Historically, Vanderbilt has been the weakest program in the conference, but the Commodores are a team that is not regularly on Auburn's schedule and that is the case again this year. Kentucky, another team that has not had a lot of success in football and has not been a regular opponent for the Tigers, has improved in recent years and has proven it can play with anybody.
Kentucky, which gave Auburn a good game last year, is off the Tigers' schedule replaced by Florida, which should have a strong team this year when it comes to Jordan-Hare Stadium. The other teams from the SEC East that Auburn will face include the 2010 divisional champion South Carolina and annual opponent Georgia, a team that has a lot of talent. You can't expect the Bulldogs to be down again like they were last year and the Gamecocks will be a challenging opponent on the road.
The other team in the SEC East, Tennessee, has been down the past couple of seasons, but the Volunteers look like they are on the way back.
In addition to playing the Gators and the Bulldogs from the SEC East, the rest of Auburn's schedule features the five other teams from the SEC West and all of those games will be challenging.
Arkansas had a good team last year and I expect the Razorbacks to be better this season. Alabama should be better, too, and it won't be surprising if LSU, Mississippi State and Ole Miss are also improved.
Meanwhile, everybody is saying that Auburn is not going to be as good as it was last year and that makes sense based on the heavy losses from the national championship team, but that doesn't mean the Tigers can't have a good football team this year and enjoy the challenges of the SEC and have a lot of fun playing the games.
I think that winning a championship is the ultimate in college football, but I can also look back at our 1981 Auburn team, my first season as head coach of the Tigers, and remember how proud I was of that group of young men. To this day I don't think there was a single player on that 1981 team that wasn't proud to be a part of that group even though we had a losing season because they know they laid the foundation for the teams that followed that were able to win conference championships and compete for national championships.
That 1981 team was fun to be around because in every game it played those players would go out on the field and fight, claw and scratch to try to find a way to win. People loved them because they could see how hard they tried.
We did not have a talented football team in 1981, but the guys who went out there to represent Auburn were predictable. I knew what they were going to do every time we played a game.
I remember our last game of the season that year was in Birmingham. Before the game at Legion Field I told Coach Bryant (Alabama head coach Paul Bryant) that our kids were going to fight to win that game for the full 60 minutes. I knew Coach Bryant was going for the record 315th career win, but that didn't matter to our kids because they came to Birmingham to win that day. I knew we were outmanned, but in the middle of the fourth quarter we were ahead 17-14 and we had a chance to pull off the big upset if they had helped us just a little bit.
If the 2011 Tigers can play with the same attitude that made that 1981 team an enjoyable one to coach and watch there is no reason this rebuilding Auburn team can't have a lot of fun and have a successful year, too. However, fans need to be realistic, too, and take into consideration the amount of rebuilding that has to be done. If they do that, appreciate the success their team has and love Auburn, they will have a chance to really enjoy the upcoming season.
These are our players and our team. They might not be as experienced as we would like them to be or as good as we would like them to be, but they are ours. They are our family and we can love them just as much as we loved that crowd that won the national championship last season.
(If you have a question or a subject you would like me to write about in future columns, you can email it to PatDye@autigers.com.)
Editor's Note: This part of a series of columns that College Football Hall of Fame member Pat Dye is writing for AUTigers.com about the game he played and coached. An All-American at Georgia and one of the top head coaches in SEC history at Auburn who was also head coach at East Carolina and Wyoming, Dye participates in the Legends Poll, a Top 25 rating of the best teams in college football as determined by a panel of all-star former head coaches. Dye writes three columns a week--The Dye-Log, the Dye-Gest and Pat's Picks.