AUBURN, Ala. — The Auburn Tigers have been at their best in recent seasons when nobody’s expecting much out of them, and flopped at times in the face of high expectations.

There’s a fair amount of positive buzz this season. The 12th-ranked Tigers open Saturday night against Georgia Southern widely regarded as the team most likely to challenge No. 1 Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Western Division.

It’s not the kind of title talk that enveloped Auburn in 2014 and 2015, when the Tigers entered the season ranked fifth and sixth respectively. But it definitely represents expectations for significant improvement in coach Gus Malzahn’s fifth season.

“You keep it within your own team,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “You don’t worry about what everybody else thinks. You worry about what the expectations are for us that we’ve set. Our guys, we expect big things within this room, but we don’t get caught up on the outside.”

The hopes of Auburn fans have been stirred by the arrival of former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham and the return of players like tailbacks Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson, along with cornerback Carlton Davis and defensive end Marlon Davidson. Add in the development of prized recruits like starting defensive tackle Derrick Brown, and it’s understandable why the fans are amped up.

The Tigers have gone 8-5, 7-6 and 8-5 since reaching the national championship game in 2013. It’s not just that they’ve underachieved when the most was expected of them, they’ve also overachieved when expectations were modest.

They weren’t ranked to start that 2013 season and were No. 22 going into 2010 but wound up winning a national title behind another transfer quarterback, Cam Newton. Now, the hype levels preceding Auburn’s 2017 season fall somewhere in between.

“I think the guys are very locked in and ready,” Auburn center Austin Golson said. “We know we can be good but we also know that if we don’t take care of business, we can end up like the last couple of years and that’s not what we want to be or who we are. Nobody on this team is wanting to go 8-5 anymore. I think we’re ready to step up to the challenge.”

The Tigers have plenty of reason for optimism, starting with Stidham. He won the starting job over incumbent Sean White in fall camp.

Pettway led the SEC in rushing yards per game last season but is listed as a co-starter with Johnson in the first preseason depth chart released Tuesday. It was a curious list even though Johnson ran for 895 yards and 11 touchdowns with Pettway not playing in three games.

It’s also a sign the Tigers are high on both of them.

“They’re two of the better running backs in our league, and they’re the two guys that we’ll go with,” Malzahn said.

NOTES: Prince Tega Wanogho Jr., a converted defensive lineman, is the starter at left tackle. Darius James has moved over to right tackle. Braden Smith remains at guard despite working at tackle in the preseason but could play both. … The depth chart included 13 true freshmen on either the second or third team.


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