By now, regular readers hardly need another reminder that Auburn 2011 is shaping up as a far, far cry from the senior-laden outfit that stormed to the BCS championship in 2010 behind the improbable heroics of a once-in-a-generation freak of nature. The freak, quarterback Cam Newton, is gone, along with defensive counterpart Nick Fairley and 14 senior starters. By almost any measure, the Tigers will field the greenest lineup in America on opening day, and will certainly be the first defending champ of the BCS era to open outside the preseason top 10 in the polls. They may find themselves snubbed by the polls altogether. Most of the summer preview mags are already slating them at or near the bottom of the SEC West.
Et cetera. The question isn't whether the Tigers are going to fall from last year's trophy-hoisting peak, but just how far, and how hard the landing's going to be.
The answer, according to one Vegas sportsbook: Very, very hard. The Golden Nugget laid down early betting lines for specific games earlier this month, including eight Auburn games, and already counts the Tigers as underdogs in all eight. So far, the action according to those lines seems to think that's not quite pessimistic enough.
Of the eight games listed, Auburn opened as the underdog in seven of them, and has lost ground with bettors in all eight — every game has moved by at least two points in the favor of the Tigers' opponent since opening. At last glance, Auburn is at least a five-point 'dog in all six road games, a two-score 'dog (+9 or higher) in five of them and a 12-point 'dog against chic No. 1 pick Alabama in the Iron Bowl. The only game on the board the Tigers were initially favored to win, a home date against Mississippi State on Sept. 10, has moved to make the Bulldogs a one-point favorite — and that's in Auburn, where they're 14-2 the last two years.
On that note, the departures of Newton, Fairley and Co. also coincide with the reversal of the fortune that sent almost every major obstacle to the Plains in 2010. Three of the Tigers' four second half comebacks on the season came at home against Clemson, South Carolina and Arkansas, and LSU was still even on the scoreboard with a hair over five minutes to play. All of those games — plus Georgia, which jumped out to a 21-7 lead and was within 35-31 at the start of the fourth quarter last year in Jordan-Hare — will be road trips this time around for Auburn. Even with last year's stars en tow, the odds of running that gauntlet unscathed again would be very long.
If the oddsmakers and the parlaying masses that keep them in business are right, then, the defending champs could conceivably be as bad as 4-8, or a full three games worse than the 2008 LSU Tigers — the only defending BCS champ to date that failed to win at least nine games or finish in the top 16 of the final Associated Press poll the year after taking the title. No other team in the BCS era has followed a championship with more than three regular season losses. But for an outfit as ravaged by attrition and facing as steep a schedule as Auburn, it looks like it's going to take a couple genuine upsets just to get halfway.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.