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Auburn football: 'Way-too-early' rankings like Tigers; 2014 should be special, too

Most pundits like Auburn to be a top-five team in next year's preseason polls.

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The 2013 college football season is over, which means it's time for national pundits and analysts to make predictions for the 2014 top 25 rankings. So far, it appears that everyone agrees Auburn will open the year as a top-five team. And for good reason: The 2014 version of the Tigers might be better than this year's.

ESPN's Mark Schlabach likes Auburn to start the year at No. 5.

If the Tigers were able to win an SEC championship and reach the BCS National Championship in their first season under coach Gus Malzahn, how good can they be in Year 2? Everything seemed to fall in place during Auburn's magical season in 2013, but it might be loaded for a repeat this coming season. The Tigers might bring back 10 starters on offense, including quarterback Nick Marshall and tailback Tre Mason (who might enter the NFL draft). Auburn started two freshmen and a sophomore on the offensive line this season, though the unit figures to take a hit with Greg Robinson heading to the draft. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will have to do a little more work in the offseason, with five starters departing, including defensive end Dee Ford and cornerback Chris Davis. Auburn also will have to replace kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark. The Tigers will have to navigate their way through a few difficult road games in 2014, including trips to Kansas State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama.

Good pal Jerry Hinnen at CBS Sports projects the Tigers to open at No. 4.

The Tigers might lose Tre Mason and star left tackle Greg Robinson to the draft, and many of their steadiest defenders are seniors. But Nick Marshall and at least seven other offensive starters will return to Gus Malzahn's offensive machine, and the Tiger front seven has plenty of young talent to build around.

USA Today's Paul Myerberg ranks Auburn fifth to start 2014.

Because if Auburn was this good in 2013, next season could be special. Consider this idea: Gus Malzahn's team will be even stronger on offense due to another offseason spent working in his system. Even if the Tigers lose running back Tre Mason, a Heisman Trophy finalist, there's more than enough up front and at the skill positions for the offense to rank among the nation's best. Can the defense take a step forward without end Dee Ford and cornerback Chris Davis? Even if not, the offense will be there to carry the load.

Clay Travis at Fox Sports -- yes, we're linking to Travis; we need a shower -- has the Tigers ranked second.

Auburn returns virtually its entire offense -- assuming Tre Mason stays -- and now Nick Marshall gets an entire offseason to learn Gus Malzahn's playbook. Look out, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Auburn will likely enter the 2014 season as a top-five team, carrying the highest preseason expectations since 2003. That year, the Tigers went into Week 1 ranked sixth in the AP Top 25, receiving one first-place vote. We all know how well everything turned out: It was the third game before Auburn scored a touchdown, and the final record was 8-5. But the '14 Tigers should be equipped to meet expectations.

Left tackle Greg Robinson will be gone. H-back Jay Prosch will be gone. Running back Tre Mason might be gone. Other than those three, everyone else will be back on offense. If Mason returns, he'll probably be the second-biggest Heisman favorite, only behind 2013 winner Jameis Winston. If he leaves, Auburn will still have major contributors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, plus redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and true freshman Roc Thomas. The running back stable is loaded, and production out of the backfield won't be a problem.

Nick Marshall will be back at quarterback. This season, he completed 59.4 percent of his passes for 1,976 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. Running auburn's option game, he rushed for 1,068 yards and 12 scores on 172 carries -- that's an average of 6.2 yards per carry. Marshall will be just as dangerous on the ground, and he can only get better in the passing game. He showed steady improvement throughout 2013, and Malzahn's and Rhett Lashlee's track record developing QBs should result in No. 14 becoming an even more dangerous threat.

Wide receiver? The Tigers are as well off as they've been in years. Sammie Coates, Ricardo Louis and Marcus Davis are back. C.J. Uzomah is back. Oh, and Auburn will add D'haquille Williams, a 6'3, 213-pound beast with 4.4 speed, ranked as the top JUCO prospect in this recruiting cycle. Malzahn was known as a run-only coach this year, but with those receivers and Marshall's improved arm, we might see the Tigers put the ball in the air a little more.

Losing Robinson hurts, but fortunately the previous coaching regime hauled in a ton of O-line talent. Either Shon Coleman,  Patrick Miller or Avery Young -- all former four-star prospects -- will step up and fill the left tackle spot, and the rest of the line will be just as good.  Brandon Fulse has shown his ability to block out of the H-back spot and should be able to do a good job stepping in for Jay Prosch.

The defensive side of the ball certainly has more question marks. Auburn loses D-linemen Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae, linebacker Jake Holland, safety Ryan Smith, and cornerbacks Chris Davis and Ryan White. All that experience will be missed. However, there's a lot of talent waiting in the wings. The defensive line featured an eight- or nine-man rotation this year, and rising sophomores Carl Lawson, Elijah Daniel and Montravius Adams will be stars. Josh Holsey will be back from injury to help out in the secondary. This recruiting class brings four-star JUCO safety Derrick Moncrief, and four-star high school cornerbacks Kalvaraz Bessent, Stephen Roberts and Nick Ruffin. The defense won't have as much big-game experience, but it might be more talented. And the fine coaching staff under coordinator Ellis Johnson will have another offseason to instill proper technique and fundamentals.

Auburn's 2013 schedule -- getting Georgia and Alabama at home and drawing a down Tennessee from the SEC East -- was a dream. It won't be that way in 2014: The Tigers will travel to Athens and Tuscaloosa, and they swap out the Vols for South Carolina. They trade a non-conference home date against Washington State for a road trip to Kansas State, possibly a Thursday night game. And there are still home games against LSU and Texas A&M. Auburn could be better overall, but end up with a worse record thanks to a tougher slate of games. But, five opponents -- LSU, Carolina, A&M, Georgia, 'Bama -- will be replacing highly successful quarterbacks. That should help Auburn.

It's not easy to have one of the biggest turnarounds in college football history, come within one play of a national title and believe the next season could be just as good, but it's true. Auburn doesn't get to fly under the radar anymore. As long as Gus Malzahn is an offensive genius, a great recruiter and a great builder of coaching staffs, the Tigers are going to ranked among the country's elite. Auburn isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

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