Is Gus Malzahn that good of a coach, or is Gene Chizik that bad? Or is it somewhere in between? After all, Malzahn took a group of players who largely had been on the Plains when he got there (notable exception: quarterback Nick Marshall) and turned them from a team that didn't even come close to playing in a bowl game to the team that almost toppled a seemingly-invincible Florida State team.
Can Malzahn repeat that kind of a feat with this year's team? It depends on contributors in several key areas, and maybe even the possibility of some improvement on the defensive side of the ball.
BIGGEST RETURN | QB
So much depends on the quarterback in Gus Malzahn's offense, and Marshall proved during 2013 that he was up to the task of directing the hurry-up attack. Marshall was solid when he was asked to throw the ball -- though his critics would point out that there were games when he was rarely asked to do so -- going 142-of-239 passing for 1,976 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. Not the stuff that dream seasons are made of, perhaps, but when paired with Marshall's 1,068 yards rushing on 172 carries, it was enough to help power the Tigers to their second BCS National Championship Game in four seasons. It's fair to wonder whether Auburn can contend for another national title in 2014 with Marshall doing things like attempting 15 passes total in back-to-back games against Arkansas and Tennessee, or throwing just 11 times against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game. But if Marshall's passing game develops nicely, the Auburn offense could be even more lethal. The season will get off to a bit of a late start for Marshall, who won't start the first game for Auburn after a marijuana citation.
BIGGEST LOSS | RB Tre Mason
Our "biggest return" for Auburn in 2013 graduates to this section in 2014. After somehow managing to rush for 1,002 yards in the cesspool that was the 2012 session, Mason nearly doubled that total last year. He ran for 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns on 317 carries. Mason ran away with the SEC rushing title, gaining 415 more yards than runner-up Jeremy Hill (though in fairness, Hill had 114 fewer carries). Mason ran for more than 150 yards five times in 2013, including a jaw-dropping 304 yards against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game. Over the last three games, arguably the most important of Auburn's season, he piled up 663 yards on 109 carries. Only once, against Ole Miss, did Mason have at least 20 carries and end up with fewer than 100 yards. All of that led to Mason being the finalist for the Heisman and being taken in the third round of the NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams.
BREAKTHROUGH POSSIBILITY | LB Kris Frost
Brace yourself: Auburn plays defense. I'm not going to sit here and say they play it all that well, but the Tigers do put men on the field and ask them to attempt to keep the other team from scoring. I am not entirely certain that the same could be said for Texas A&M in 2013. Frost only started one game last season, but he played in all 14, and he's now had "the same defensive coordinator two years in a row." Even without starting, though, Frost had 59 tackles -- six of them for loss -- and forced a couple of fumbles. Yeah, yeah, I know this might be a bit of a stretch, and some of you are already saying "but Tre Williams." Ellis Johnson, though, is downplaying the freshman's credentials so far, which leads me to believe that while Williams will see the field, it might be awhile before he pushes anyone for the starting job.