With a good deal of help from Year2.
One of the things that makes Auburn a mixed bag this year is where they return starters and where they don't; the Tigers have an experience offensive line and some key returns on defense. But the quarterback is returning to the ranks of FBS football after a journey through JUCO and the likely starting running back actually had eight more receptions than rushing attempts last year. They could be the difference.
THE NEW HOPE
The best projections for the Tigers rest almost entirely on one assumption: Cameron Newton will be as good a quarterback as he was once expected to be.
We don't need to recount again the travails of the four- or five-star recruit (depending on to whom you listen). Suffice it to say that Blinn College was happy to have him; Newton lead the blandly-named Buccaneers to the National Junior College Athletic Association championship in 2009, completing almost 61 percent of his passes for 2,833 yards, 22 TDs and 5 INTs. He also rushed for 655 yards and 16 TDs on 108 carries. He had 564 yards of total offense against Tyler Junior College alone; the next week, he rushed for -1 yard but threw six touchdowns against Trinity Valley Community College.
Of course, Trinity Valley does not play in the SEC (at least not through this round of conference expansion); Alabama and LSU and Georgia do. To say "they aren't likely to allow Newton to throw six touchdowns against them" seems to be the height of understatement. But even if some of the numbers become less eye-popping in the SEC, if Newton plays to the potential he showed at Blinn and avoids anymore unfortunate encounters with computer hardware, things should go well for him and Auburn.
Offensive lineman Roszell Gayden is also expected to contribute after coming from the JUCO ranks.
For much of the first part of the 2000s, the "Auburn offense" was almost synonymous with "1,000-yard rusher." From 2000-05, Auburn had five 1,000-yard rushers in six seasons; the team leader never had fewer than 12 rushing TDs. Not so during the waning years of the Tuberville Era; no rusher eclipsed 1,000 yards from 2006-08, and the leading rusher had no more than 8 TDs over that time frame.
Gene Chizik turned that back around during his first season at Auburn; Ben Tate rushed for 1,362 yards and 10 TDs. He was not the best running back in the state, but he was pretty good. And a senior.
So now Mario Fannin has to fill the void, coming off a year in which he rushed for 285 yards and no scores on 34 carries. The average is good -- at 8.4 yards, more than Fannin can possibly hope to maintain -- but the question will be whether he can keep it at or above about 4.5 yards or so over the course of a season. If he can, it'll be another 1,000-yard season for Auburn's lead running back. If it slips too much, though, that's that much more ground that Newton and the receivers will have to make up.
THE ONES WHO RETURN
And while there's some turnover in the offensive backfield, the Tigers are pretty experienced elsewhere. On defense, the top five tacklers all return, including Josh Bynes and his team-leading 104 stops, as well as fellow linebacker Craig Stevens (95 tackles). That's not to say they don't have a lot to replace, including Antonio Coleman's 10 sacks and Walter McFadden's team-high six interceptions (more than a third of Auburn's total last year). The top returning pass rusher is Mike Blanc, who had 3.5 sacks among his 6.5 tackles for loss in 2009 and also notched six quarterback hurries. The returning interception leader -- T'Sharvan Bell -- is a shoo-in for the All-SEC Name Team but isn't expected to start.
At wide receiver, Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery are back. Adams caught 60 passes for 997 yards and 10 TDs last year, while Zachery had 26 receptions for 477 yards and five scores. (Fannin also pitched in, catching 42 passes for 413 yards and three TDs.) Emory Blake, who caught just nine in 2009, will likely fill out the ranks of the wideouts.
Four of five offensive linemen also return, which means Newton, Fannin and Co. will have all the help they need if they're ready to make good on their potential.