What a remarkable couple of years it's been for Auburn. It's basically been the opposite of what Tennessee went through.
Both programs fired their longtime successful coaches whose programs had gone stale at the end of 2008, and both had hires that were widely panned in the media (Auburn's even more so than Tennessee). However while Gene Chizik more or less laid low everywhere but the recruiting trail and hired an offensive wunderkind for his weak side of the ball, Lane Kiffin ran his mouth everywhere and bolted after just a year in Knoxville. Tennessee is rebuilding again, and Auburn just went 14-0.
The general perception about last year's Tigers is that a large amount of their success is attributable to two players; Cameron Newton on offense and Nick Fairley on defense. Nick Saban even infamously speculated a couple months ago that Auburn would have had about four losses without Newton behind center. While there's a lot of truth to that sentiment, I can think of five other guys who deserve a ton of credit: the offensive line. Once it clicked a couple games in, the offense was unstoppable.
Six out of those seven players just mentioned are gone, as are 25 other Plainsmen who lettered last year. Auburn has been impressive in bringing in talent, but you can't lose that many guys without blinking. That's especially true when so many of those 31 guys were key members of your team the previous year.
It's a pretty obvious pattern among teams that have big leaps in Year 2 under a new coach that they have a down season in Year 3 or 4. Only USC under Pete Carroll and Oklahoma under Bob Stoops have managed to buck the trend over the past decade. Go down the line of the others -- Ohio State under Jim Tressel, Alabama under Nick Saban, Florida under Urban Meyer, and so on -- and you see at least a three-loss season in the third or fourth year.
So while Auburn is expected to fall quite a bit from last year's peak, it's not a slight on the program. It's just what happens.
There are some things that can mitigate the fall and make a fool out of Phil Steele, who picked AU dead last in the SEC West. The biggest offensive question mark is probably quarterback, but Auburn is still in the mix for getting NC State transfer Russell Wilson. Star recruit Kiehl Frazier is also someone to watch, especially given Gus Malzahn's success with Mitch Mustain as a true freshman at Arkansas. The talent of Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb can also help compensate for a very green line.
However with a defense lacking much in the way of high-end talent and experience coming off a season when it wasn't exceptional anyway, there's only so much the offense can do to make up for it. This is going to be a down season for sure, but in the wake of a 14-0 national championship year, Auburn has some goodwill to blow. Cratering to the bottom of the division and possibly missing the post season would tick off fans quite a bit, but as long as the Tigers don't do that, this season's all gravy.
That's not a bad place for a team to be: without any pressure and with low expectations. Just don't expect that condition to last beyond this fall.