Last season, the Auburn Tigers capped off a disappointing fifth-place finish in the SEC West with an exciting overtime win over Northwestern, showing the depth of the Southeastern Conference.
Could they hit the top this year?
Some of Auburn's chokes last year could be attributed to young wideouts dropping passes and the play of some inexperienced linebackers. Against Kentucky, the Tigers couldn't contain UK's mobile QB Randall Cobb, who scored the winning touchdown.
This year, the Tigers bring in an experienced offensive line, all starting wide receivers, and eight starters back on defense.
Replacing 1,000-yard rusher Ben Tate will be the biggest act to follow since Kelly Clarkson's debut on American Idol . However, as long as Gus Malzahn has quick, shifty backs who can occasionally take Wildcat snaps, Auburn should be fine.
The passing game will be underrated this year. Cam Newton could be starting at Florida over John Brantley—if it wasn't for his knuckle-headed idea of stealing laptops from dorm rooms. This talented, dual-threat quarterback will have plenty of targets in sure-handed, early bloomer Darvin Adams (996 yards) and big-play threat Terrell Zachery (18.3 yards per catch).
If Newton plays to his potential with Auburn's experienced wideouts, War Eagle could boast an air attack equal with LSU or Alabama—as long as Adams picks up where he left off. Crafty Malzahn could use some Wildcat looks to get big-play tailback Mario Fannin some touches through the air or on the ground.
But Auburn's defense will help them stay toe-to-toe with the LSU Tigers and Crimson Tide. They may have lost undersized sack machine and Senior Bowl invitee Antonio Coleman and ball-hawking corner Walt McFadden (six interceptions), but Aubie returns eight seasoned starters.
On the flip side, Alabama is losing nine starters on defense—including first-round lock Rolando McClain, nose guard Terrence "Mount" Cody, human highlight reel Javier Arenas, and seven other studs. The Tide did have a top-five recruiting class, but those guys won't be able to completely replace seasoned, NFL-ready players who made up 'Bama's unstoppable D last year.
The Tide will have a great offense this year, with senior quarterback Greg McElroy, Heisman winner Mark Ingram, and physical specimen Julio Jones leading a creme de la creme group of receivers.
However, they remind me a lot of the 2009 Southern Cal team that lost all its defenders except Taylor Mays—and gave up 47 points to Oregon and 55 to a gritty, but way-less-talented Stanford squad.
Auburn's biggest question mark is at QB. If Newton can shake off the rust and Onterrio McCaleb and Fannin can use their speed to run behind that beastly line, the Tigers should be able to keep pace with the balanced offense at Alabama and Ryan Mallett's aerial-attacking Arkansas squad.
The defense is Aubie's biggest asset. Experienced and bolstered by Rivals.com No. 4 recruting class, Auburn has the chops to frustrate many good SEC teams and make an upset bid for the SEC West crown.
As we learned with Florida, a team can have nine guys who can run a 4.4 40-yard dash and lose to a team with more disciplined defenders (Alabama).
Watch out, nation! The Auburn Tigers and defensive guru Gene Chizik could shock the SEC and the nation this year.