In 2015, Auburn had the most disappointing season of any team in college football. After being anointed in the preseason as a favorite to win the SEC and a contender for the College Football Playoff, the Tigers finished with a 7-6 (2-6 SEC) record and would up in last place in the SEC West.
But Auburn looks to bounce back in 2016 and needs to address several areas in spring practice, which began on March 1.
5 Storylines to Watch in Auburn’s Spring Practice
1. Goodbye Muschamp, hello Steele
Auburn hired Will Muschamp as its defensive coordinator in December 2014 and made him one of the highest paid assistant coaches in college football. He entered with high expectations despite coming off a disappointing tenure as Florida's head coach based on his history of success as a coordinator. Even at Florida his defenses ranked in the top 10, which continued a trend dating back to 2009 when he was an assistant at Texas.
Instead, Auburn ranked 13th in the SEC in total defense. The Tigers finished ahead of just one team, South Carolina, which hired Muschamp as its head coach this offseason. Now, the defensive reins have been turned over to former LSU coordinator and linebackers coach Kevin Steele. Last season, Steele’s unit finished fifth in the SEC in total defense and third against the run.
2. Who will start at QB?
Aside from Muschamp, Jeremy Johnson provided Auburn's biggest individual flop in 2015. Johnson failed to meet Heisman expectations and lost his starting job to freshman Sean White just before the Tigers' fourth game.
Johnson reclaimed the No. 1 spot on the depth chart against Texas A&M on Nov. 7 and finished with more reps despite splitting time with White. Both quarterbacks were rumored to transfer this offseason but remained with the Tigers and will likely share reps with the first team offense in spring practice, although Johnson should be favored among the two. Junior college recruit John Franklin III joined in time for spring ball and will push for the starting job.
3. Replacing Peyton Barber
Barber was Auburn's most consistent offensive player in 2015. Barber rushed for 1,017 yards, which placed him ninth among SEC running backs, and 13 touchdowns despite entering his redshirt sophomore season listed third on the depth chart.
Once again, Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas will be expected to compete for the starting job, as well as 3-star early enrollee Malik Miller.
Robinson and Thomas both fell down the depth chart after starting the regular season with injuries. If both backs can stay healthy one of them figure to be named the Week 1 starter.
4. Battling injuries
Auburn started its 2015 season with several key injuries. The Tigers aren’t off to a great start in that respect this year either, as head coach Gus Malzahn announced on Tuesday that three players expected to miss the entire camp.
Running back Kerryon Johnson, who was expected to compete for the starting job along with Robinson, Thomas and Miller, and safety Tray Matthews are recovering from shoulder surgeries. Defensive back Jeremiah Dinson also will miss spring practice as he continues to rehab from a knee injury that he suffered last November.
Fortunately, all three players have experience and would benefit from being cautious rather than trying to rush back.
5. Malzahn on the hot seat?
The thought of Auburn firing Malzahn seemed unfathomable two years ago. Now its becoming much more realistic with the Tigers coming off two disappointing seasons, which both resulted in a decline in wins from the previous year.
Auburn should improve in 2016 and look more like the team many expected last offseason. But fans will be more crticial of Malzahn with each loss after back-to-back years of disappointment.
Pre-Spring Auburn Outlook in the SEC
Auburn finds itself in a completely different position from last offseason. Expectations aren't nearly as high and Malzahn has far less job security than he did in the past two seasons. But Auburn still has talent and hopefully used its tumultuous 2015 campaign as a learning experience. The Tigers shouldn't finish last in the SEC West in 2016 and have the pieces to be a contender if they reach their full potential. If Steele provides a better fit to Malzahn's team than Muschamp did, the defense should improve. Auburn has the personnel to win in the SEC but needs to work as a cohesive unit.
— Written by Jason Hall, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and works for Fox Sports Florida. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhallFSN.