Many will call it the Cameron Newton grudge match. Sure, when Newton spurned his former tutor Dan Mullen and chose Auburn over Mississippi State it made the atmosphere intense when the Tigers played in Starkville last year. However, that was before the stories and allegations about Newton's recruitment came out. Now it appears both sides hate each other and they'll settle it without Newton and on The Plains in the first SEC game of the season for both. Auburn is trying to avoid the fall from the top as the National Champion and MSU is attempting to continue to rise in the direction of the top.
Head Coach: Gene Chizik was hired to replace Tommy Tuberville the same offseason that Mullen was hired to replace Sylvester Croom, and Chizik managed to get his team to the top in only his second year. In his first year at Auburn, Chizik went 8-5 after a win in the Outback Bowl. Chizik started his career as a high school coach and he got his first assistant position at Middle Tennessee State. He was the defensive coordinator at Central Florida before taking the same position at Auburn from 2002-04. Chizik then spent two seasons at Texas before becoming the head coach at Iowa State. He led the Cyclones to a 5-19 record in two seasons as their head coach, including a 2-14 mark in the Big 12. After his 2-10 2008 season, Chizik returned to Auburn as the new head coach.
2010 In Review: Questions have arisen whether or not the history books will recognize it, but as it happened 2010 was the perfect season for Auburn. Newton stepped in and was even better than Chizik's wildest dreams. The Tigers rolled through the SEC West, not without a few scares of course, defeated South Carolina for a second time in the SEC Championship game and with the Newton allegations then front and center still beat Oregon (also under investigation, now) for the BCS National Championship.
By The Numbers: Newton put up most of Auburn's offensive numbers completing 185 passes for 2,854 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also racked up 1,473 rushing yards including another 20 touchdowns. All told, Newton was responsible for 4,300 yards and 50 total touchdowns.
Newton wasn't the only 1,000 yard rusher, however, as true freshman Michael Dyer rumbled for 1,093 yards and five touchdowns. Onterio McCalebb added another 810 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground in only 95 carries. Senior Darvin Adams was the team's leading receiver with 963 yards and seven touchdowns on 52 receptions. Second on the list was fellow senior Terrell Zachery with 43 receptions, 605 yards and four scores.
Junior defensive tackle Nick Fairley was the anchor of the Tiger defense racking up 11.5 sacks and spending constant time in opponents' backfields. Senior linebacker Josh Bynes was the team's leading tackler with 73 stops, while safety Zac Etheridge was was just behind him with 69 tackles.
2011 Preview: Despite being the defending SEC and National Champions, Auburn has typically been picked to finish fifth in the SEC West, sometimes fourth. Why? Besides losing the country's best player (Newton) and the country's best defensive player (Fairley), the Tigers also lost 17 other starters leaving Chizik with two returning starters on offense and three on defense.
On offense, it continues to be a toss-up between junior Barrett Trotter and sophomore Clint Moseley for the open quarterback spot, though Trotter may have the edge. Running back will continue to be a position of strength as Dyer and McCalebb both return to the backfield and tight end/halfback hybrid Philip Lutzenkirchen returns experience to the position. However, the Tigers must replace four of five starting offensive linemen, including their anchor in left tackle Lee Ziemba. Auburn also loses three of its top four receivers from 2010, with returning junior Emory Blake expected to take over for Adams as the go-to receiver.
On defense, the outlook is even worse. A questionable defense in 2010 lost eight starters, including most of the reliable players. The entire defensive line must be replaced, except for sophomore end Nosa Eguae. Gone are the top two linebackers from a team that often used two-linebacker sets, and only one starter in the secondary, Neiko Thorpe, returns though cornerback T'Sharvan Bell has significant game experience and credibility.
Auburn will be young in 2011, though most players on the field will be ones who were highly recruited out of high school. Experience will likely be the problem, not talent.