This post is sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.
This summer certainly feels different from the last one. By last July, we'd learned that Gene Chizik knew a thing or two about recruiting. Sending your assistants out in white limousines around the state to visit high school kids was a stroke of genius. Asking many of those same kids to join you in rolling Toomer's Corner in the off-season was another sign of ingenuity. The only thing we didn't know was whether or not he could coach.
A year later, that question has been partly answered. Few fans or pundits gave the new Auburn head coach a snowballs chance in Tampa of winning eight games. Collecting more than six wins would take something of a miracle. In the end, Auburn was a few near misses from playing in a BCS bowl game. The results were good by most anyone's standards.
With season two looming, there are still some in the Auburn community who are taking a wait and see approach on Chizik. The first 17 months have been impressive, but now there are expectations. Unlike years past, few people have seen this Auburn team on the practice field. With spring practice more secure than Fort Knox, anyone who says they know this team is only speculating.
The possibilities for Gus Malzahn's offense are endless. Top-to-bottom this is an excellent unit - at least on paper. The million dollar question is how good will quarterback Cam Newton be in his first year on the Plains. With able receivers in Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery, the question remains whether Trooper Taylor can find a capable third and even fourth receiver. To take things to the next level, Quindarius Carr, Emory Blake and DeAngelo Benton must step up and fill those roles - something they struggled with last season.
Another lingering question is whether running back Mario Fannin can endure an entire season of SEC contact. He's spent his career nursing a nagging shoulder. Look for Onterio McCallebb and freshman Michael Dyer to take some of the load off Fannin. If he stays healthy, Auburn could have a backfield that rivals that one in Tuscaloosa.
With the exception of Brandon Mosley, Auburn's offensive line will be an all-senior unit. Center Ryan Pugh and left tackle Lee Ziemba will headline a group that's among the best in the nation. Armed with capable backups, Newton should have plenty of time to throw the football.
New defensive coordinator Ted Roof caught grief in some circles last season for the number of yards surrendered. A closer look reveals that he did more with less than any coordinator in the country. Things should improve in 2010. But with a lightning fast spread offense, Auburn's defense will never rank among the conference's best statistically. It just can't happen.
That doesn't mean things can't improve drastically. It starts with the defensive line. Antoine Carter, Nick Fairley, Mike Blanc and Michael Goggans will bring much needed experience. Add in Nosa Eguae, Zach Clayton and Dee Ford and suddenly, Roof has a pretty good situation on the defensive line.
At linebacker things appear to be even better. Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens have a chance to be among the SEC's best. It will be interesting to watch how All-SEC Freshman Daren Bates makes the adjustment to linebacker from the safety position. Eltoro Freeman will add needed depth and will likely see as much playing time as the starters.
The defensive secondary was uneven at times last year. Experience should help correct this issue. It will be imperative that cornerbacks Neiko Thorpe and Demond Washington improve their craft. They will be tested mightily once they get into the meat of the conference schedule. At safety, it's the return of the starters. After battling injuries last year, Aairon Savage and Mike McNeil are expected to be a strength of this defense. How they do will go a long ways in determining the outcome of Auburn's season.
Like last season, there are a lot of toss up games. Noted prognosticator Phil Steele says it's possible for Auburn to grab 11 games. In his preseason guide, Steele writes, "They (Auburn) get four key SEC games at home and my main set of power ratings calls for an 11-1 season with an 11-0 vs. 11-0 showdown versus Alabama in game 12. The Tigers will top last year's eight win total."
While Auburn has a favorable schedule, it remains brutal. The only favorable parts are the number of home games against the competition. Chizik welcomes Clemson, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Dangerous road games loom at Miss State, Kentucky and Ole Miss. The Iron Bowl is the last thing on this staff's mind heading into August. It will take a lot of work and some luck to roll into Tuscaloosa undefeated.
I can't wait to get started.