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NCAA Football Auburn TigersSEC Football

Rant Sports College Football Top 100: No. 59 Auburn Tigers

Auburn Tigers

JD Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The Auburn Tigers have experienced one of the biggest declines of any former national title winner. Since winning the title in 2010 under Gene Chizik, they have made just one bowl game and have fired the former coach.

Experiencing their greatest success with Cam Newton at quarterback, the program is looking for a way to get back to greatness. With just two SEC titles since 1989, first-year head coach Gus Malzahn has a lot of work to do. First things first, and that is finding a quarterback to run the team.

Besides trying to find a quarterback to lead this team that was 3-9 a season ago, he will need to figure out a way to make sure this offense isn’t as complacent as it was a year ago.

While a national title won’t be in the cards for a few years, a bowl game is a definite possibility in 2013.

KEY PLAYERS

Without a starting quarterback figured out, the true leader of the offense is yet to be seen. Tre Mason looks to be somewhat of a leader as a 1,000-yard rusher from a season ago and a back that will be part of this team for seasons to come.

Running back and slot receiver Corey Grant is a dynamic piece to the offense that could get them a variety of different play options. Quan Bray is another speedy wide out that could be mixed into the offense as a deep threat as well as a reliable short-distance receiver. Losing top receiver Emory Blake is a big blow to the already-lacking pass game.

Jermaine Whitehead will be one of the team’s returning tacklers after the Tigers lose their top tackler from a season ago. The junior safety was 13th in the SEC in tackles per game last season and finished with 86 including a sack. He struggled, however, to bring guys down in the open field.

OFFENSE

As I stated earlier, the quarterback battle between Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace is just heating up as both guys started for the Tigers at different times in 2012. No one emerged as the clear frontrunner in spring practice, and it looks like the decision will come down to the wire.

Once the quarterback is chosen, the rest of the offense will fall into place. Having one of the worst offenses in the nation last season, Auburn will look to improve on their 116th best passing attack and 80th best rushing attack in the nation. I use the word ‘best’ so it won’t make their awful numbers from last season seem so horrible.

It seemed nearly impossible for Auburn to find the end zone in 2012, scoring just over 18 points per game — good for 114th best in the nation. Things need to change, and a big emphasis will be put on Mason and the run game.

DEFENSE

The defense was sort of a bright spot for the Tigers’ 3-9 squad last season. While the 66th best scoring offense in the nation is surely nothing to write home about, the Tigers weren’t nearly as terrible on defense as they were on offense.

Losing some key pieces, including the top tackler from 2012 Daren Bates, it will be an adjustment trying to ensure this defense remains solid. While they picked off just two passes last year, the added year of experience and new coaching staff will surely have this defense back and primed for a fresh start.

With solid defensive backs like Demetruce McNeal and Whitehead, the secondary looks to be a solid bunch. I wouldn’t be surprised if some incoming freshman challenged for some starting spots on this defense.

SCHEDULE

While no game is easy in the toughest conference in college football, there are some games that can be marked down in the win column if things go as planned for the Tigers.

Coach Malzahn has a lot of catching up to do, and it won’t be simple when it comes to SEC football.

Here are the Tigers’ toughest games: vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs, at LSU Tigers, vs. Ole Miss Rebels, at Texas A&M Aggies, vs. Georgia Bulldogs and vs. Alabama Crimson Tide.

Tough start to the Malzahn era, but I say the Tigers finish at an average 6-6 and make their first bowl game since 2011.

Connor Muldowney is a columnist for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @Connormuldowney, “Like” him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.