AUBURN, Ala. – 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.
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.
A bigger potential challenge: Operating behind a line that lost four seniors. Right tackle Brandon Mosley is a preseason All-SEC pick — Auburn's only first-teamer — after taking over when A.J. Greene was hurt three games into last season. Greene also is back.
The center battle is between a freshman (Reese Dismukes) and a walk-on (Blake Burgess), while other freshmen like top recruit Christian Westerman and Gregory Robinson could compete for starting jobs on the line.
The defense also has plenty of unknowns with only one starter apiece on the line, at linebacker and in the secondary. And one of those, Neiko Thorpe, is moving from cornerback to safety, a position Auburn coaches feel suits him better. Bell emerged as like the Tigers' best cover corner by last season's end, starting in both the SEC championship and national title games for the 108th-rated pass defense.
End Nosa Eguae returns on the defensive line but both interior spots were vacated, including the quarterback-abusing Fairley. That's where sophomores Kenneth Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker are hoping to go from little-used backups to starters.
Daren Bates and five-game starter Eltoro Freeman are back at linebacker, but vocal leader and leading tackler Josh Bynes is gone.
Kicker Wes Byrum, who made the game-winner in the national title game, and punter Ryan Shoemaker are also gone.
The total picture explains the modest outlook most have for this team. Doesn't mean the Tigers won't use it for motivation.
"That's kind of been the mentality at Auburn for the last couple years because every year we come into it and we're expected to fail and not to get to where we want, so we've embraced the role of playing with a chip on our shoulder game-in, game-out," Lutzenkirchen said. "I think you saw a lot of that last year too. We didn't really get credit until we were 9-0.
"We're just going in there and we're going to try and prove everyone wrong."