AUBURN, AL -- I've always believed that if you want the pure, unvarnished truth about a football team-or about life for that matter-you go to an offensive lineman.
Offensive linemen see the world in very straightforward terms. They see a guy in front of them. Their job is to block him. Either they do or they don't. There is very little nuance in the world of offensive linemen and, for reasons I can't explain, I just find that reassuring.
Earlier this week I sat down with one of the best offensive linemen in college football. Auburn center Reese Dismukes has 37 career starts for the Tigers and for the third straight year he is on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award, which goes to the nation's best center. He was a finalist for the Rimington last season. In fact, he's on the preseason watch list for a bunch of awards.
"If your team wins a lot of games then the players on that team will be up for a lot of awards," said Dismukes, from Spanish Fort, Ala. "That's kind of the way this thing works."
See what I mean?
Now the center in Gus Malzahn's offense doesn't just run up to the ball and snap it. He is the quarterback of the offensive line and in Malzahn's up-tempo style the center has to make a lot of decisions very quickly.
"There are times when I meet with our center just as much or more as I do with the quarterbacks," said Malzahn, as we sat in the locker room at Jordan-Hare Stadium after Wednesday's practice. "For what we want to do, our center is just as valuable as our quarterback."
I went to Auburn this week because I wanted Dismukes's blunt assessment on whether or not the Tigers could repeat as SEC Champions.
I ask the question because history says it's going to be a tall order for the Tigers to win a second straight SEC title. First of all, nobody has done it since Tennessee in 1998 and that team went undefeated and won the BCS national championship.
Auburn won an undisputed championship in 1987 and then shared it with LSU in 1988 and with Alabama and Tennessee in 1989. Auburn has never won back-to-back outright SEC championships.
History also tells us that Auburn has struggled putting together great seasons in back-to-back years. In fact, Auburn has won 10 games in consecutive seasons only once (1988-89) and has never won 11 games or more in back-to-back seasons.
A year ago this team was hungry after coming off a 3-9 (0-8 SEC) season. The players were ready to buy in to whatever Malzahn and his new staff were selling. That hunger took Auburn all the way to the BCS championship game where the Tigers lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds to Florida State. After coming so close last January, Dismukes insists this team is still hungry. But the hunger is different.
"It's a completely different mindset now," said Dismukes. "We want to prove to people that we were not a fluke (last year). Knowing that we were 13 seconds from winning it all, this team is dedicated to staying on top."
Making history with this team would be nice but "it's not something you think about while you're going through it," said Dismukes. "You think about history after you finish playing."
Besides, said Dismukes, history is not going to hurt or help against a schedule that includes road games at Kansas State, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama.
"Can't even begin to think about that," Dismukes said of the schedule.
Quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason, who broke Bo Jackson's single-season school rushing record, were considered the heart of the 2013 Auburn team. But the soul was the offensive line and it will be again in 2014.
But there is work to do up front. The line lost left tackle Greg Robinson, the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft, and sophomore Alex Kozan, a freshman All-America last season who started 14 games at left guard. Kozan had back surgery this summer and will not return this season. Still, Auburn's offensive line returns players who have started 99 games.
"Losing Alex was a big blow," said Malzahn. "We can act like it's not but it is. The good news is we have more depth. But we can't afford any more injuries up front."
"It will take a while to get the chemistry back on the line but we will do it," said Dismukes.
Malzahn says he has not talked with his players about the historical possibilities for this Auburn team.
"We don't get into big picture things like that but we do set goals," said Malzahn. "One of those goals is to repeat as SEC champions. We know how tough it is because nobody has done it in 17 years. But our formula last year was to play a game, assess where we were, and then figure out how to win the next game. It worked last year."
AROUND THE CAMPS
•Alabama coach Nick Saban has long been on the record as favoring a scheduling model where the Big Five conferences play all of their non-conference games within the Big Five. A recent survey by ESPN's Brett McMurphy revealed that 46 percent of the Big Five coaches agree with Saban. Saban is also the only coach who has gone on the record as wanting a nine-game SEC schedule. "That's what the fans want and I think we should look at it from their perspective," Saban told me earlier this year. "Because if they don't come to games then that is really a huge problem. We have to do more to promote our game."
•Georgia wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who was lost for the 2013 season with a torn ACL in the first game with Clemson, didn't make it to the first day of training camp. Mitchell tweaked the knee running routes a few days before drills began. He is expected to return for the first game with Clemson in Athens on Aug. 30. Still, it was unnerving to Georgia fans who saw their team decimated by injuries in 2013.
•Missouri's problems at wide receiver continue. The Tigers kicked their best returning player, Dorial Green-Beckham (59 catches), off the team in April after an incident involving an alleged assault of a woman. The No. 2 and No. 3 receivers from a year ago-Marcus Lucas (58 catches) and L'Damian Washington (50 catches)-are also gone. Now sophomore Levi Copelin, whose role was supposed to increase with the departure of Green-Beckham, has been suspended for the season by the NCAA for using a banned nutritional substance.
•Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall will not start the opening game with Arkansas on Aug. 30 at Jordan-Hare Stadium after receiving a citation for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. Marshall paid a fine and the case has been closed. Malzahn told me Wednesday that he has not set a timetable to decide how much of the game Marshall will miss. "I want to let camp play out because he still has some things to do," said Malzahn. "I have confidence in Nick. But you know I also have confidence in Jeremy." That would be sophomore Jeremy Johnson who is expected start the game on Aug. 30.
•Four-star safety Darius West, one of 11 recruits Kentucky signed from the state of Ohio last February, is out for the season due to what coach Mark Stoops is calling a lower leg injury. West, from Lima, Ohio, was expected to add depth to the safety position for the Wildcats.
•Les Miles got the LSU fan base all excited this week when he told Glenn Guilbeau of the Gannett News Service that his incoming recruiting class-led by running back Leonard Fournette-"is the style of class that you can win a national championship with at some point in time, hopefully sooner rather than later."