AUBURN, Ala. — One of the loudest cheers during Saturday’s basketball game at Beard-Eaves-Memorial was reserved for football coach Gene Chizik, who officially accepted the Outback Bowl trophy in front of the Tigers’ fans.
The lesson? As usual, football is always on peoples’ minds in Auburn.
That being said, here are five questions looking forward to the 2010 season:
1. Who will replace Chris Todd as quarterback?
The Tigers upgraded their pool of candidates by signing five-star junior college transfer Cameron Newton at the end of December.
Newton, who was Tim Tebow’s backup at Florida, led Blinn (Texas) Community College to the junior college national championship last year. The 6-foot-6, 247-pound Newton is a dual-threat quarterback who has become the fan favorite to win the job.
But longtime backup Neil Caudle, a rising senior, remains and option, having the most familiarity in Gus Malzahn’s offense. Sophomore Barrett Trotter and redshirt freshmen Tyrik Rollison and Clint Moseley also are candidates.
2. Will a freshman be called upon to lead the Tigers’ rushing attack?
Ben Tate and his 1,362 rushing yards are gone, leaving a major need at running back. Many think incoming five-star tailback Michael Dyer of Little Rock, Ark., the No. 1 running back in the country according to ESPN, can step in immediately.
The 5-foot-8, 201-pound Dyer enters a backfield that has some question marks. Can senior Mario Fannin thrive as a traditional running back? Can speedster Onterio McCalebb stay healthy? Is Dontae Aycock, who redshirted last year, any good? If any of those answers are no, Dyer could have a major impact.
3. Is linebacker help on the way?
There was no better indication how dire Auburn’s linebacker depth was than the Outback Bowl, where starters Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens played all 115 snaps against Northwestern.
Eltoro Freeman is a solid option on the weak side, but the Tigers need more help, especially because Spencer Pybus (concussions) and Adam Herring (heel) will not return next season. That puts pressure on rising sophomores Jonathan Evans and Harris Gaston and an incoming freshman class headed by LaDarius Owens to be capable backups.
4. How will the Tigers replace All-SEC defensive end Antonio Coleman?
Coleman made good on his senior season, finishing as the SEC leader in sacks and tackles for a loss. Antoine Carter might be Auburn’s best option as his replacement. Carter overcame offseason knee surgery to start the final six games, finishing with 30 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
Sophomore Dee Ford, although undersized, showed glimpses of being a strong pass-rusher, and coaches are excited about Nosa Eguae, who had to redshirt after suffering a foot injury. None of them is as talented as Coleman, but Auburn hopes together they can be as productive.
5. Can Auburn improve on its 8-5 record?
By most measures, Chizik overachieved in his first year on the Plains, winning three more games than Tommy Tuberville did in his final season. The Tigers did it with a skeleton crew on defense and a group of offensive players not recruited specifically for Malzahn’s system.
Auburn still has plenty of positives, including a veteran offensive line, two trustworthy receivers, a strong starting linebacker crew and a pair of cornerbacks coming into their own.
The SEC schedule remains tough as always, but if the Tigers can get their quarterback situation settled — and that is one gigantic “if” — improving on eight wins isn’t out of the question.