Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall (14) throws a pass against Missouri during the second half of the SEC championship game. Marshall's seasonlong improvement has helped the Tigers reach the No. 2 ranking and a spot against Florida State in the BCS national-title game.
The BCS championship game between No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Auburn has a quarterback matchup featuring Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and former Georgia cornerback Nick Marshall.
Nobody is selling Marshall short.
After emerging from a four-man race midway through Auburn's preseason practice, Marshall has guided the Tigers on a most unlikely run. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior from Rochelle, Ga., ignites an offense that leads the nation with 335.7 rushing yards a game and averages 505.3 total yards per contest.
"When we signed him, we knew he was a good athlete," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said at a news conference last week before the SEC champions broke for Christmas. "We had to transition that over to the quarterback position. I think you can see that once he gets out into space and in one-on-one situations, he is extremely hard to tackle.
"He is a very good athlete and is very tough, and he has really impressed us this year."
Marshall was thrust into action for the first time as an SEC quarterback on Aug. 31, when the Tigers hosted Washington State. On Auburn's first possession, he was sacked once and threw three incompletions and the Tigers had to punt.
Auburn compiled a respectable 394 yards in winning 31-24, but Marshall was very pedestrian with 99 passing yards and 27 rushing yards.
Fast forward to the SEC championship game earlier this month, when Marshall rushed for 101 yards and completed 9 of 11 passes for 132 yards to complement tailback Tre Mason's 46 carries for 304 yards in Auburn's 59-42 win. Auburn rushed for 545 yards against the Tigers and gained 677 yards overall.
"Each game he gets a little better," Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said last week of Marshall, "and it's going to be a continual process. The strides he has made from the first game, when he dropped the first snap, to the SEC championship game I think are a great tribute to him and his work ethic."
The fumbles, however, have not stopped.
In the first 17 minutes of the SEC championship game, Marshall fumbled three times and lost the ball twice, which led to 10 points for Missouri. In the practices since, Marshall has clung tightly to a football when not going through drills, with Lashlee and offensive graduate assistant Kodi Burns occasionally sneaking up behind him to try and punch it out.
"When the pocket breaks down, the natural thing to do is drop the ball and run with it in one hand," Marshall said last week. "Carrying the ball with two hands is something I've got to train myself to do."
Said Malzahn: "We've got to protect the football. Of course that's where it starts -- with the quarterback. Coach Lashlee's on top of that. I really believe we'll get that corrected."
Marshall has rushed for 1,023 yards and 6.6 yards per carry this season. He has completed 128 of 212 passes (60.4 percent) for 1,759 yards with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions, throwing just one interception in his last eight games.
His productivity is all the more remarkable considering he didn't go through spring drills, which means he now will receive more detailed attention from Malzahn and Lashlee than he has at any point since his arrival from Garden City Community College in Kansas.
"It means a lot that we can kind of slow down," Malzahn said. "We can really work hard on just some minor details that we weren't able to do in fall camp. We had to start game planning after he was named the starter, so Coach Lashlee is going to get the chance to really work on the fine-tuning of his footwork and delivery and everything that goes with it. I've got to believe this will be a very big help for him."
And what of the matchup with Winston, who has thrown for 3,820 yards and 38 touchdowns and leads the nation in pass efficiency?
"I'm not going out there to compete against him," Marshall said. "I'm just going to go out there and do what we've been doing all season."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...