In the race for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff, history is not on Auburn's side.
After all, Auburn has not had back-to-back 10-win seasons since 1988 and 1989.
In seasons following trips to the SEC Championship Game, the program's highest regular-season win total is nine.
Also, the Tigers have lost two or more games the last five seasons in which they opened inside the Top 10 of the preseason AP poll.
But even though recent program results suggest Auburn will not be a national title contender at season's end, the 14 returning starters and other playmakers from last season's SEC Championship squad has made the 2014 team a popular playoff pick this offseason:
In a conference that is lacking veteran quarterbacks this season, second-year starter Nick Marshall will lead head coach Gus Malzahn's high-powered offense with a valuable offseason of practice behind him.
The Tigers also return four of their starters from 2013's dominant offensive line, and a steadily improving defense has reloaded with a mix of young talent and veteran leadership.
Since these experienced Tigers have already won the SEC, their minds are set on one thing—getting back to the sport's biggest stage.
"Don’t get me wrong, the conference championship is a huge goal, but the ultimate goal is a national championship," senior defensive tackle Gabe Wright said. "Being on that stage, feeling that stage, experiencing that. That fire is still burning."
However, to get back to that stage, the Tigers will have to do something that has not been done in over a decade.
In a season that is projected to have several major national title contenders outside of the SEC, many analysts are predicting only one team to come out of the conference in the inaugural College Football Playoff—whoever wins the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
"Unfortunately, the conference is so balanced that they're going to cannibalize each other, and I don't see two SEC teams making the four-team playoff," USA Today's Danny Sheridan said on ESPN's The Paul Finebaum Show Thursday afternoon (quote begins around the 7:00 mark). "The last three years, two SEC teams would have made the playoffs, but I don't see it happening this year."
B/R's own Barrett Sallee picked only one representative from the SEC in his first College Football Playoff predictions, while Michael Felder did not include any from the conference in his picks:
According to AL.com's Brandon Marcello, defending SEC champions have averaged a second-place divisional finish in the seasons following a title.
The last time a SEC champion successfully defended its title was in 1998, when Malzahn was still eight years away from his first collegiate coaching job.
|Defending SEC champions in following season, since 1998|
|1998 Tennessee||13-0||SEC champion|
|1999 Tennessee||9-3||2nd SEC East|
|2000 Alabama||3-8||6th SEC West|
|2001 Florida||10-2||2nd SEC East|
|2002 LSU||8-5||4th SEC West|
|2003 Georgia||11-3||SEC runner-up|
|2004 LSU||9-3||2nd SEC West|
|2005 Auburn||9-3||2nd SEC West|
|2006 Georgia||9-4||3rd SEC East|
|2007 Florida||9-4||3rd SEC East|
|2008 LSU||8-5||3rd SEC West|
|2009 Florida||13-1||SEC runner-up|
|2010 Alabama||10-3||4th SEC West|
|2011 Auburn||8-5||4th SEC West|
|2012 LSU||10-3||3rd SEC West|
|2013 Alabama||11-2||2nd SEC West|
|AL.com's Brandon Marcello|
"I was pretty young when I was at Shiloh Christian [in 1998]," Malzahn said at last week's SEC media days. "That's been a while. I think that says it all. That's how hard it is to repeat in our league."
Archrival Alabama knows how tough it is to repeat in the SEC. While they won back-to-back BCS National Championships in 2011 and 2012, LSU was the conference's champion in 2011.
The Crimson Tide were still the media's preseason favorites to win the SEC in 2014, but the results of the turnaround Tigers' record-setting 2013 campaign—most notably, the upset win against No. 1 Alabama in last season's epic Iron Bowl—has closed the gap between the two rivals.
“Really, this is where you want your program to be," Malzahn said. "Last year at this time, we were just trying to get back to that point. And last year we did that. Obviously, we're disappointed we came up 13 seconds short of winning the whole thing, but we're extremely motivated from a player's standpoint and a coach's standpoint moving forward."
After spending the majority of last season as the underdogs, the conference will be aiming to knock a motivated Auburn team off the mountaintop this season.
"We're now the hunted instead of the hunter," senior tight end C.J. Uzomah told The Gainesville Sun's Zach Abolverdi. "So our approach and our mindset has been attack everything we do that much harder."
It has been several years since the Tigers have been "the hunted" so early in the year.
The preseason hype surrounding the program is the highest it has been since 2006, when the Tigers opened as the No. 4 team in the polls. Auburn beat a pair of Top 10 teams that season, but two losses to unranked conference foes derailed its national championship hopes.
One of those losses was a home defeat to offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and the Arkansas Razorbacks.
The 2014 Tigers also have several dangerous games in their schedule, which includes rivalry-game visits to both Georgia and Alabama for the first time ever.
ESPN's Brian Fremeau ranked the defending SEC champions' slate as the second-toughest in college football:
So what is Auburn's plan for navigating that treacherous schedule in hopes of reaching the Georgia Dome and then Cowboys Stadium for first title game in the playoff era?
"We will have to be as good, if not better than last year, to even have a chance to make a run again," Dismukes said. "We just have to take it one day at a time and one game at a time and get better and better.”
For the Tigers, that "one game at a time" approach starts on Aug. 30 against an Arkansas team trying to rebound from its own winless campaign in the conference.
"We do have a lot of our guys back, and we're playing at home," Malzahn said. "But we really expect Arkansas to be much improved. We know we're going to have to play well."
If this year's Auburn team is going to defy recent history, it will have to set the tone from the season's opening kickoff against the school that ended Auburn's 2006 national title hopes.
"We're not looking at Bama or the SEC Championship," Wright said. "We're going to start with Arkansas."
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.
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