Coming off a 9-4 season and an Outback Bowl loss to Minnesota, Auburn fans have good reason to show cautious optimism heading into the 2020 season.

But while cautious, that optimism is well earned based on these 5 returning Tigers — all of whom are in line to be difference-makers for Auburn in 2020.

5. DB Christian Tutt

Christian Tutt is a rising junior who will be a stalwart in the Tigers’ perma-nickel package. Tutt ranked 5th nationally in punt return average (13.6 ypr) along with 32 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss and 2 interceptions in 2019.

Tutt received praise for the “edge” he brings to the position as well as his physicality — a key trait when going up against bigger receivers on the inside. He also has quickness for the position, which requires more lateral movement than the traditional cornerback role, and earned the nickname “Sweet Feet” by departed senior Jeremiah Dinson last season.

“He’s got some of quickest feet I done seen,” Dinson said. “You know, it’s good to have him there — another young guy that’s been in the system for a year. He knows the playbook in and out too. So that’s good for us.”

4. QB Bo Nix

Nix was named the SEC Freshman of the Year after going 217-of-377 for season for 2,542 yards and 16 touchdowns (all Auburn freshman records), and he also rushed for 313 yards and 7 TDs. He was the 1st true freshman QB to start a season opener for Auburn since 1946.

“It’s a very bright future. Bo Nix is going to be one of the greatest quarterbacks in our history,” senior defensive end Marlon Davidson said. “And, I mean, I put that on him because I know he can handle it. I know he’s going to be that guy.”

3. OC Nick Brahms

Auburn is slated to return only 11 scholarship offensive linemen next season. Rising junior center Nick Brahms is the only 1 of those players who has started a game up front. And 2 of the other 10, Tashawn Manning and Alec Jackson, signed with Auburn as defensive linemen.

Brahms should stick as the starting center after replacing Kaleb Kim in Week 10 and was “playing at a pretty high level,” Malzahn said, over the the final 4 games of the regular season.

The Tigers need Brahms to take another step forward in 2020, as they about to go from having the most experienced offensive line in the SEC to probably the least experienced.

2. LB K.J. Britt

Britt made the most of his 1st season as a starter as a junior in 2019, as he earned 1st-team All-SEC honors with 69 tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. For his college career, Britt has racked up 95 total tackles.

Britt had a chance to turn to the NFL, but opted to return for his senior season in 2020. With Britt back in the fold, he’ll rejoin Chandler Wooten and Owen Pappoe to give Auburn all 3 starting linebackers back for Kevin Steele’s defense next fall.

“You got to have a leader,” Malzahn said before the season began. “Of course, Deshaun Davis did a wonderful job in that area for us (in 2018). K.J.’s kind of been that guy that’s really stepped up in that role. He did that in the spring, and you can tell already he’s taking it to the next level as far as fall camp.”

1. DL Markaviest “Big Kat” Bryant

A short while after Britt announced his intention to return to Auburn for his senior season in 2020, and the good news continued when Markaviest “Big Kat” Bryant announced the same.

The Tigers were already set to lose Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe to the NFL, which made Bryant’s decision to return all the more important for Kevin Steele’s defense next season.

Formerly a touted high school prospect from Georgia, Bryant has served mostly in a reserve role at Auburn until the 2019 season. However, the reason Bryant was coming off the bench more often than not early in his career had to do with Auburn’s stacked defensive front.

Despite the continued depth up front, Bryant played his way into a starting position by the end of his junior season– and finished with 16 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss and 9 QB hurries for the season.

Bryant will now be relied upon to not only star for the Tigers defense but to serve as a leader looking ahead to the 2020 season.