ESPN’s Brad Edwards may be leading the charge, projecting Auburn to win the SEC and make the College Football Playoff in 2015, but he’s hardly alone.

Sports Illustrated also has ranked Auburn at No. 3, setting up a potential a national semifinals game between the Tigers and TCU.

Sure, Auburn made the national championship game just two seasons ago under first-year head coach Gus Malzahn. But a five-loss Tigers team losing a bevy of skill players and with major holes on defense overcoming a stacked SEC West to make the College Football Playoff?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Here are 10 good reasons why so many analysts have jumped on the Auburn bandwagon this offseason.

1. The Gus Malzahn/Will Muschamp combination will be too much for opponents to handle.

How many times last year did someone watch Auburn play and say, ‘Man, if this team had a strong, Top 10 type defense, it could own the SEC every year?’

For all of his failures as a head coach at Florida, Muschamp’s defenses remained among the better units in the conference. He has a long, successful history as a defensive coordinator.

Presumably he’s got something to prove, at least privately, because that’s how football people work when they’re perceived to have failed. And now that he won’t have to worry about anything on the offensive side of the ball, and his executive-type obligations will be minimized, Muschamp can focus all that energy on something he’s already proven to be great at doing.

Is it worth paying a coordinator enough money that rounded to the nearest million would give him more than one? If Muschamp is the difference between 8-5 and a national championship, you can bet it’s a bargin.

That may be a tough expectation to drop on the Malzahn/Muschamp combo out of the gate, and Auburn fans surely won’t be disappointed if the team wins, say, 11 games and finishes the season ranked in the Top 10. But without Muschamp, the rest of the reasons on this list aren’t enough to generate the offseason love we’re seeing for Auburn.

2. The return of Carl Lawson from injury will be one of the biggest defensive additions in the SEC in 2015.

A freshman All-American in ’13, a knee injury kept Lawson from playing last season. Ironically, that injury at least contributed to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson losing his job, and now Lawson could be the best asset for Johnson’s replacement.

It’s hard to say if Lawson’s presence would’ve boosted the leaky defense enough to justify retaining Johnson, but the Tigers’ pass rush seemed non-existent at times. Lawson could’ve at least changed the complexion of the unit into something with more teeth to it. As it was, most of the time opposing quarterbacks could scan the field and progress to second and third options unbothered.

That shouldn’t be the case in 2015, and Lawson is a primary reason why.

3. Jeremy Johnson could be the best passing quarterback Malzahn has ever coached.

Johnson is not Nick Marshall with his legs, much less Cam Newton. But he has the potential to make up for that with his ability to read defenses, make all the throws with accuracy and develop into an NFL-caliber pocket passer.

That’s a scary thought. At Tulsa, for the uninitiated, Malzahn transformed 6-foot-1, 208-pound Paul Smith, who eventually went undrafted and never played a down in the NFL, into a 5,000-yard passer. That’s 5,000 yards in a single season, mind you.

Granted, he wasn’t facing SEC defenses each week. But it’s going to be fun watching Malzahn unleash a 6-foot-5, 230-pound monster with all sorts of physical ability.

4. Malzahn is the most talented play-caller in college football and this season will showcase his underrated ability to fit his offense to his personnel.

Speaking of Malzahn, the man may have just three years as an FBS head coach, but his offensive resume spans several decades. His Arkansas high school teams are the stuff of legend. But he skewered defenses with Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and company with the Razorbacks in ’06, broke all sorts of records at Tulsa with video-game numbers in ’07 and ’08 and helped Newton to a Heisman Trophy and Auburn to a national title in ’10.

No one is more respected as a play-caller in college football. ESPN’s Travis Haney, who keeps in close contact with many prominent college football coaches, recently ranked Malzahn as the No. 1 play-caller in the sport.

The thought that Malzahn would be better-suited with another super-athletic quarterback like Marshall or Newton is misguided and lacks a sense of history. If anything, Malzahn will benefit because he’ll be able to adjust more easily than SEC defenses, who won’t have the benefit of a second consecutive offseason studying the same Auburn plays.

5. Duke Williams decided to come back rather than enter the NFL draft.

When he didn’t arrive with the team in Tampa for the Outback Bowl, most suspected his career at Auburn was over. Perhaps he’d made contact with an agent, the internet mused.

The Tigers never gave a specific reason, but suspended Williams from the bowl for violating team rules.

Instead of using that against Auburn as a reason to bolt, and despite most projections pegging him as a second-round pick, Williams decided to return for a second season. He is a strong candidate for All-SEC at receiver and should be a certifiable dominant force with Johnson getting him the ball downfield.

6. Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost give the Tigers a pair of dependable senior linebackers that Muschamp should put to good use.

The defensive line can only go up from the ’14 efforts. After taking some time to ponder the NFL, that can only benefit the Tigers’ pair of veteran linebackers, who have to be thinking they returned to do big things.

Despite getting fired, Johnson also is an established coordinator with a proven track record. It’s not like Muschamp is a magic potion that’s going to make pigs fly. But don’t be surprised if he finds some subtle ways to maximize the above-average talent Auburn has at its disposal in McKinzy and Frost.

It’s tough to win championships if your defense can’t first line up and stop the run, as Alabama and Oregon exhibited in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The decision to return by these two players gives Auburn a real shot to do that against just about any team.

7. Last year’s brutal schedule comes with upside, as Auburn gets to host Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama.

Road games at Texas A&M and LSU won’t be easy, but the Tigers faced five Top 20 teams on the road last year, including No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Mississippi State and No. 7 Ole Miss. Three of those games came after the calendar turned to November.

The SEC West remains brutal, but it’s a subtle gift that could make a huge difference.

8. The team’s running game could get even better with junior college transfer Jovon Robinson.

Cameron Artis-Payne was a nice player and will get drafted in a few months, but he wasn’t quite the superstar of a Tre Mason in ’13.

Auburn has proven it can take in top junior college talent on offense and turn them into instant standouts — see Duke Williams last season — and Robinson has all the characteristics of the next great success story.

Even if the team runs the read option less often, Robinson very well could be at least as dangerous as Artis-Payne last season. With what should be an improved passing game, that will keep Auburn’s offense scary good.

9. Malzahn has proven he’s capable of beating in-state giant Alabama.

The Tigers pulled the shocker at home in ’13 and gave Bama a heck of a game on the road in ’14, putting up a whopping 44 points in the loss.

This isn’t to say that Malzahn is a better coach than Nick Saban or that the Tigers definitely will beat the Tide. Only to point out that during the Gene Chizik era, Auburn barely escaped an inferior Alabama team with a ferocious comeback during its national title season, and lost by a combined 117-35 in three other tries.

The Malzahn era thus far appears like it will more closely resemble Saban vs. Les Miles’ LSU teams where each game hinges on just a few plays.

For the Tide and Tigers, winning the state is the No. 1 objective and often means winning the SEC. Auburn is at least capable of doing that.

10. The SEC East still is a year away from potentially catching the West.

Even if Mizzou maintains its stronghold, the Tigers of Columbia haven’t been able to match the best team from the West.

Tennessee should rise up in 2015, but how far? (The consensus opinion is that the Vols will emerge as a Top 25 team, but need one more year to transform into a true national contender.)

Jim McElwain surely will need at least one more season to right the offensive ship and settle into his first major coaching job, as the Gators don’t appear poised to duplicate what Auburn did in Malzhan’s first season as head coach.

Georgia is talented and presents a big challenge for Auburn during the regular season, but seems to always squander away the opportunity to win the conference.

South Carolina has slid off its Steve Spurrier-induced peak, and Kentucky and Vanderbilt are no threats.

As tough as the SEC West is, it’s very possible that’s all Auburn has to worry about in order to secure a College Football Playoff bid. The SEC’s streak of seven national titles is over, but the SEC West can make it seven consecutive SEC titles in 2015.