Auburn officials were met with a collective "What? Are you serious?" when they announced that Gene Chizik had been hired as coach after the 2008 season.
But Chizik's first season on the Plains was successful. The Tigers won eight games, including a New Year's Day bowl.
Given Chizik's defensive background, it was somewhat surprising that his first Auburn team was led by its offense. The defense, in fact, was rather ordinary.
The offense has all the pieces in place to again be successful - assuming junior college transfer Cameron Newton comes through at quarterback.
The defensive coaches made some position changes during spring ball to toughen up against the run. Ultimately, the defense will be the determining factor as to whether the Tigers contend for the SEC West title or finish near the bottom of the division again.
Here's a closer look at the Tigers.
THE SCHEME: Gus Malzahn is one of the top coordinators in the nation and he's headed for a head-coaching gig. Until then, he'll push the buttons on a multi-dimensional spread attack that features myriad formations and shifts. His offense set school standards for points (433), yards (5,613) and passing touchdowns (25) last season. But the attack bogged down badly in the second half of 2009. More consistency is needed this fall.
STAR POWER: Ben Tate is gone after ranking third in the SEC in rushing with 1,362 yards, but there is a bevy of good backs, led by Mario Fannin. In addition to being a strong runner, Fannin excels as a pass catcher. And he has a great complement in speedy Onterio McCalebb, who also has star potential. And keep an eye on incoming freshman Michael Dyer.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Junior college transfer Cameron Newton emerged from spring drills as the starter at quarterback, beating out Neil Caudle, Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley. Newton, a former five-star recruit who began his career at Florida before moving on to a junior college, is big (6 feet 6/247 pounds) and has a strong arm and nimble feet. But Newton remains a work in progress as a passer.
STRONGEST AREA: With a new quarterback, Auburn figures to rely on the ground game. Good thing the line will be among the best in the SEC with T Lee Ziemba leading the way. There are four returning starters up front, and they have a combined 108 career starts. The only vacancy is at right tackle. Bottom line: This group will be dominant.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Newton is a tantalizing talent, but he has something to prove. Auburn can expect defenses to stack the line to stuff the run, daring Newton to throw the ball. He'll have a bevy of good targets to throw to, led by Darvin Adams, who caught 60 passes for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2009. If the Tigers can't pass, the offense figures to bog down.
THE SCHEME: Nine starters return for coordinator Ted Roof, who likes to attack from a 4-3 scheme. Roof has plenty of athletic ability to work with and will take his chances by dialing up numerous blitzes.
STAR POWER: A linebacker corps that lacks depth has a lot to prove. Still, the potential is promising. Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens must be productive and provide leadership. Bynes is the leader on defense, pacing the team with 104 tackles last season. He's a dynamic, athletic force who is rarely knocked off his feet and plays with passion.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Many Auburn watchers are excited about redshirt freshman E Nosa Eguae. He could provide the Tigers with a much-needed pass-rushing force off the edge. Eguae has a quick, explosive first step and a non-stop motor.
STRONGEST AREA: No doubt, the line will miss E Antonio Coleman, who led the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss in 2009. But the unit still should be salty. The front is big and fast, anchored by Es Eguae, Michael Goggans and Antoine Carter along with Ts Mike Blanc and Derrick Lykes. This group must set the tone for a defense that has a lot to prove.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: It's time to get tougher vs. the run for a unit that ranked 11th in the SEC (374.1 ypg) in overall defense. Roof must focus on a soft run defense (10th in the conference, 156.1 ypg); the Tigers surrendered an SEC-high 25 rushing touchdowns. As a point of reference, Alabama permitted 78.1 rushing yards per game and yielded five rushing touchdowns.
Wes Byrum is one of the best kickers in the SEC. He nailed 15-of-16 field-goal attempts last season. Byrum was 5-of-6 between 40 and 49 yards, with a long of 49. Auburn needs a new punter, with Ryan Shoemaker looking like the top option. The return game looks good. Demond Washington is back after leading the SEC with a 31.1-yard kickoff return average; he returned one for a touchdown. The coverage units were awful last season, a surprise considering the number of good athletes on the roster.
Challenges abound with a rugged slate of home games. After a season-opening warm-up vs. Arkansas State, the Tigers wade into a deadly three-game stretch that could break them before October starts: at Mississippi State, vs. Clemson and vs. South Carolina. Any hopes of being a legit SEC West contender will hinge on the last three games of October, with consecutive home visits from Arkansas and LSU followed by a trip to Ole Miss. Survive all of that, and Georgia and Alabama await at the end of the regular season.
Gene Chizik's debut season on the Plains was a success, punctuated by a 38-35 overtime victory over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. The contest saw 18 records broken and 10 tied, myriad trick plays and a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. But the defense surrendered 625 yards, meaning it wasn't an ideal way for Chizik to cap his debut season. Still, the win led to an 8-5 finish. Chizik knows he must tighten his defense and find a new quarterback after Chris Todd's graduation. Chizik also needs a signature victory over a marquee foe. Chizik was the only SEC coach who didn't lose anyone off his staff, so that continuity should help in his second season. The schedule also is manageable, meaning Auburn has a chance to challenge for the SEC West crown.