At this time last year, no one really expected Auburn to be here.
Sure, many predicted Auburn to improve in Gus Malzahn's return to the Plains, but how could one have imagined the former offensive coordinator and his staff could flip the Tigers from 3-9 to 12-2 with an SEC Championship?
Auburn was supposed to be looking toward the future as it headed into the 2013 season.
Well, the future is here, and it contains some unfamiliar territory for the Auburn program—preseason hype for another run in the national championship picture.
Auburn skipped quite a few steps in the rebuilding process, and for that, it will most likely be a Top 10 team in the preseason polls for the first time since 2006 and only the fourth time in the last 20 years.
Unlike their last run to the national title game, the Tigers return most of their top talent. From having a returning starter at quarterback for the first time in seven years to bringing back most of the contributors on both lines, Auburn is expected to be a contender for another SEC title.
But no team is rock-solid from top to bottom, and the Tigers have their concerns heading into the 2014 season—mainly in pass defense and on special teams.
In addition to a few units with question marks, Auburn also has a few players with a different kind of question mark. Could these Tigers step up and make an unexpected impact like several of their teammates did in 2013?
Like many teams coached by Malzahn, Auburn's strength is in its hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
While the offense was led by the running game, which was featured in 72 percent of Auburn's offensive play calls last season, Malzahn's patented offense also excelled in several areas from scoring to making the big plays downfield:
|STATISTIC||2013 AUBURN||NATIONAL RANK|
|Rushing Yards per Game||328.39||1st|
|Plays of 30+ Yards||45||2nd|
|Rushing Yards per Attempt||6.30||4th|
|Total Yards per Play||6.92||8th|
|Total Yards per Game||501.30||11th|
|Points per Game||39.50||12th|
|TD% on Red Zone Trips||72.13||13th|
|Passing Yards per Completion||14.00||17th|
The power of the Tigers' offensive attack starts at running back.
Although Auburn lost Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason a season early to the NFL, seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant came back for their final season on the Plains after breakout 2013 seasons.
Artis-Payne split most of the carries with Mason for the first half of 2013 before the latter took over to become the every-down running back. Mason finished the season averaging 23 carries per contest.
If the Tigers have a primary back out of their talented unit, the bruising "CAP" will most likely be that player, while the speedy Grant continues to be a constant big-play threat out of the backfield with his nation-leading average of 9.8 yards per carry.
Several Tigers spoke highly of Barber's potential when he played on the scout team last season, and Thomas arrives on the Plains with tremendous hype as an all-around rusher for the future.
Which positional unit do you think is Auburn's strongest heading into 2014?
The Tigers will also be boosted by the experience of senior quarterback Nick Marshall, who turned a shaky start to his first season at Auburn into an impressive end to a title-wining year.
The Heisman candidate, who did not go through spring practice after transferring from junior college, is in his first full offseason at Auburn, working on his accuracy for an offense that wants to throw the ball more in 2014.
Marshall will have several key weapons at his disposal this season with deep-ball threat Sammie Coates and touted junior college transfer D'haquille "Duke" Williams leading receiver and tight end units with experience all over the field.
The entire offense will play behind one of the nation's most experienced lines, which returns four starters from a record-breaking campaign.
Cancer survivor Shon Coleman is expected to fill No. 2 overall NFL draft pick Greg Robinson's shoes on a unit that includes four-year starter Reese Dismukes and Freshman All-SEC pick Alex Kozan.
While the offense looks to win the battle in the trenches, the defense—which finished No. 10 nationally last season at stopping opponents inside the red zone—will also have an advantage heading into 2014.
Dee Ford is off to the NFL after a standout senior season, but this heavily rotating front four returns former 5-star prospects Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson plus several veterans on the interior and the edges.
The offense carried Auburn in 2013, and the defense will have to step up in several areas after showing some signs of a revival.
The Tigers' main concern is once again pass defense, a statistic they have not finished in the Top 20 in nationally since the departure of former head coach Tommy Tuberville.
Auburn was No. 102 in passing yards allowed per game last season, but only 10 other teams faced more passing attempts from the opposition. The Tigers finished a middle-of-the-road No. 48 in passing yards allowed per game in the abysmal 2012 season while facing 135 fewer pass attempts than they did in 2013.
Although these numbers were heavily affected by top passing attacks such as those of Washington State, Texas A&M and Florida State, Auburn still has a lot of room for improvement in defending the pass.
To make things more difficult, Auburn lost two starters—cornerback Chris Davis and safety Ryan Smith—from defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's five-man secondary.
The Tigers are looking to get bigger and more physical in the secondary for the future, and junior college standout Derrick Moncrief could be an important key to that revitalization.
Auburn returns starters Jonathon Mincy, Jermaine Whitehead and Robenson Therezie, but the pass defense will also look for help from starting linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy—two key contributors from 2013 who flipped positions this spring.
Which positional unit do you think is Auburn's weakest heading into 2014?
While Auburn's secondary will need to show improvement from last season, its special teams unit will need to make a strong first impression.
Senior specialists Cody Parkey and Steven Clark are off to the pros, and the Tigers will look to replace them with the top high school players at their respective positions from the 2013 class.
No one truly knows what to expect from kicker Daniel Carlson and punter Jimmy Hutchinson under the bright lights of major college football. Carlson had an up-and-down spring game with both a 50-yard field goal and a missed extra point, while Hutchinson booted punts against a return unit that did not go live.
In the return game, Davis' prowess as a punt and field-goal returner is no longer on the Plains, with Mason also departing as Auburn's primary kick returner.
The Tigers have a mix of experience and potential with several of their rumored replacements, but a cloud of mystery hangs over the return game as fans look toward the fall.
Four catches, 25 yards and zero touchdowns.
Senior tight end Brandon Fulse was the No. 7 tight end in the country out of high school, but has not played a significant role in the Auburn offense during his three seasons on the Plains.
Fulse has made more of an impression as an in-line blocker while fellow senior C.J. Uzomah has taken over most of the duties as a traditional tight end.
Fulse is the leading candidate to replace the departed Jay Prosch, a former fullback who became a valuable lead blocker in Malzahn's offense at H-back.
Prosch had a few chances to catch passes from the position last season, and Fulse will bring more receiving experience to H-back this season, giving Malzahn and Co. another possible weapon to use creatively in the Tigers' air attack.
True freshman Stanton Truitt was one of five early enrollees for Auburn this spring, giving him a head start on a shot at early playing time.
Truitt will most likely line up as a slot receiver, where he can utilize his elite speed in a number of ways. The Georgia native was a state champion in track and rushed for more than 1,500 yards in his senior year of high school—from the quarterback position.
Jonathan Wallace started a few games at quarterback in the disappointing 2012 campaign, but he will get a chance to start again as a holder.
While most holders in college get few chances to make an impact on games, Ryan White showcased Auburn's creativity last season on extra-point attempts in the new "Batman" package.
White, a former high school quarterback and college safety, ran in a two-point conversion and threw for another in 2013.
With Wallace, Auburn has a more experienced dual-threat player as a holder, allowing for even more creativity and confidence after touchdowns this season.
On defense, sophomore Khari Harding made a move this spring from safety to outside linebacker to help with depth issues. Although he was slowed down by an injury for a few practices, Harding made an impression on Ellis Johnson.
With the coaching staff still trying to nail down the linebacker rotation, the former safety has an opportunity to contribute early and often for the Tigers this season.
Harding made a name for himself in high school for his hard hits, something fans would love to see him carry over into the college ranks.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats taken from CFBStats.com. Recruiting information courtesy of247Sports.com.