- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 10, 2011

AUBURN, ALA. (AP) - The Auburn Tigers insist they’ve heard it all before.

The defending national champions approach the season with an overhauled roster and a defiant response to anyone who says they’re headed from perfection to mediocrity as quick as Cam Newton went from obscurity to Heisman Trophy winner.

“It’s kind of similar to last year. They didn’t pick us (high),” cornerback T’Sharvan Bell said. “But now, no Cam Newton, no Nick Fairley. Now they’re like, ‘They really don’t have a chance.’ You just take that, put it into what you eat in the morning. I already put it into my breakfast, lunch and dinner. It just fires me up.”

But will that spiced-up menu translate into extra wins?

Newton, the dynamic quarterback, and Lombardi Award winner Fairley moved on to the NFL as the No. 1 and 13 picks, respectively. In fact, 18 starters are gone, including eight apiece on both sides of the ball.

The result is a team picked to finish fifth in the Southeastern Conference Western Division and a rare defending champ that can derive its motivation from the underdog role.

“If I’m not mistaken, this time last year, nobody used ‘Auburn’ and ‘championship’ in the same sentence,” quarterback Clint Moseley 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.”

He’s too busy competing with Barrett Trotter and freshman Kiehl Frazier to replace Newton.

This season, maybe more than last, could be indicative of how much the program really has stabilized under coach Gene Chizik. The Tigers have pulled in back-to-back consensus Top 5 recruiting classes, but last year’s team won largely with Newton, Fairley and a bunch of seniors.

The good news for Auburn is that offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn rejected overtures from Vanderbilt for its head coaching position, and he has proven adept at grooming new quarterbacks and fitting his offense to their abilities _ and limitations.

BCS championship game MVP Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb return at tailback after combining for nearly 2,000 yards rushing.

The Tigers still have plenty of unsettled issues, starting with the three-man race to succeed Newton. The offensive and defensive lines each have one player back who started in the national championship game against Oregon.

And besides Emory Blake and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, no wide receiver is back who had more than three catches last season.

Not to mention a schedule that includes trips to Clemson, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia.

It’s a formidable challenge for such an inexperienced team. Among the quarterbacks, Trotter is the only one who has played in a game for the Tigers and he has attempted nine career passes.

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