2010 was a great year for the Auburn Tigers. 53 years of heartbreak and being so-close-yet-so-far-away paid off, as the Tigers had the perfect storm -- 24 seniors, a manageable schedule that put a majority of the big games in the welcome confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium, an eventual All-American defensive tackle who emerged at the right time and the arrival of an unknown JUCO quarterback named Cameron Newton.
Of course, the Tigers won the long-coveted BCS National Championship. The Heisman Trophy made its first apperance in Auburn since 1985. Auburn finally had its day in the sun.
So.... now what?
Heading into 2011, the Tigers lose over 30 players from the 2010 team, including Newton, Nick Fairley, most of the offensive and defensive lines, several wide receivers and plenty of other key contributors. The schedule includes road games at Clemson, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia and home games against Mississippi State, Florida and Alabama. Out of those eight teams, seven want revenge from 2010 (the lone exception being Florida). There are only 74 scholarship players on the roster. On the two-deep depth chart, 17 of 26 players are underclassmen.
In college football, of course, games aren't won on paper. If they were, the sport would be much less interesting and entertaining. If they were, Auburn would be following up its 14-0 2010 season with a 6-6 or 7-5 2011 season. Out of the three big preseason magazines (Phil Steele, Athlon and Lindy's), Auburn is picked to go 6-6 in all of them. Two of the three magazines pick the Tigers to finish 5th in the West, while Phil Steele picks Auburn to finish dead-last in college football's best division.
But in college football, anything is possible. Auburn could capitalize on its talent and coaching or could fail on its inexperience and lack of depth.
2011 Scenarios after the Jump
Best-Case Scenario: 10-2, Sugar Bowl
It's reaching a bit, and is certainly not likely. It would be an amazing coaching job by Gene Chizik and his staff if the Tigers could pull this off with such a lack of depth and experience. This can only be a result if: a) Talented youngsters grow up quickly, b) Alabama and LSU struggle with QB play, or c) Gene Chizik pulls off a Coach-of-the-Year-Award-winning 2011 campaign.
Worst-Case Scenario: 5-7, No Bowl
Many think the Tigers will be the first team since the 1946 Ohio State Buckeyes to have a losing record the year after winning a national championship. The Longhorns of Texas showed last year that you can't ride the previous season into the new season, as Mack Brown's team went from 13-1 and a BCS Championship appearance to 5-7 and a lot of criticism. This scenario is doubtful for Auburn, but it is possible. Would a 5-7 record mean the team is bad? Not exactly. With so much youth, even if Auburn misses out on a bowl, the Tigers could be returning as many as 18 starters in 2012, not to mention adding what will likely be the Tigers' third consecutive top 10 recruiting class (the 2011 class was ranked #1 in the nation by Scout). I'm sure Auburn fans don't want to see a 5-7 record in 2011, though.
Likely Scenario: Anywhere from 7-9 wins, January Bowl Game
Even with little experience and lack of depth, I think the 2011 Tigers can surprise. The schedule is tough, but I expect Chizik and co. to win 7-9 games, depending on the Iron Bowl result and some key road games. 2012 looks to be a great year, but for now it could be a return trip to the Outback Bowl. With 9 wins, the Tigers could make it to the Capital One Bowl in Orlando or the Cotton Bowl in Arlington.
On paper, it looks like the defending champions will have a rough 2011 and should already be dreaming of 2012. But then again, games aren't won on paper.