Can Auburn win without him? Yes. Jeremy Johnson has tons of athletic ability and he's learning to turn those gifts into skills. Marshall, on the other hand, has tons of athletic ability and already has succeeded in turning his gifts into game-winning skills.
Marshall is a reluctant hero in many ways. An unassuming kid from rural Georgia who was profoundly affected by his dismissal from UGA, Marshall isn't sure what to make of all this fanfare. He expected to be the Tigers' quarterback last season, but he didn't expect Auburn's offense to be so remarkably good.
His transformation from late-summer addition to first-game starter last August was nothing short of miraculous. He proved himself to be a deft triggerman within the framework of Gus Malzahn's read-option attack, making so many quick, correct decisions that teammates wondered if Marshall had been running this offense all his life.
No. Just a few weeks.
Marshall is one of the nation's best running quarterbacks, which isn't exactly going out on a limb considering his 1,068 rushing yards and 6.2 yards per carry.
Marshall also has one of the strongest arms around, though he hasn't yet grasped the nuances of that task. His footwork is messy at times, though both Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee believe significant progress has been made on that front. They're expecting Marshall throw throw more often and more accurately this fall.
So we're looking at a 1,000-yard rusher who runs the read-option like a supercomputer, has NFL arm strength and remains consistently unflappable. What's not to like? If you believe Marshall's accuracy will be a little better than average this season, well, there's really no weakness.
His triple-threat abilty (rush, pass, make the correct call on the option) makes Marshall the de facto No. 1 problem for every defense. That's huge considering Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant, Peyton Barber, Roc Thomas, Sammie Coates and D'haquille Williams all have home-run potential as well.
It's easy to see that Marshall is Auburn's most important player.
He may be the most important player in all of college football. We'll soon see.
WHY HE COULD BE HIGHER: He's the top-rated guy.
WHY HE COULD BE LOWER: I believe remaining healthy enough to perform is a skill and Marshall hasn't been fantastically durable. He missed time twice last season -- once for a knee injury suffered against Ole Miss and once for a shoulder injury suffered against Florida Atlantic. The Ole Miss injury should have kept Marshall out for a while, but he was able to rebound more quickly than anyone expected. He enters the 2014 season fully healthy, but the role Marshall plays at Auburn puts a lot of strain on his body. He's added muscle to his upper body to help him fend off defenders more easily. Will that be enough?
2014 OUTLOOK: I can't believe the humble guy I met in Garden City, Kansas, 15 months ago has become a regional phenom. He deserves every ounce of adulation he's received, don't get me wrong, but Marshall doesn't act like a guy on the verge of national stardom. Maybe that's why I think he's going to be so strong this fall: He's just a regular kid from Pineview, Ga., trying to make something of himself. He's almost there. - Jay G. Tate