Predictions for Auburn's 2009 season are all over the map, ranging from what are probably overly optimistic Auburn people predicting a finish as good as 10-2 for the regular season to overly optimistic Bama people predicting 2-10.
Reasonable expectations are somewhere in between those extremes.
Chances of a successful season for Auburn this year hinge on three matters. Two of them are obvious; talent and coaching ability.
The third is subjective; namely what criteria are being used to define "successful."
The most realistic determination I've heard for a successful season for Auburn this year goes as follows: Win the games they're supposed to, show improvement throughout the season (this is critical), and beat at least one team they're not supposed to.
All this while bearing in mind that, for Auburn, no season that includes losses to Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Tennessee can really be considered successful.
Under normal circumstances that wouldn't be a particularly tall order. But looking ahead into this season it's not going to be easy for the tigers to meet those criteria.
For Auburn to do that OC Malzahn will have to make his offense work, and that will require a real QB, some real receivers, and a competent offensive line. Auburn didn't show signs of having either of those first two last year and depth is a problem with the third now.
Being better than last year's offense will not suffice. Someone brain dead and on life support would be better than Auburn's 2008 offense.
This one will have to work, gain yardage, hold the ball, and score points. If it doesn't, then Auburn is facing an even worse disaster than in 2008. If it does work and Auburn's defense remains respectable (which is a reasonable expectation), then this team could exceed most people's expectations and actually have a successful season.
The first three games are critical.
If Auburn can will all three of them, then there is a chance of going to a bowl, getting some extra weeks of practice, and keeping those high school kids who supposedly have committed to Auburn over the spring and summer.
I say, “supposedly”, because I'd never bet the farm on what a 17-year old tells me in July about what he'll do in February.
If Auburn comes away from those first three games anything less than 3-0, then improving on last year's 5-7 record becomes very difficult.
And a repeat of last year's disaster could easily see those recruits turning their backs on Auburn just as did many last year. Not many kids want to spend their only chance to play college ball getting slaughtered. Who can blame them?
If Auburn does not win all three of those first games it will most likely be because the offense stinks again. The offense could be inept and Auburn still have a good shot at winning all three of those games. But if they can win those games then Ball St. and Furman should be as close to being certain wins as games can be that haven't been played yet.
That leaves Auburn looking for a win against Tennessee or Kentucky to give them six—not that six wins would guarantee Auburn a bowl, but five wins guarantees they won't get one.
If, on the other hand, Auburn wins those first three games by putting plenty of points on the board and has an offense that actually looks like it might know what it's doing then things could start looking up.
La Tech, while not a certain win, is one Auburn should be able to find a way to win. Squeaking by them, however, won't do any good. Again the offense needs to indicate that they know what they're doing and handle them easily.
Mississippi State is in a similar situation as Auburn (as with Tennessee), starting over. It was failing to score more than three points on the Bulldogs last year that was the first sign that Auburn was facing a terrible season. If Auburn has a respectable defense and Malzahn's new offense works, then a decisive win over MSU is not out of the question.
West Virginia is lacking the players that humiliated Auburn last year. Auburn still has the players that humiliated Auburn last year.
Take the good with the bad. A win for Auburn is not out of the question. Neither is a loss. The game's in Auburn and if the team is building some confidence and actually does manage to go to 3-0, not only winning but looking competent in doing it, then things will definitely be looking a lot better for Auburn than they do now.
Ball State should not pose a problem but Tennessee will. Even with the injuries Tennessee has suffered this summer they should still be more than a match for Auburn in Knoxville.
UT is another program starting over, and Kiffin has gotten under the skin of a number of people before having ever coached a game there. The home field advantage may be enough to get them a win over even a decent Auburn team.
If Auburn has lost already, on the other hand, they'll almost certainly lose here too.
A loss to Arkansas seems very likely. If they've got four wins by now then Kentucky and Furman are the games that could get Auburn bowl eligible. Again, if they don't win those first three games, becoming bowl eligible becomes nearly impossible.
Just as there are no certain wins, there are also no absolutely certain losses.
Auburn's games against Ole Miss, LSU, Georgia, and Alabama certainly provide reasonable facsimiles however. If Auburn is to beat any team they aren't supposed to though, history says that Georgia in Athens is the team and place for it to happen.
If it does—and if Auburn has six wins going into that game, if they've shown improvement throughout the season, then don't count them out—and Auburn finishes 7-5 they almost certainly get to practice for a few more weeks, keep their commitments, and move on toward the 2010 season in better shape than they were going in to the 2009 season.
So, real life looks like Auburn finishes somewhere around 5-7 to 7-5.
And there's a world of difference between those two.
With one Auburn continues to plummet into an abyss. The other starts laying the groundwork for getting back on their feet again.