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Auburn needs QB Nick Marshall to improve if it wants to repeat as SEC champs

Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn is welcomed by a crowd of Auburn fans on Tuesday, May 20, 2014, for the Emerald Coast Auburn Club's annual dinner at the Emerald Coast Convention Center on Okaloosa Island in Fort Walton Beach, Fla
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Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn is welcomed by a crowd of Auburn fans on Tuesday, May 20, 2014, for the Emerald Coast Auburn Club's annual dinner at the Emerald Coast Convention Center on Okaloosa Island in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Northwest Florida Daily News, Nick Tomecek)

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn knows he has a historic task in front of him.

It’s been 15 years since an SEC team has won back-to-back championships and the Tigers are facing that challenge head-on.

“That's how hard it is to repeat in our league. There are so many great teams. That is a goal of ours,” Malzahn said during SEC media days on Monday. “But we do understand how hard it will be. Last year when we did win the SEC, I believe there were six games decided by less than a touchdown. There were numerous games that went down to the very last play that we were successful with. It's a huge challenge. We understand that. So we're definitely aware.”

Since Tennessee repeated as champions, only two SEC champions have gone on to play in the title game the following year — Florida (won in 2008, appeared in 2009) and Georgia (won in 2002, appeared in 2003). Auburn won the SEC title in 2004 and in 2010 and after those seasons the Tigers went on to finish 9-3 and 8-5 respectively.

And there’s no shortage of doubters this season. A lot of people thought Auburn worked its way to the SEC championship and ultimately the national title game on the strength of luck — it did, after all, have two of the most amazing plays in college football history to secure wins in back-to-back games against Georgia and Alabama. So, while Auburn will definitely be on everyone’s radar, it’s going to have to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke. And to do that, it will rely heavy on the passing progress of quarterback Nick Marshall.

All season, pundits raved about the Tigers’ top-ranked rushing offense while beating down the passing game. Marshall was a key component of both. He led the team with 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns and ran for 1,068 yards and 12 scores. And with star running back Tre Mason gone to the NFL, there’s some concern that teams would ultimately stack the box to force Marshall out of his comfort zone. So, Marshall and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee spent the offseason working diligently on the passing game in hopes of turning Marshall into a more well-rounded quarterback. The running game will have to rest on backs Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and perhaps newcomer Roc Thomas.

“We led the country in rushing last year. When you do that, defenses have to take some chances,” Malzahn said. “We've got to do a better job this year of making them pay when they do take chances. Coach Lashlee and the offensive staff worked extremely hard in the spring. We feel like we have some receivers that can stretch the field and make some plays. We worked extremely hard to get more balanced. Hopefully that will carry over to the fall.”

The good thing for Malzahn and Auburn is that it will have a good idea of where the Tigers stand early with a season opener against conference foe Arkansas and a nonconference date at Kansas State on Sept. 18. The conference schedule is tough on the backend with a game at Texas A&M on Nov. 8 and then on the road against Georgia on Nov. 15 and at Alabama on Nov. 29 and the Tigers can’t count on more miracles to get them through those contests.

“Last year we weren't on anybody's radar. We snuck up on a lot of people,” Malzahn said. “This year we know we're going to be circled. We talked about that with our players. But at the same time I feel like that's good pressure. We've got our program back to where it should be, where people, you know, have us circled. But, hey, we got to play better and we have to play better early.”

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Graham Watson is the editor of Dr. Saturday on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at dr.saturday@ymail.com or follow her on Twitter!

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