THE SCHEME: Auburn is moving to the spread offense under new coordinator Tony Franklin, who had his Auburn debut in last season's Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over Clemson. Auburn gained 423 yards in that game and quarterback Kodi Burns ran 13 times for 69 yards.
STAR POWER: Senior Brad Lester didn't lead Auburn in rushing last season, but he probably has the best chance of making the leap to stardom this season. Lester missed five games because of an academic suspension last season, but he still scored three touchdowns to increase his career total to 17. Junior Ben Tate performed well in Lester's absence and finished with a team-high 903 yards. Whichever runner receives the majority of the carries should emerge as Auburn's top weapon on offense. We're giving Lester the edge because his pass-catching ability makes him a better fit for the new offense.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Chris Todd, a junior college transfer who began his career at Texas Tech, has a legitimate chance of opening the season as the starting quarterback. Todd is competing with Burns. Todd's familiarity with Franklin's offense could give him an advantage. Franklin worked as a consultant for Elizabethtown (Ky.) High School's program when Todd played there.
IT'S HIS TIME: Sophomore Mario Fannin showed his explosiveness last season while ranking second on the team with 1,023 all-purpose yards as a reserve running back. Fannin still found himself looking up at Lester and Tate on the depth chart, but he won't have that problem now that he has moved to slot receiver. A shoulder injury knocked Fannin out of spring practice early, but his versatility should allow him to thrive in the spread.
STRONGEST AREA: Auburn started three freshmen on its line last season, which should assure that the Tigers have an experienced line for the next few seasons. All five starters return: tackles Ryan Pugh and Lee Ziemba, guards Tyronne Green and Chaz Ramsey and center Jason Bosley. The only question is the health of Ramsey, who missed most of spring practice with a back injury. Sophomore Byron Isom likely would start at right guard if Ramsey can't go. Depth is a question, though.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Burns and Todd have plenty of potential, and Burns showed his ability to deliver in critical situations by scoring the winning touchdown in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. But quarterback still is the biggest question mark on an offense that otherwise features plenty of experience.
OVERVIEW: Plenty of optimism has accompanied Franklin's arrival as coordinator, but this offense needs to improve quite a bit after ranking 98th in the nation in total offense and 85th in scoring offense last season. An experienced line should allow Tate and Lester to run the ball effectively and control the clock, but questions persist about the passing game. As mistake-prone as former quarterback Brandon Cox was at times, the three-year starter provided a veteran presence at the position that Auburn will lack this season. The Tigers also need someone to step forward as a go-to receiver. The receivers will be asked to do a lot more in this offense than in the old system.
That's how many yards per game averaged by Troy's offense last season under coordinator Tony Franklin, who now holds the same title at Auburn. That was good enough to rank Troy 16th in the nation in total offense. Auburn averaged 335.2 yards per game and ranked 98th in the nation in total offense.
THE SCHEME: Auburn utilized a 50-50 split between the 4-3 and 3-4 under former coordinator Will Muschamp. The Tigers figure to use the 4-3 more often under new coordinator Paul Rhoads, who came from Pittsburgh, though they still plan to employ the 3-4 on occasion.
STAR POWER: This defense features plenty of future NFL players. Junior end Antonio Coleman recorded 18.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks as a first-year starter last season. Tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, who started 13 times at end last season, is an All-America candidate and a potential first-round pick. Junior cornerback Jerraud Powers received the 2007 Zeke Smith Award that goes to Auburn's defensive player of the year.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Auburn's lack of depth in the secondary should allow at least one true freshman to earn ample playing time this fall. Our best guess is safety Christian Thompson, who recorded 76 tackles – 15 for loss – as a senior at powerhouse Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas.
IT'S HIS TIME: Rivals.com rated Tray Blackmon as the No. 1 outside linebacker in the 2005 recruiting class. Although Blackmon has shown flashes of the athletic ability that made him a five-star prospect, injuries and off-field issues have prevented him from living up to the lofty expectations. Now that he's healthy again and out of trouble, Blackmon - who's a junior - could develop into one of the top linebackers in the SEC.
STRONGEST AREA: Auburn's line compares favorably with just about any front four in the nation. Coleman delivered 11 tackles for loss last season in a five-game stretch against Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee Tech and Georgia. Marks is a third-year starter with 20 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. Sophomore end Michael Goggans was named Auburn's most improved defensive lineman after spring drills, and junior tackle Jake Ricks also is a promising prospect.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: At first glance, Auburn's secondary looks like a major strength. Powers and sophomore strong safety Zac Etheridge each started 13 games last year. Junior cornerback Aairon Savage has 14 games of starting experience over the past two seasons, including four starts at free safety last season. Sophomore free safety Mike McNeil appears ready for a starting job after excelling on special teams last season. The problem comes when you look beyond those guys. Auburn has a significant lack of depth in the secondary, which could force the Tigers to depend on freshmen if any of those four players get hurt.
OVERVIEW: The losses of Quentin Groves and Pat Sims could hurt. The departure of Muschamp to Texas could hurt even more. But this defense shouldn't suffer much of a drop-off because the Tigers have a lot of talent on this side of the ball. Auburn ranked sixth in the nation in scoring defense and total defense last season. This defense should be equally strong. And it could stay that way for years to come: Auburn probably will open the season with only one senior starter on defense.
Sophomore Wes Byrum proved his mettle last season by making game-winning field goals on the road in the last 30 seconds of regulation against Florida and Arkansas. Still, Byrum was just 3-for-8 from at least 40 yards. Sophomore Ryan Shoemaker is back as the punter after ranking 26th in the nation with an average of 42.5 yards per attempt. Almost one-third of his 49 punts – 16 – were downed inside the 20. Auburn's return units should get a boost now that Tristan Davis is healthy. Davis set a school record with 756 kickoff return yards and ranked 15th in the nation in kickoff return average two years ago, but he missed six games last season with a foot injury. Auburn's coverage units were good in '07.
Tommy Tuberville continues to build on his reputation as a big-game coach. His team has won six in a row over Alabama and won nine of its past 12 games against top-10 teams. Still, we're not giving Auburn's coaching staff an "A" because we're wondering how the Tigers will respond to two new coordinators. The Tigers are betting Franklin represents an upgrade over former coordinator Al Borges, but the loss of Muschamp to Texas leaves Auburn without a guy who had emerged as one of the nation's pre-eminent defensive coordinators.
at Mississippi State
at West Virginia
at Ole Miss
If Auburn has learned a lesson from its biggest rival, the Tigers won't get caught napping when they open the season against Louisiana-Monroe, which shocked Alabama last season. Auburn benefits from playing LSU at home this season, though it probably would rather not have to face LSU and Tennessee on back-to-back Saturdays. Most of Auburn's toughest conference games (LSU, Tennessee, Georgia) are at home, but the Tigers have a difficult non-conference game on the road Oct. 23 when they head to West Virginia. It's unusual to have such a major non-conference showdown that late in the season, but at least the WVU matchup is sandwiched between likely conference wins against Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Auburn hasn't won the SEC West since its undefeated season of 2004, but that could change in '08. Even though Auburn has a first-year starting quarterback and two new coordinators, the Tigers have enough talent to contend for a conference title. They also should benefit from playing LSU at home. Auburn's defense is good enough that it should ease the new quarterback's transition. The good news for Auburn is that LSU also has a first-year starting quarterback and a new defensive coordinator. Which team's quarterback will be more prepared when Auburn and LSU square off Sept. 20? The answer could determine who wins the division.