HOOVER, Ala. - Attention comes and goes quickly in the Southeastern Conference's West Division.
A year and a half after winning college football's 2010 national championship, Auburn is receiving little buzz even regionally entering Gene Chizik's fourth season as head coach. Alabama, LSU and Arkansas each finished in the top five last season, and that West trio has been pegged to do grand things again this year.
"Of course I sense it," Auburn senior receiver Emory Blake said Wednesday at SEC media days. "Even in our national championship year, nobody was really talking about us before the season. It is what it is, and we have to put ourselves on the map. We're ready to prove what we can do."
Auburn has sandwiched 8-5 seasons around its 14-0 run to its first national crown since 1957, with last year containing notable efforts and maddening defeats. The Tigers stunned an 11-win South Carolina team 16-13 in Columbia, and they produced a 43-24 Chick-fil-A Bowl dismantling of Virginia, which won at Miami and Florida State during the regular season.
Yet there were humiliating losses to LSU, Georgia and Alabama by the combined count of 132-31.
Chizik referred to the bowl as a "big moment," as a bundle of freshmen and sophomores showed drastic improvement. The Tigers have signed three consecutive top-10 recruiting classes and are on track for a fourth, and the confidence that was gained inside the Georgia Dome may bode well when the Tigers return to that site Sept. 1 to face Clemson.
"I think we're in a much stronger position as a football team than we were a year ago," Chizik said. "I really believe that. One of the reasons that we are is that we finally, after so many years, have developed some depth and have a little bit of experience. We have 16 returning starters, but right behind are guys who are considered starters pushing them for a starting job.
"We still certainly have some question marks at a few positions."
The most obvious uncertainty is at quarterback, where junior Clint Moseley and sophomore Kiehl Frazier will enter preseason camp in a tight race. Chizik isn't putting a timeline on the decision for a starter, but he admitted sooner is preferable to later.
Auburn's offense is under the direction of new coordinator Scot Loeffler and returns three starters up front along with Blake, tailback Onterio McCalebb and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen.
"I'm very excited to let people see what we've been working on and what Coach Loeffler brings to the table," Blake said. "He has a great game plan, and I'm ready for everybody to see it."
The Tigers are led now defensively by former Georgia and Atlanta Falcons coordinator Brian VanGorder, but Chizik didn't open his media address talking football. Instead, he gave thanks for the outpouring of support that followed the three campus shooting deaths on June 9.
Among the fatalities were former Tigers offensive tackle Edward Christian and former fullback Ladarious Phillips, who was a freshman roommate of standout junior defensive end Corey Lemonier.
"It's been hard," Lemonier said. "They weren't on the team, but we felt like they were on the team. They got recruited here, and they were in my class. They were Auburn men, and they always will be.
"Everybody has come together and tried to be tight-knit, which is a good thing. Everybody wants to rely on each other and be more of a team and a family."