jeremy Johnson is the first Auburn QB to throw for 200+ yards in a half since Cam Newton #ARKvsAUB— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 30, 2014
That led Bleacher Report's Benjamin Allbright to ask this question:
QB controversy in Auburn?— Benjamin Allbright (@AllbrightNFL) August 30, 2014
While Auburn was impressive on offense, Arkansas matched the sixth-ranked squad after two quarters of play.
Allen responded to a 14-point deficit by driving down the field and completing his second touchdown pass of the day—this one a 17-yard strike to AJ Derby. Later in the half, Arkansas got its running game going, as a long drive was capped off with a six-yard touchdown run from Jonathan Williams.
At the break, Allen's numbers looked solid. He completed nine of his 14 attempts for 116 yards and two touchdowns. ESPN SEC was singing his praises during the first half of the game:
Brandon Allen has something to say to his doubters. A nice TD pass from him to Hunter Henry to tie things up. #ARKvsAUB— ESPN SEC (@ESPN_SEC) August 30, 2014
The teams returned to action in the third quarter all knotted up at 21 with one big difference: Nick Marshall entered the game at quarterback for Auburn.
Marshall quickly displayed his dual-threat ability, completing all three of his passes and rushing for a 19-yard touchdown on his first drive of the game. College GameDay helped make his presence known:
He's back! Nick Marshall scampers for a 19-yd TD. Tigers up 28-21. #ARKvsAUB— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) August 30, 2014
Auburn's defense began to contribute later in the third quarter. Allen was hit in the backfield as he was releasing the ball, and it fell into the waiting arms of Jermaine Whitehead, who promptly turned upfield and completed the pick-six.
Here's a look at the play, via ESPN College Football:
Marshall continued at quarterback into the fourth quarter, but the Arkansas defense responded nicely to his ability to run. He didn't find much room on the ground, but things opened up for Artis-Payne, who helped lead the team down the field to put up a field goal and increase its lead to 17 with just less than 10 minutes remaining.
Auburn quickly shifted gears after the field goal, getting away from its uptempo offense in favor of a clock-killing ground attack. Artis-Payne continued to dominate the game late in the fourth quarter, twisting and turning for chunks of yards at a time.
Ryan Black of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer tweeted his thoughts on the running back's late-game heroics:
Cameron Artis-Payne has come out of this delay and is running even harder than before. Refuses to go down on first contact.— WarEagleExtra (@wareagleextra) August 31, 2014
Artis-Payne paved the way for Corey Grant to clean up the drive with a nice three-yard touchdown scamper to put Auburn up by 24. That would turn out to be the team's final margin of victory.
Arkansas looks to be a far improved team from a year ago. The start to its opener in hostile territory is something to build upon. The Razorbacks have a great chance to get on track next week when they play their home opener against Nicholls State.
It appears as though Auburn is worthy of its No. 6 preseason ranking. This win puts the Tigers in great position in the SEC, and they have a great chance to keep their early momentum going next week against San Jose State.
However, one question must be asked: Who should start at quarterback for the Tigers going forward? A case could easily be made for both Johnson and Marshall. Although, head coach Gus Malzahn reaffirmed his stance behind Marshall during a press conference with The Associated Press, via ESPN.com.
"Nick's our leader," Malzahn said, adding that Marshall remains the starter. "All our players respond to him but overall I thought the key in the second half was our defense really stepping up."
It appears as though Auburn's victory won't be coupled with a quarterback controversy—just plenty of depth at the position.