Top 25 Team Previews
Alabama Crimson Tide"/>
Top 25 Athlon Team Previews: Auburn Tigers
2009 Record: 8-5 (3-5 in SEC)
Head Coach: Gene Chizik
Cameron Newton :: Todd J. Van Emst/Auburn
at Ole Miss
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Mario Fannin, RB: He'll get more chances to carry the ball after working as a receiver and H-back for much of his career.
Lee Ziemba, OT: He'll lead a veteran offensive line after choosing to bypass the NFL and return for his senior season.
Mike Blanc, DT: The Haitian-American weathered a tumultuous offseason after a devastating earthquake struck his homeland.
Craig Stevens, LB: He played nearly every snap in 2009 and is closing in on 200 career tackles.
Daren Bates, LB: He helped rescue a beleaguered defense as a freshman safety last season and will now play more linebacker in a hybrid role.
Chris Todd, QB: Replacing the underappreciated Todd might be harder than anyone thinks.
Ben Tate, RB: After carrying a chip on his shoulder through most of college, he emerged as a pounding, workhorse back last season.
Antonio Coleman, DE: A respected veteran and an important leader on Gene Chizik's first defense.
Walt McFadden, CB: He finished his career with six interceptions in 2009 and helped coaches develop a slew of young defensive backs.
Clinton Durst, P: The former walk-on was one of the SEC's most reliable punters for the last two seasons.
29: Auburn completed 29 scoring drives in less than two minutes last season.
Coordinator Gus Malzahn's fast-paced offense set Auburn records in his first season, but the addition of a mobile, strong-armed quarterback could add even more weapons to his arsenal. Juco transfer Cameron Newton remains the favorite to win the starting job, but coaches have been pleased with the fight of senior Neil Caudle and sophomore Barrett Trotter. It'd take a monumental upset for either to win the job this August, but it's worth remembering that a year ago Kodi Burns was favored to beat out Chris Todd, who went on to throw for 2,612 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Replacing running back Ben Tate (1,362 yards rushing in 2009) might be an even bigger concern. Senior Mario Fannin has been a do-it-all offensive player, blocking, catching passes and playing several positions -- but never achieving the stardom that many had predicted for him. He's now the first in line to replace Tate as the Tigers' every-down back. Star recruit Michael Dyer will be waiting in the wings if Fannin falters or is injured.
Wide receivers Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery burst onto the scene in 2009, putting up big numbers and combining to grab 75 percent of all passes caught by receivers. Auburn was happy to have ball hogs last year, but coaches would prefer to spread the wealth this season.
Like last year, Auburn will have a proven, SEC-tested line that should be among the best in the league. Four senior starters are back, and two or three of them (most notably Lee Ziemba) could be playing on Sundays soon.
Plagued by youth and a lack of depth, Auburn's historically strong defense has endured two straight subpar seasons. It's a trend that Chizik, who has a background as a top defensive coordinator, would like to reverse.
There will be more bodies and fewer walk-ons in the defensive rotation, which should give coordinator Ted Roof more freedom to experiment. Daren Bates' move from safety to linebacker might be an example of that increased creativity; Bates could be used as a hybrid player who could shift to nickel in passing situations.
On the line, Antoine Carter (the so-called "new A.C.") will attempt to fill the leadership and production void left by Antonio Coleman's departure, while youngsters will offer depth. Seniors Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes will anchor the linebacking corps. Three veteran defensive backs (Aairon Savage, Mike McNeil and Zac Etheridge) are returning from serious injuries. Of the three, only Savage appears to resemble his old self.
Kicker Wes Byrum bounced back from a sluggish sophomore year for a nearly flawless 2009, but Auburn's punting situation is less certain. Senior Ryan Shoemaker will try to hold off a challenge from freshman Steven Clark.
It's Year 2 for Chizik, which means the honeymoon is over and the normal expectations are kicking in. That means no more swooning over a 5-0 start and less tolerance for a 3-5 conference record.
The good news for Chizik is that he has begun to replenish Auburn's depth with two solid recruiting classes. The schedule -- never easy in the SEC -- gives Auburn all but one of its toughest games at home. (The regular season ends with a trip to Tuscaloosa.) And Malzahn's offense, which set records in Year 1, is reportedly faster than ever.