AUBURN, Ala. (AP) Before the Auburn Tigers even started fall camp, amid already diminished expectations, they lost their most productive player.
Tigers coach Gus Malzahn dismissed tailback Jovon Robinson hours before the first practice, leaving a team already seeking a quarterback with another significant void in the backfield.
How well those two jobs get filled will go a long way toward deciding whether Auburn and Malzahn's fast-paced offense rebound strongly or continue going in the wrong direction.
Malzahn said the leadership is as strong as any team he's had. ''They've got a chip on their shoulder and they've got something to prove,'' he said.
That starts with the offense, which ranked 110th in passing offense and 94th in total yards thanks largely to the struggles of quarterbacks Jeremy Johnson and Sean White. The result was just a pair of Southeastern Conference wins two seasons after winning a league title and making the national championship game.
Robinson emerged as the top runner late in the season though Peyton Barber topped 1,000 yards. Malzahn did not elaborate on the reasons for his dismissal, but it leaves sophomore Kerryon Johnson as the only returning back who logged a carry last season. Fullback Kamryn Pettway has moved to tailback, and Johnson is joined by freshman Kam Martin, a late addition who was released from his scholarship with Baylor.
''We've been one of the better rushing teams in our league, I guess, for six years and we'll continue to be that,'' Malzahn said.
They're going to need to be strong on the ground again with no established quarterback and having to replace two of the top three players in an already-thin receiving corps.
Defensively, the line is well-stocked with highly rated recruits, including tackle Montravius Adams and end Carl Lawson, who has star potential but has battled injury problems. Guards Alex Kozan and Braden Smith anchor the offense.
Graduate transfer T.J. Neal, who started 25 games for Illinois the past two seasons, joins Tre' Williams at linebacker. Safety Rudy Ford has led the Tigers in tackles two straight years and cornerback Carlton Davis had a promising freshman season.
Opening with national runner-up Clemson and quarterback Deshaun Watson, a Heisman Trophy finalist, is a huge challenge for a team trying to rebuild in a number of areas. The good news is it's the first of five straight home games.
WHO'S THE QB? Junior college transfer John Franklin III is trying to challenge Johnson and White, who both had uninspiring stints as the starter last season. Franklin is the biggest running threat, but never won the starting job at either Florida State or junior college and has little experience. Multiple receivers from a strong signing class at the position will also have to step up in the passing game.
Kevin Steele is the team's third defensive coordinator in as many years and fourth in five seasons. The veteran former LSU, Clemson and Alabama coordinator is one of five new assistants on Malzahn's staff.
The Tigers have been at their best when outsiders aren't expecting much from them - and at their worst when they're drawing loads of preseason buzz. After two straight disappointing seasons, they fall in the former category now while picked toward the bottom of the SEC West. There are a few games that seem like toss-ups, but 7-5 seems like a reasonable outcome. To blow past that win total would require improved quarterback play from last season and strides from the defense, plus the emergence of Kerryon Johnson or another tailback as a reliable go-to runner.
AP college football website: collegefootball.ap.org