THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. The offensive line will be rock solid.
Auburn's starting offensive line as a unit returns 111 starts, the sixth-most in the nation. They're not all simply lifers who are hanging around, as C Ryan Pugh was named second team All-SEC by the AP and LT Lee Ziemba received the same honors from the conference's coaches. Last year's team, from which four starters remain, paved the way for the second-most prolific rushing offense in SEC play. It's a big and nasty line made of all upperclassmen that will be one of the conference's three best (and probably among the ten best nationally), a must for a team replacing its starting quarterback and primary running back.
2. Experience is not a concern.
The state of the offensive line is emblematic of the team as a whole. Only three underclassmen are currently projected to start for the team, though QB Cameron Newton used his second year of eligibility at a junior college. Phil Steele's method counts 15 returning starters across the board, not even counting K Wes Byrum. The post-spring roster lists 24 seniors on the team. I think you get the picture. Of course having a lot of returning starters and older players doesn't mean much if they aren't any good, but we're talking about Auburn here, not Duke. They'll be good, and the Tigers have little to worry about when it comes to green players making silly mistakes.
3. The receiving unit is superb.
Most of the attention given to SEC receivers in 2010 understandably has gone to A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Greg Childs. Auburn's Darvin Adams caught more balls and went for more yardage than any of them last year, and he's back to headline the Tigers' excellent set of receivers. Adams came three yards shy of 1,000 on the year in '09, and a repeat performance will put him in striking distance of the school's all-time leaders. Terrell Zachary is dangerous as a second option, and Mario Fannin is quite capable of catching passes out of the backfield and while lined up at receiver. If sophomore Emory Blake can fulfill his potential, Auburn's passing attack will be very difficult to stop this fall.
THREE THINGS WE DON'T KNOW
1. How much the defense will improve.
As I mentioned yesterday, Auburn's defensive ranks were pretty dismal when compared against its conference brethren last season. Part of that had to do with a relative lack of depth, and depth is nowhere near as big a concern for Auburn this time around. One would think that with the combination of Ted Roof and Gene Chizik, it won't take long for a defense to get itself worked out. Still, it can't be considered automatic. Freshman All-SEC safety Daren Bates is being moved to linebacker to help out the deficiencies of that unit, and the defensive line lost its best guy in Antonio Coleman. I would expect to see some level of improvement, but it's hard to say for sure how much we'll see.
2. How good Newton will be.
The new quarterback is the real lynchpin to whatever offensive improvement Auburn plans to make in 2010. Chris Todd had a nice year, but as someone whose mobility couldn't be described as "a serious threat to run," there was only so much he could do. Newton is deceptively fast for a guy his size, largely due to his long strides, and that combined with his toughness will allow Gus Malzahn to go much further into the option-related section of his playbook. That part is fairly well assured regardless, so it really comes down to his passing ability. He wouldn't have received stellar marks from the recruiting services twice now if he hasn't been improving, but you never know until a guy plays for real. His excellent choice of receivers largely means he just needs to get it close to his targets to be successful. If he can do that, Auburn very well could challenge for the top offense in the conference.
3. Just how fast the offense will go.
In an ideal world, Malzahn would have his offense go no-huddle at breakneck speed all game, every game. The realities of the SEC (and protecting late leads) will prevent that from happening, but Auburn did do things at a brisk pace last season. He plans to crank things up even more this fall, something that an extra year learning the playbook and preparing conditioning-wise should allow for. I, for one, and very interested to see just how quickly the Tigers will go this fall, if for no other reason than to find out how much autonomy over the offense Malzahn truly has.