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Will the national champs finish at the bottom of the SEC West?
Athlon Sports' editorial staff is knee-deep in 2011 college football production. For the 45th year in a row, Athlon Sports will release its in-depth preseason preview annual complete with coaching changes, behind the scenes features, pages of recruiting rankings, and most importantly, in-depth predictions and previews.
Each year, a select group of Athlonians order some pizza and lock themselves in a room until all 120 teams have been hammered into place. And every year, there are some seriously heated discussions that result in not-so-cordial commentary.
The finalized 2011 preseason top-25 countdown will begin with team No. 25 on Monday May 2. But every day until then, we will offer the college football fan a peek behind the curtain at some of the most heated debates that we the editors at Athlon had to work through.
And what better place to start than with the controversial defending national champions?
The Debate: Will Auburn finish in the upper half of the SEC West?
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
I don't think so. This team lost a ton of key players. Alabama and LSU are clearly the two most talented teams in the league, and I like Arkansas a lot. Mississippi State has a chance to be good, as well. Auburn had a magical ride last year, but I think they will take several steps back this fall. They are poised for another big run in 2012, but 2011 could be a struggle.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
No, Auburn won't finish in the upper half of the SEC West in 2011. Would I be surprised if Auburn finished 8-4 or 9-3? Not at all, but on paper, this looks like a rebuilding year. There are simply too many question marks to expect anything more than six or seven wins. Gus Malzahn is one of the best offensive coordinators in college football, but Cam Newton and a senior-laden offensive line will be difficult to replace. Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb are two pieces to build around, but there's no replacing Newton's production. A huge drop in production on offense is unlikely, but there's no way they can replicate last year's success. Auburn's offense also made up for a lot of suspect defensive play last year and that unit returns only three starters in 2011. The schedule is also difficult and includes a non-conference date at Clemson and conference road games against South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia. Gene Chizik has recruited some nice talent, but the Tigers are too young and have too many gaps to fill in 2011 to expect more than a 6-6 or 7-5 record.
Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden)
Auburn will take a step back with five new starters on the offensive line, a decimated defensive, and, oh that’s right, no Cam Newton “under center.” Even with stellar recruiting classes two years in a row (and a new quarterback at Arkansas) there is absolutely no way that this team even comes close to competing for an SEC West crown – even as much as I love Kiehl Frazier's potential.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
Gene Chizik’s crew arguably lost the best offensive (Cam Newton) and defensive (Nick Fairley) players in the country. Additionally, Auburn lost four offensive line starters and three on the defensive line. They also must replace their two best linebackers and two best receivers. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn should develop some solid skill players, but the offensive line may be as big a concern as losing Newton. In the West, both Alabama and LSU are Top 5 candidates in the national rankings. Arkansas and an improving Mississippi State bunch will both be tough games. Plus the Tigers face a brutal schedule of opponents in the SEC East, playing at Georgia and South Carolina and hosting Florida. I think a 3-5 conference record could be a stark reality for this depleted Auburn crew.
Last year at this time, Auburn was CLEARLY the third-best team in the SEC West — behind preseason No. 1 Alabama and LSU, which always does more with Les. How did that work out after Cam Newton and Nick Fairley stepped up On The Plains? War Eagle! The rest is history. This year, the debate is whether the Tigers can finish third in the SEC West — ahead of Arkansas, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. I say no. Without Cam and Fairley, it won’t matter how much Gus Malzahn squints through his glasses at his playsheet or how many times Trooper Taylor chest bumps players coming off the field. Gene Chizik is not a good enough coach to win big without Cam and Fairley, and he will show that this season — as Auburn slides from the top of the BCS to the bottom half of the SEC West.
Pre-order your team’s Athlon Sports cover here (athlonsports.com/store) and find out where Athlon has Auburn picked when the 2011 Top 25 countdown begins on Monday, May 2.