Like all teams outside of Ohio State, Auburn has a number of concerns to address if the Tigers want to land one of the four playoff spots. Those concerns including reestablishing a championship defense and replacing the best center in college football, receivers Sammie Coates and Quan Bray, and their top two running back in Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant.
Strangely, though, replacing the quarterback who had one of the most prolific two-year stretches in school history -- 6,374 total yards, 34 touchdowns passing, 23 more rushing -- isn't one of those concerns. Nick Marshall played a huge role in Auburn's reemergence as a national power. But, taking nothing away from Marshall, Jeremy Johnson might be better.
Not just eventually better, either, but immediately better.
Four of the last seven quarterbacks to win the Heisman did so in their first season as the starting quarterback -- Tim Tebow at Florida in 2007, Cam Newton at Auburn in 2010, Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M in 2012 and Jameis Winston at Florida State in 2013. All four of those players replaced quarterbacks who had been successful. (Let's not forget that Chris Todd had set the Auburn record with 22 passing touchdowns the year before Newton arrived.)
This is not to label Johnson a Heisman contender just yet. Actually, the whole notion of establishing a preseason Heisman list is absurd. Johnson is Exhibit A as to why that's absurd. Just because he's a first-year starter doesn't mean that he won't be one of the best players in the country.
We've already seen a glimpse of how good Johnson is. With Marshall suspended for the first half of last year's season opener against Arkansas, Johnson completed his first eight passes and finished the half 12-of-16 for 243 yards. Then he quietly stepped back into the background as Marshall resumed his place as the starter.
Most people outside of the coaching staff considered it merely a formality before Johnson would beat out Sean White in spring practice as the starter. Head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee insisted otherwise. They gave White every chance to win the job, and there's no indication that White wasn't good enough. Johnson was just better.
"He has a very live arm," Lashlee said. "He can throw it vertically very well, can also make all the intermediate throws well and also gets the ball out of his hands quick with the quick game and the bubble screens and those things, which is rare. He can do all three. He's a big guy. He can throw in traffic, in tight pockets. He can see over people. He's got a big NFL arm."
Malzahn adapts his spread offense to suit the talents of his players. At Arkansas in 2006, Malzahn's first season as a college coach, he had running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, who combined for 2,815 yards. The next season at Tulsa, Paul Smith passed for 5,065 yards and Tarrion Adams ran for 1,225. The next year, David Johnson replaced Smith and passed for 4,059 yards, while Adams' rushing yards increased to 1,523.
In Malzahn's first year at Auburn in 2009, Chris Todd passed for 2,612 yards and Ben Tate ran for 1,362.
The personality of Malzahn's offense is dictated by the quarterback's strengths. Todd had no running ability at all -- a minus 116 yards in '09. But that doesn't mean Malzahn and Lashlee will abandon their commitment to run the football. Malzahn has produced a 1,000-yard rusher in each of his nine seasons as a college coach.
At a minimum, Malzahn and Lashlee will put Johnson in a position to be successful. But Johnson has a chance to be great in his own right. How much help he will have is another question. He has one of the most talented receivers in the SEC in D'haquille Williams. Others need to step up.
Still, it's hard to imagine that Auburn will not score a lot of points. It's also hard imagine that the defense won't be at least a little better with most of the starters returning, plus Carl Lawson being healthy, and Will Muschamp cranking up the energy level.
The Tigers should be good. They could be very good. One thing they don't have to worry about is quarterback.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org