Junior Jeremy Johnson will quarterback Gus Malzahn's Auburn Tigers this season after spending the past two years as Nick Marshall's backup.

This certainly could qualify as a rebuilding year for the Auburn football program.

Quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and Rimington Award-winning center Reese Dismukes are among the eight starters gone from last season's offense, which was the strength of the team. The Tigers allowed more than 30 points in each of their last six games against Bowl Subdivision foes last season, and they lost four of their final five games after a 7-1 start.

Yet Auburn is trending as the early pick to win a third Southeastern Conference championship in six years.

"We did lose a lot of quality players who really helped us the last two years, but here at Auburn we want to win championships every year," coach Gus Malzahn said this past week. "That's the expectation, but from a coach's standpoint, you don't get too caught up in preseason polls and all that. It is what it is, and everything really defines itself the second half of the season.

"That's what we tell our players. You have to earn it once you get to the second half of the season, but as far as expectations, we want to be a team that thinks about winning the championship every year."

The Sporting News has Auburn No. 3 in its preseason national poll, trailing Ohio State and TCU. In ESPN's latest poll, Malzahn's Tigers are No. 4 behind Ohio State, TCU and Oregon.

Auburn began last season ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press poll and climbed to No. 3 in early November before two late fumbles in a 41-38 loss to Texas A&M began its unraveling.

This year's offense will be guided by junior quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who will be accompanied by the tailback tandem of Roc Thomas and Jovon Robinson and receiver Duke Williams, the team's most dynamic talent. Johnson started last season's opener against Arkansas, when Marshall was suspended for the first half, and completed 12 of 16 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns.

"Jeremy had an outstanding spring," Malzahn said. "Of course, we knew a lot about him already. He was our backup the last two years and got a lot of quality experience in games, and, more importantly, he got a lot of reps with our ones the last two years. This spring, he really stepped up and took charge that this is his team."

Standout defensive end Carl Lawson returns after missing last season with an ACL injury, but the biggest component for this year's optimism is the addition of defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. The defensive coordinator of the Tigers in 2006 and '07, Muschamp spent the past four seasons as Florida's head coach.

"It helps me to have a guy who has been a head coach in our league," Malzahn said. "Our league is very unique, and he brings a lot of experience and a lot of trust, too. His expectations are extremely high, and he holds our guys accountable. He brings his 'A' game to every meeting and every practice, and our defensive guys really responded and have taken on his personality."

Malzahn was excited about the defensive play this spring, including the lowest-scoring A-Day game (24-14) during his time with the Tigers.

Lawson and DaVonte Lambert should give the Tigers one of the best pass-rushing tandems in the league, though the depth there took a hit recently when Elijah Daniel was dismissed following felony armed robbery charges. Montravius Adams and Dontavius Russell comprise the rest of the potentially formidable front.

"I expect us to be a top-five defense in the SEC and the nation," Adams told reporters at A-Day. "That's my expectation for this season. Everybody loves Coach Muschamp. He's bringing that energy."

The second and third levels of Auburn's defense will be Muschamp's biggest undertaking. Three defensive backs have left the program since A-Day, and early enrollee Tim Irvin could be the starting nickel back.

Safety Tray Matthews, who began his career at Georgia, was the A-Day defensive MVP on a program filled with expectations and questions, too.

"We lost so many quality players who had experience, and that's probably our No. 1 thing," Malzahn said. "With that, we have a chance to get better each game because of youth. We have some talented guys who are inexperienced, and hopefully that will be the case.

"We don't have a lot of experience in the secondary, and we don't have a lot of depth, so we'll have to rely on some guys who don't have the experience you would like, but we have a chance to get better each game."

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524.