What the Tigers did not lose was their swagger.
“Same thing you saw last year,” said Auburn junior cornerback T’Sharvan Bell when asked about the Tigers’ expectations. “Our goal is the same. We want to win it all. Our goal is to go to Atlanta (for the SEC championship) and do this all over again.
“It’s as realistic as it can be. We’re not going to accept anything but that.”
Realistic? It’d be hard to find a pigskin pundit that would say it’s so, but maybe the Tigers are simply too young to know better. After all, Auburn begins this season with 51 true or redshirt freshman on its 105-man fall roster, and 10 scholarship seniors, three of whom are former walk-ons.
And just maybe Auburn’s coaching staff is working the youth angle to its advantage.
Rather than lower expectations, Auburn’s coaches are raising them.
“As far as our staff goes, we’re not using any excuses for anything,” said Auburn coach Gene Chizik. “We’ve got to coach these young guys up, and if they become the guys that we’ve got to play - whether it’s 10-15 or 20 true freshmen out there - that’s who we’ll play with. We’ll have to do the best coaching job since we’ve been here.”
During fall practice, freshman center Reese Dismukes confided that offensive line coach Jeff Grimes told his charges that they have a chance to be better than last year’s group that included four seniors and was arguably the best offensive line in the nation.
“Yeah, it’s setting the bar high,” Grimes said. “But if I didn’t take that approach, what would they think of me as their coach? So the thought that I tried to share with them — there’s actually a Scripture verse in First Timothy that says: Don’t let anyone look down on you because of your youth … We’re a young group, we’re an inexperienced group. But that doesn’t mean we have to take a back seat to anybody.”
To get an understanding of how the Tigers wound up with so few seniors, it’s necessary to look at the recruiting class of 2008, the last for former coach Tommy Tuberville and the group that would be this year’s fourth-year seniors.
Of Auburn’s 28 signees in a class ranked No. 20 by Rivals.com and No. 18 by Scout.com, five remain on the team.
Reserve defensive back Drew Cole and starting safety Neiko Thorpe are the only fourth-year scholarship seniors. Starting quarterback Barrett Trotter is a redshirt junior, as are Bell and running back Onterio McCalebb.
Wide receiver Darvin Adams left for the NFL after last season, and wide receiver Derek Winter, who graduated early, elected not to return for his final year of eligibility.
Three of the signees never made it into school, and there were three junior college players in that class who have completed their eligibility.
That leaves 15 players who transferred, were dismissed, or left the program for other reasons.
Most of the attrition involving those 15 occurred during the transition from Tuberville to Chizik.
That leaves an experience gap and a leadership gap that will have to be filled by younger players.
From a talent standpoint, the Tigers are fortunate to be working with back-to-back recruiting classes ranked in the top five in the nation.
By necessity, many of those players will play.
“We did not recruit our freshmen to watch,” Chizik said. “We didn’t recruit them to observe everybody else play. We recruit them to come in here and play.
“Not to one of them are we saying, `Look, you’re redshirted until you prove you can play.’ It’s the opposite. It’s, `You can play until we feel like there’s no way, and then we’ll redshirt you.’ That’s how we see it, and that’s how we have to see it right now with the numbers we have.”
It also means some players unaccustomed to leadership roles are stepping up by necessity.
Sophomore Nosa Eguae has become a team leader on the defensive line, and Bell has followed suit in the secondary.
On offense, Trotter, tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen and tailbacks Mike Dyer and McCalebb are all trying to show the younger players the way it should be done.
Trotter, Lutzenkirchen and McCalebb are all juniors. Dyer is a sophomore.
“It’s kind of weird,” McCalebb said. “I never thought it would come to a point like this, where I’m having people look up to me and ask me questions about the offense and stuff like that.”
While expectations among Auburn’s players and staff are high for the coming season, they’re anything but high outside the program. Auburn was picked to finish fifth in the six-team SEC West in a preseason poll of the league’s media.
“If I’m not mistaken, this time last year, nobody used ‘Auburn’ and ‘championship’ in the same sentence,” Chizik said. “So that’s what makes college football so great. Everybody’s got opinions and everybody loves this time of year to predict who’s going to do what. So that’s all good. I don’t have the time or energy to worry about it.”
And then there’s Bell, who draws motivation from low expectations from outside the program.
“You just take that, put it into what you eat in the morning,” Bell said. “I already put it into my breakfast, lunch and dinner. It just fires me up. Every day at practice, I have a lot of energy, I’m always flying around. September third (when the Tigers open the season against Utah State), it’ll be the same thing.”
Charles Bennett covers Auburn University sports for The Star. Follow him on Twitter @AUTigers_Star