THE LINGERING QUESTION: How good can Auburn be without Cam Newton? Quite simply, he made the offense go last season.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: A rebuilt line and a new quarterback come through, and the offense is productive enough that it allows a rebuilt defense time to grow. The Tigers split their SEC road games and go into November as a legit contender in the West Division race. They win nine games and go to another New Year's Day bowl.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The schedule is too daunting for a team in rebuilding mode, and the offense and defense suffer from all the new starters. Auburn gets swept on the road in league play and finishes 6-6 and in a lesser bowl.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Auburn ran for 212.0 yards per game in 2009, then saw that number increase to 284.8 last season. The Tigers aren't going to match last season's total, but the higher the rushing average, the more games they win this fall.
OVERVIEW: Coordinator Gus Malzahn oversees what has been a potent version of the spread option. He had the perfect guy to run the offense last season in Heisman-winning QB Cam Newton, but Newton is gone. So are three of the top four wide receivers and four-fifths of the offensive line. The offense is going to remain the same, but the play-calling is going to have to change, which should make TBs Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb mighty happy because they should get more opportunities.
BACKFIELD: Newton had a season for the ages in 2010, and without him, Auburn would've been in the Chick-fil-A Bowl instead of winning the national title. The question for Malzahn this season: What kind of production can he get from the offense with a first-year starter at quarterback? Holdovers Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley will battle true freshman Kiehl Frazier for the starting job. Neither of the veterans truly shined during spring ball, though Trotter seems likely to get the call. Trotter, a junior, played in five games last season; he tossed nine passes and had five rushing attempts. His 88 TD passes in high school are the third-highest total in Alabama high school history. The good news for the quarterback, whoever he is, is that there are two good backs in Dyer, a 1,000-yard rusher as a true freshman last season, and McCalebb, a speedy guy who also could see time in the slot. Dyer had four 100-yard games last season, including 143 yards against Oregon in the national title game. He also reached 100 yards against South Carolina and LSU. McCalebb isn't that big (5 feet 10 but just 172 pounds) and isn't built to be an every-down back. But you figure Tigers coaches want to get him at least 12 touches a game, in a variety of ways.
RECEIVERS: The Tigers lost three of their top four wide receivers, including the only two players with more than 33 catches. Emory Blake - whose dad, Jeff, was a longtime NFL quarterback - should become the No. 1 receiver after being the No. 3 guy last season. He has good size (6-1/197) and is both physical and fast. He had 33 receptions and eight of them went for scores, including a TD catch against Oregon. No other returning wide receiver caught more than three passes. There are high hopes for junior DeAngelo Benton and especially redshirt freshman Trovon Reed. Senior Quindarius Carr and junior Travante Stallworth also will be in the mix. TE Philip Lutzenkirchen had five scoring receptions among his 15 catches last season, and he should become more of a weapon this season.
LINE: The Tigers lost four starting linemen, obviously a huge blow. The only returning starter is RT Brandon Mosley, a JC transfer last season. The new left tackle will be A.J. Greene, who actually began last season as the starter on the right side before he broke his leg in Game 3. The tackles, then, shouldn't be a problem. But the interior has some issues, and a true freshman, Reese Dismukes, seems likely to start at center. Dismukes enrolled early and went through spring practice. He likely will be flanked by junior John Sullen, who has played in 26 games with one start the past two seasons, and senior Jared Cooper, who has seen the vast majority of his time on special teams during his career. Redshirt freshman Eric Mack, a former four-star recruit, also should be in the mix at guard. Depth is iffy across the line because of a lack of experience. True freshman T Christian Westerman arrives with a ton of hype.
OVERVIEW: Veteran coordinator Ted Roof's unit had more than its share of breakdowns last season, but Roof deserves credit for still putting together a solid defense despite not having a lot of elite talent. T Nick Fairley might have been as important to the defense as Newton was to the offense, but like Newton, he left early and was a first-round pick. Auburn also lost two other starting linemen, the two best linebackers and three starters in the secondary. Roof, like Malzahn, will earn his money this season.
LINE: While there will be three new starters, the potential is there for a salty front four. The lone returning starter is hard-working Nosa Eguae. He started 11 times last season as a redshirt freshman and had 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Now that he is the grizzled veteran on the line, those numbers have to increase. Big things are expected from the other end, sophomore Corey Lemonier. He remains too light (229 pounds at 6-4), but he has a burst off the edge and the potential to be a great pass rusher. Sophomore Ts Kenneth Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker have the size to be solid run-stuffers, but they need to prove they can be playmakers in the middle. Despite the loss of three starters, depth actually looks OK and expect at least one true freshman to earn playing time. It could be touted T Gabe Wright.
SECONDARY: Neiko Thorpe is the only returning starter, and he moves from corner to free safety. This will be his third season as a starter, and he enters his senior season with 177 tackles, four picks and 26 pass breakups. He will have to be both a playmaker and a team leader this fall. Junior T'Sharvan Bell, who started three times last season and had 38 tackles, an interception and four pass breakups, looks like a lock to start at one corner spot; the other spot seems likely to come down to sophomore Chris Davis, redshirt freshman Jonathon Mincy and true freshman Jonathan Rose, who enrolled in time for spring drills. The strong safety likely will be sophomore Demetruce McNeal, who had 24 tackles last season as a true freshman. Keep an eye on touted true freshman S Erique Florence.
The Tigers will miss clutch K Wes Byrum, who nailed the winner against Oregon. Byrum held the kicking job for four seasons. His replacement will be sophomore Cody Parkey, who saw time as a kickoff specialist last season. There also will be a new punter, sophomore Steven Clark; he punted nine times last season and averaged 34.9 yards per attempt. The Tigers also will miss kick returner Demond Washington; Thorpe and McCalebb seem likely to share those duties, while Reed should supplant Carr as the punt returner because he offers more potential for a big return. The coverage teams did a good job last season, and that should continue.
the recruiting side
Average national rank past 5 years: 11th
The buzz: The Tigers put together the country's No. 7 class in February, and they have used the momentum of their 2010 BCS national championship to start fast with the Class of 2012. In QB Zeke Pike, WR JaQuay Williams and RB T.J. Yeldon, they've landed three of the top players at their respective positions in the country for '12. All told, Auburn has 10 commitments in this cycle and eight are four-star prospects. Those commitments have come from five states - Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Florida and Kentucky. - KEITH NIEBUHR
There are numerous candidates on both sides of the ball. Let's go with Dismukes. As soon as he committed to the Tigers in April 2010, it seemingly was assumed he would start at center as a true freshman. He was the No. 1 high school center in the nation out of Spanish Fort (Ala.) High, a suburb of Mobile. He was a three-year starter in high school, and his team won a state title last fall.
The opener against Utah State is a gimme, but things toughen considerably after that. Game 2 is a visit from Mississippi State, a team the Tigers beat by three last season. Then comes a trip to Clemson, a team the Tigers beat by three in OT last season. After another tune-up, this one against Florida Atlantic, the Tigers have four games that will determine how good their season will be: at South Carolina, at Arkansas, vs. Florida and at LSU. There's also a road game against Georgia and the Iron Bowl against Alabama in November. Auburn is 8-9 on the road in the past four seasons, and that includes a 4-0 mark last season.
The Tigers were 8-5 in 2009, beating Northwestern in OT in the Outback Bowl to end the season. They went 14-0 last season, edging Oregon to win the national title. This season is more likely to resemble 2009 than 2010. Auburn lost a ton of talent, including the best player in the nation (Newton) and the best defensive lineman in the nation (Fairley). There are just five returning starters, including a total of two on the lines. That's not a good mix for a successful season in the SEC. Coach Gene Chizik and his staff have recruited well and there is talent on hand. But it's inexperienced talent and there are going to be growing pains, especially against a schedule like this. A third-place finish in the SEC West would be a successful season. It's also possible that the Tigers finish fifth in the division.