LAST YEAR: 9-3 (7-1 SEC West) with a loss to Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl
EXPERIENCE: The Tigers return 13 starters and 54 lettermen.
TEAM STRENGTHS: Start with tailback Kenny Irons (5-11, 202, senior), the SEC's most electrifying tailback. Irons sat out 2004 after transferring from South Carolina where Lou Holtz gave up on him. He proved Holtz wrong by rushing for 1,293 yards and 13 touchdowns last season at Auburn, picking up at tailback where Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown left off. Irons is a combination of durability and breakaway speed that forces teams to play extra men in the box to stop him. Tre Smith (5-10, 199, senior) and Brad Lester (5-11, 184, sophomore) combined for more than 600 yards last year in backup roles so the position is very solid.
The constant running threat opens things up for quarterback Brandon Cox (6-2, 201, junior) who doesn't have the strongest arm in the league but he's accurate and has a quick release. Auburn's passing game works mostly off of play action which makes it the perfect fit for Cox, who threw for 2,324 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore.
Auburn graduated its top three receivers from last year but if Courtney Taylor (6-2, 202, senior) injured frequently in 2005, can return to his form of 2004 (43 catches, 737 yards) the Tigers will have one of the best deep threats in the SEC. Look for true freshman Tim Hawthorne (6-3, 205) to make his way into the starting lineup quickly. He has the size and speed to be the perfect complement to Taylor.
On the defensive side, three-fourths of Auburn's secondary returns including corners David Irons (5-11, 188, senior) and Jonathon Willhite (5-11, 182, junior). Marquies Gunn (6-4, 254, senior) is one of the best defensive ends in the SEC. He had 12.5 tackles for loss in 2005.
The special teams are in great hands. Punter Kody Bliss (5-10, 177, senior) averaged 44.9 yards per punt last year and he's considered the best in the nation. Placekicker John Vaughn (6-1, 197, senior) is 30-45 in his career on field goals and has only missed one of 129 PATs. Vaughn doesn't have a great leg but inside 40 yards he's very accurate. He was 12-14 last year on field goal attempts under 40 yards.
TEAM WEAKNESSES: Auburn lost three starters on its offensive line and while guard Tim Duckworth (6-3, 310) is one of the best in the SEC, there are question marks everywhere else. Joe Cope (6-0, 276, senior) is the returning starter at center but he's way under-sized. Leon Hart (6-5, 300, junior) is as talented as any lineman the Tigers have but he's never been consistent. King Dunlap (6-8, 313, junior) has the size to be dominant but can he handle the speed rushers on the edge?
On the defensive line, the Tigers have to find replacements for three starters. Chris Browder (6-4, 260, senior) emerged as one of the starters at tackle in the spring. He is quick but he lacks the kind of size that's needed to play inside in the SEC. Josh Thompson (6-0, 302, junior) has the size to play nose tackle but he lacks experience. Quenton Groves (6-3, 250, junior) has plenty of speed as a pass rusher but is a question against the run.
Auburn's linebacking crew took a serious hit to graduation and only Will Herring (6-3, 220, senior) returns. The replacements, Karibi Dede (6-0, 216, senior) and Merrill Johnson (6-0, 199, sophomore) have plenty of speed but not much bulk or experience.
THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS IN 2006: The offensive line has to grow up very quickly. Hart and Dunlap are both outstanding run blockers but can they handle quick, athletic pass rushers on the edge? If they struggle in pass protection, Auburn's offense could sputter because opponents will stack the box to strangle the running game and dare the Tigers to throw.
It is imperative that Courtney Taylor stays injury-free this year. He has the best hands of any Auburn receiver and he's got the size, speed and athleticism to be a threat on any route. When he's healthy, there aren't many in the SEC that are better. If he's not healthy, Auburn will have to rely on a lot of unproven talent on the outside.
With five gone from what was an outstanding front seven, there are plenty of questions on the defensive side. As always, Auburn has plenty of speedy, athletic types. The Tigers got away with under-sized linebackers and small, fast defensive ends last year, but they don't have the inside bulk to create the constant push up the middle this year. Auburn has to find a way to create some push up the middle or the defense could be a serious problem.
THE SCHEDULE: Auburn catches a real break here. There are eight home games and three of the four toughest games --- LSU, Florida and Georgia --- have to come to Jordan Hare Stadium. The toughest of the roadies is the season ender against Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Washington State, Buffalo, Tulane and Arkansas State are four cream puffs that will help pad the stats. Circle September 28 on your calendar. The Tigers are going to Columbia to play the Gamecocks on a Thursday night. Ask the Gators about what can happen on a Thursday night road game in the SEC. Auburn embarrassed South Carolina and Steve Spurrier last year. This year, it could be a paybacks are hell night in Columbia.
OUTLOOK FOR 2006: Auburn has the best player in the SEC in Kenny Irons and lots of fast, athletic players but this isn't 2004 nor is it last year when the two-deep chart had more size and more experience. There is no question that the Tigers have great athletes but can they compensate for that lack of experience? While the offensive line has its question marks, there are enough cream puff games for that unit to become cohesive. The O-line has to prove it can pass protect because Cox doesn't have tremendous escapability. If the line can get it right, Cox has the ability to pick an opponent apart and Irons can turn on the jets for some huge chunks of yardage. The real questions are on defense where the defensive tackles are small and inexperienced and the linebackers are not only smallish, but lacking experience. If Auburn can find a way to overcome its lack of size in the middle of the D-line and its inexperience at linebacker, then the Tigers will dodge some bullets. Since it's a year with question marks, the schedule should help with four patsies and LSU, Florida and Georgia at home. The LSU game on September 16 could decide the SEC West. If Auburn gets by LSU in that early season contest, the Tigers could be on their way to the SEC title game in Atlanta.
NEXT UP: Georgia, October 28 at All-Tell Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida