Orlando Sentinel college insider Matt Murschel has ranked all 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 125 to our projected No. 1 team.
Today at No. 41: Auburn
Coach: Gus Malzahn (1st season, 0-0 Auburn, 9-3 career record).
2012 results: 3-9 (0-8 SEC West, seventh place)
Offensive starters returning: 6
Offensive starters lost: 5
Defensive starters returning: 9
Defensive starters lost: 2
Key losses: WR Emory Blake, TE Philip Lutzenkirchen, LB Daren Bates, RB/KR Onterio McCalebb
Top returnees: RB Tre Mason, C Reese Dismukes, DE Dee Ford, DT Angelo Blackson, CB Chris Davis, S Demetruce McNeal
Look back: Two years after coach Gene Chizik's Auburn team went 14-0 and won the national title, the Tigers lost nine games for the first time since going 0-10 in 1950. It was the worst slide within two years of winning a national championship of any team since the Associated Press poll started in 1936. The historic turn of events included an 0-8 finish in the SEC, including losses in the final three league games by a combined score of 150-21. Auburn officials fired Chizik and tasked Gus Malzahn, who was the offensive coordinator of the national-title team, with turning around the program.
Strengths: Junior running back Tre Mason was a rare bright spot on the 2012 squad, earning 1,002 rushing yards, and will be a proven commodity in Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle system. The offensive line returns four starters and will be the strength of an offense with a long list of concerns. Senior safety Demetruce McNeal, the team's top returning tackler, is back despite some off-the-field issues. The addition of Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson at defensive end should beef up a weak front four that allowed an average of 420.5 yards a season ago.
Weaknesses: Malzahn first will need to find someone to run his high-octane offense. No clear-cut starting quarterback emerged from spring practice, but Jonathan Wallace appears to have the edge. Kiehl Frazier, however, is more familiar with this offense after playing one year under then-offensive coordinator Malzahn in 2010. Junior-college transfer Nick Marshall and freshman Jeremy Johnson will have a chance to prove themselves during fall camp. Whoever wins the job will be without the top receiving targets from last season, wideout Emory Blake and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen. Daren Bates, who was the Tigers' best defensive player in 2012 despite playing out of position at linebacker, and speedy tailback/return man Onterio McCalebb also will be missed.
Outlook: Enthusiasm is high for the Tigers under Malzahn, who was wildly successful as the team's offensive coordinator from 2008 to 2010. The Tigers drew a reported 83,401 people for the spring game, a program record. Fans witnessed 425 yards of offense on 80 plays in the first half. Malzahn's wizardry as offensive coordinator helped the Tigers win the 2010 national title and quarterback Cam Newton capture the Heisman Trophy. But without anyone like Newton to run his ho-huddle, hurry-up offense, Malzahn will have a tough time taking the SEC by storm this season, especially with a schedule that includes visits to LSU and Texas A&M and home dates with Georgia and Alabama. Still, Malzahn has made an immediate impact everywhere he has coached, so expect the Tigers to be much more competitive in 2013.
Aug. 31 Washington State
Sept. 7 Arkansas State
Sept. 14 Mississippi State
Sept. 21 at LSU
Oct. 5 Ole Miss
Oct. 12 Western Carolina
Oct. 19 at Texas A&M
Oct. 26 Florida Atlantic
Nov. 2 at Arkansas
Nov. 9 at Tennessee
Nov. 16 Georgia
Nov. 30 Alabama