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The Most Wonderful Week of the Year

It doesn't get any better than this week. After an off-season unlike any in recent memory, Auburn fans can finally turn their attention away from dying trees, idiot radio hosts and slimy oddsmakers and focus on football. For the first time in 53 years, Auburn begins the college football season as defending national champions.

It's hard to believe that we are beginning our fifth season here at Track'em Tigers. It has been seven years since we launched our original site, Football Saturday in the South. Some of you have been with us from the start and I thank you for taking time out of your day to spend with us.

So where does Auburn go this year? Rarely has a defending champion been so lightly regarded heading into the next season. With 30 players missing from the January 10th roster in Glendale and only six returning starters set to take the field Saturday against Utah State, it's hard to argue with Auburn being picked at the bottom of the SEC West, which may be tougher than the NFC South.

Strangely enough, when you take Cam Newton and Nick Fairley out of the equation, this year's squad may be more talented than a year ago. Undoubtedly, those are big losses, but it shows just how dangerous this Auburn team can be for others in the SEC.

Listed below are 10 storylines to watch as we head into week one of the college football season...

Can Barrett Trotter hold on to the starting quarterback position? The former three-star quarterback from Birmingham has waited patiently to get his chance. When he arrived on campus many believed he was destined to backup DeRon Furr. Then he lost battles to Chris Todd and Cam Newton. Say what you will about Trotter, but he's a fighter who's never given up.

He'll need that same mentality to get past Miss State, Clemson and South Carolina during the first month of the season. Should he struggle, will Gus Malzahn go to Clint Moseley or Kiehl Frazier?

Can Michael Dyer shoulder more of the offensive load? With Newton and his go-to guy Darvin Adams gone, Dyer will be expected to carry more of the load this year. Throw in an offensive line that may include up to three freshmen starters, and things get a whole lot more difficult this go around.

Despite being named MVP of the BCS Championship Game and breaking Bo Jackson's freshman rushing record, he's generally played second fiddle in the off-season to Alabama's Trent Richardson and South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore.

With Malzahn breaking in a new quarterback, look for Dyer to get a lot of carries over the first five weeks of the season. Backup Onterrio McCalebb should not be underestimated.

Can Auburn's defense keep the Tigers in the game? Defensive coordinator Ted Roof has become an expert at turning lemons into lemonade. This year will be his toughest test. Auburn losses 12 of its top 17 tacklers from a year ago and returns only three starters - and that's something of a misnomer.

Those starters include sophomore defensive-end Nosa Eguae who broke into the lineup mid-way through last season, outside linebacker Darren Bates who's only played the position one year and Neiko Thorpe who moves to safety after playing the last two years at cornerback.

There are plenty of high school stars out beside their names, but experience will be a premium this year. With trips to Clemson, Columbia, Fayetteville, Baton Rouge and Athens, this group must mature fast. On a positive note, they should be one of Auburn's most physical units ever. Can Roof do his magic again?

Can Auburn handle the pressure of five tough road games and the defending champion target on their back? Auburn assistant Trooper Taylor loves to remind the team that "all the good players have gone" from a year ago. That won't stop opponents from circling Auburn on the schedule.

With or without Newton and Fairley, there's something special about beating the defending champions. Auburn must deal with that weekly. Alabama found out last year that it's no easy feat.

A lot of Auburn's success on the road will come as a result of what happens on September 17th at Clemson. It's perhaps Auburn's most winnable road game and will set the stage for the remainder of the year.

Coming off the Miss State game the week before will prove to be one of Gene Chizik's toughest coaching jobs yet. A win over Clemson will set the stage nicely for the trip to Columbia two weeks later.

Can Auburn put together enough wins to be bowl eligible? Alabama lost three games after its title run. Texas stumbled to 5-7 last season following its BCS title appearance. Most experts see similar results for Auburn.

Looking at the schedule, Auburn has only four games where it will be prohibitive favorites - Utah State, Florida Atlantic, Ole Miss and Samford. There are three games that are regarded as winnable - Miss State, Clemson and Florida. From there, things get much tougher. Auburn will be decided underdogs in five games - South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Alabama.

With that as the benchmark, conventional wisdom says that Auburn must win all four of its games where they are favored and then win two of three from Miss State, Clemson and Florida. Looking at it from that standpoint, it's certainly doable.

Should Chizik's group mature and mesh as the season progresses, then you can easily make the case for a seven or eight win year. On the flip side, well let's not go there.

I hope all of you have a great week. I've been waiting to say these words for nine months: Auburn kicks off against Utah State this Saturday at 11 a.m. CT from Jordan-Hare Stadium.

See you there.