FanHouse's 2010 Preseason College Football Poll -- No. 23 Auburn
The second year of the Gene Chizik regime is off and running and once more the Auburn Tigers have an opportunity to get off to a quick start. Six of the first eight games are at home and the two road games are in Starkville (Mississippi State) and Lexington (Kentucky).
Indeed, in the entire SEC there is not an easier schedule than Auburn's. The Tigers will be favored to begin 6-0 and would have to implode to fail to get to eight wins in 2010. That's partially thanks to a second straight season featuring eight home games and the easiest slate of road games in conference -- add Ole Miss to Mississippi State and Kentucky and the Tigers have drawn three of the four weakest teams in the SEC on the road.
There's even an outside chance that Auburn could be 10-1, or, be still the trembling War Eagle heart, 11-0, heading into Tuscaloosa on the final week of the regular season.
Of course, uncertainly looms as the Tigers will be breaking in a new quarterback, likely former Florida stud Cameron Newton. But the entire offense will be working on a second season in offensive guru Gus Malzahn's wizard-like system, and the biggest question is whether the offense can maintain a consistent rhythm. Last year Auburn's offense stagnated after a 5-0 start, and the Tigers limped home with a 1-5 record against remaining FBS competition.
THE BASICS: Last season, the Tigers finished 8-5 with a memorable 38-35 Outback Bowl victory over Northwestern. That victory helped mask a collapse in the second half of the season that saw a 5-0 Auburn team rapidly come back to earth with a 2-5 finish (one of those wins was over Furman, an FCS team). As if that wasn't enough, despite the excitement engendered by his start, Chizik's Tigers went 3-5 in conference play.
Auburn fans have been fond of pointing out that Chizik's first-year 8-5 record was one better than Nick Saban's 7-6 record in his first season at Alabama. But since that first season, Saban has gone an astounding 26-2. Anything less than 8-4 for Chizik will probably have the natives restless.
Although, in Chizik's defense, offering strong evidence that the job makes the coach: in his first season at Auburn, Chizik racked up three more victories than he had in two seasons combined at Iowa State.
KEY PLAYER YOU PROBABLY DON'T THINK OF AS A KEY PLAYER: Senior kicker Wes Byrum. Last season, Byrum was almost perfect, 15 of 16. This season, can Byrum make the difference in a few close games? He'll probably have to. In fact, here's a prediction for you: despite all the points that Malzahn's offense is going to score, Byrum may well be the difference between a 10-win season and a seven-win season.
FLY IN THE OINTMENT: Thursday night in Starkville. Nothing could end Chizik's honeymoon faster than a road loss to another second-year coach in the SEC opener on Sept. 9. Look for this game to be explosive, with the winner needing to lock down at least 35 points to triumph. Lose in Starkville and suddenly the season becomes a field of landmines. Win and a 6-0 start still seems very likely.
DON'T MISS: Auburn vs. Arkansas on October 16th. Last season, Ole Miss rolled into Jordan-Hare Stadium and left with its season of high expectations in tatters. Will the same hold true for the Razorbacks this season? What's more, can Auburn avenge an ugly 44-23 loss in Fayetteville that started last year's team on its downward slide?
Ultimately, this game is likely to decide the second best team in the West. Win and the Tigers have a realistic shot of rolling into Tuscaloosa on the final weekend of the season with a shot at beating Alabama and snagging the SEC West championship. Lose and, well, Auburn fans will be terrified that 2009's finish was an ominous prelude for 2010's coming finale.
PREDICTED RECORD: 9-3
FanHouse's Auburn team page with schedule