Thu May 26 05:18pm EDT
It was no secret that Auburn's preseason ranking was destined to plummet to unprecedented depths for a defending BCS champion the second All-American bellwethers Cam Newton and Nick Fairley tossed their hats into the draft back in January. But just how low could the Tigers' stock go? Compared to the competition in the cutthroat SEC West, all the way to the bottom: In this year's JAMPACKED edition of his labyrinthine preseason tome, prediction guru Phil Steele has dared to pick the champs to finish dead last in the SEC West — sixth out of six — behind both Ole Miss and Mississippi State as well as Ryan Mallett-less Arkansas. By Steele's calculations, the Tigers should close the season well outside the top 25, scrimmaging against Cincinnati in something called the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Even if you account for Steele's rogue tendencies as a prognosticator and his respect for the rest of the division, that's an unprecedented diss to a team last seen hoisting the crystal ball. No other defending BCS champion since the Series willed itself into existence in 1998 has ever opened the following season outside of the top 10 in the preseason Associated Press or Coaches' polls. The closest a championship-caliber team has come to that kind of fall, in fact, was Auburn in 2005, which dropped all the way to 16th in the preseason AP poll after losing the core of its uncrowned, 13-0 team in 2004. (That was a good call: The Tigers finished 14th in '05 with a 9-3 record.) As far as actual results, only two defending BCS champs, Florida in 2007 and LSU a year later, have dropped more than three games the year after winning the title, and only the '08 Tigers fell out of the polls altogether at 8-5.
Then again, Auburn is in unprecedented circumstances for a defending champion. In the first place, it came from father back to win the title than any other champion in the BCS era (No. 22 in the preseason AP poll) on the heels of mediocre campaigns in 2008 and 2009, and doesn't have the depth to automatically reload. In the second place, the Tigers' unlikely run leaned more heavily on a single player, Cam Newton, than any of their predecessors. No. 2 alone may have meant the difference between a trip to the national championship and another trip to the Outback Bowl.
Most importantly, the starting lineup was decimated to an unprecedented degree. With the early exits of Newton, Fairley and wide receiver Darvin Adams and the untimely arrest and dismissal of safety Mike McNeill, Auburn returns a grand total of six starters from the championship win over Oregon, fewer than any other defending BCS champion and fewer by far than any other FBS team in the nation this fall. Altogether, the Tigers will defend their championship minus their leading passer (who was also the leading rusher), two of their top four receivers, four starting offensive linemen, their top two pass rushers and six of their top seven tacklers. There's one returning starter on each line — guard Brandon Mosley on offense and tackle Nosa Eguae on defense — and with McNeil's arrest and cornerback Neiko Thorpe's subsequent move to safety, zero returning starters in the secondary at the same position they played last year. You don't need Steele's detailed "Experience Ratings" to guess the Tigers rank 120th out of 120 FBS teams by a wide margin.
The only defending champ that's come close to that kind of attrition is Florida in 2007, which returned just eight starters from its triumph in 2006 — one of whom happened to win the Heisman Trophy as a first-year starter, and still couldn't prevent the baby Gators from disappointing at 9-4. No offense to Barrett Trotter or Clint Moseley (or Russell Wilson, if it comes to that), but Newton's successor is not going to come close to winning the Heisman Trophy. He will, however, face the same pressure to score opposite a vulnerable defense that frankly wasn't all that great to begin with.
Not that you should necessarily expect to see the Tigers sitting in the cellar in anyone else's predictions this summer, as long as Ole Miss around to keep the less bold members of the prognostoscenti from taking committing to such a steep plunge. But the prospect is one Auburn fans will have to face: For a team that had to stage four second-half comebacks and win three games on walk-off field goals by Wes Byrum (also graduated), the gap that typically follows a championship is a chasm. Based on what we know about the 2011 going in, it's going to take some crazy momentum to avoid a crash.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.