An SEC West Sleeper?
By Matthew Osborne
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As a whole, this is an Auburn team that feels blatantly overlooked and disrespected by media pundits.
It is astonishing how quickly things can change in the game of football.
For a quality example, you need to do nothing more than take a look at the Auburn Tigers.
Led by Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, the 2010 Auburn offense was an unstoppable force, averaging over 40 points a game in what was easily the best defensive conference in the nation.
Fast forward to 2011, however, and the Tigers struggled to generate positive momentum on the offensive side of the ball, finishing 70th in the FBS in scoring offense. Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley split reps at quarterback, while offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn attempted to slowly guide his youthful unit through a tumultuous schedule.
As we look ahead to the 2012 season, it is quite clear that the Auburn Tigers will once again bear little resemblance to the previous year’s unit, as a series of significant offseason shake-ups at Auburn have greatly changed the landscape and functionality of the program.
Malzahn, who had been considered one of the top young coaching prospects in the nation, somewhat surprisingly opted to take the head coaching vacancy at Arkansas State prior to Auburn’s bowl game against Virginia.
With the news that his offensive coordinator was leaving the state of Alabama for life in the Sun Belt, former five-star RB recruit Michael Dyer opted to join Malzahn at Arkansas State. In addition, QB Barrett Trotter, who started a handful of games in 2011, decided not to return to school for his final season of eligibility.
While the departure of three important cogs from last season’s offense was very troubling for Tiger fans, there is still reason for tremendous optimism for Auburn this fall.
Longtime quarterback guru Scot Loeffler was hired by Gene Chizik to revive a once thriving Auburn offense. In his 13 years of college coaching experience, Loeffler has provided tutelage for six signal-callers who would go on to earn a living in the NFL, including Tom Brady at Michigan and Tim Tebow at Florida.
Loeffler’s quarterbacking background will undoubtedly come in handy this fall, as Clint Moseley will battle with rising star Kiehl Frazier for the open position under center. Both quarterbacks performed well during Auburn’s recent spring game, but consistency and efficiency will be the biggest factors in determining which player gets the starting nod for the Tigers’ opener against Clemson in Atlanta. As for head coach Gene Chizik, he says that he is nowhere close to being ready to announce a starting quarterback.
“We're looking for efficiency in our quarterbacks in the passing game, no question about it,” the Tigers’ head man commented following their spring game last month. “I'll never put a timeline on [naming a starting quarterback], but we're not ready to pull the trigger anytime soon that I see.”
The positive news for Loeffler is that he will have a plethora of talented skill players at his disposal to help make his starting quarterback’s job significantly easier.
Each of Auburn’s top six leaders in receptions last season will return this fall, led by seniors Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen. There is also word coming from Auburn’s campus suggesting that many of their young receivers are thriving in Loeffler’s new offensive scheme.
Although the promise of a strong passing game is encouraging to the Auburn coaching staff, there is no question that the strength of the offense will continue to be a dominant rushing attack, led by senior RB Onterio McCalebb.
Three starters return on the offensive line, although the Tigers will have to find new starters at both of the tackle positions.
Regardless of which linemen ultimately win the starting assignments at tackle, they can rest peacefully with the knowledge that they will be blocking for one of the fastest backs in the nation in Onterio McCalebb. In addition, rising sophomore Tre Mason looks like he will end up being a big-time producer for the Tigers, and he will likely see an exponential increase in the number of touches he receives this fall.
While there is significant reason to believe that increased offensive efficiency will be on full display this fall, the prospects for improvement on defense are even greater.
The Tigers are set to return nine starters on defense, led by a defensive line that should be one of the best in the country.
First-team All-SEC defensive end Corey Lemonier registered 9.5 sacks last season, and that number likely will increase, as Dee Ford will return to the defensive front. Ford played in only three games last season due to back problems, but was frequently singled out by the Auburn coaches for his exceptional play this spring. Assuming their currently injured linemen return to 100% by the start of the regular season, this is a defensive front that will easily be one of the best in the conference.
The area where new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is hoping to see the biggest jump in production is defending against the run, where the Tigers ranked just 94th in the FBS a year ago, allowing nearly 190 yards per game. Auburn still appears to be relatively thin at linebacker, and that position is unquestionably the biggest area of concern for the defense heading into summer camp.
Neiko Thorpe and T’Sharvin Bell will be missed in the secondary, but VanGorder is still expecting big things out of his experienced, albeit young, defensive backfield. Jermaine Whitehead has received outstanding reviews for his play this spring, and he will likely play a number of different positions for the Auburn defense this fall.
As a whole, this is an Auburn team that feels blatantly overlooked and disrespected by media pundits. Despite returning 16 starters from a team which won eight games last season, the Tigers receive almost no mention when discussions of the SEC West race arise.
Although it is with good reason that Alabama, LSU and Arkansas will be ranked so highly in the preseason polls, this Auburn team is certainly not lacking for talent either.
While Auburn is likely to be a fringe top 25 team when the official polls are released prior to the start of the season, this is a team that feels like it has the talent to make some noise in the conference this fall.
Sure, Cam Newton may not be seen donning an Auburn uniform on the playing field come September, but rest assured that Gene Chizik and his talented assembly of young men will have something to prove in 2012.