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2011 Auburn Tigers Football Preview

If you don't know already, Van Allen Plexico is an expert in the history of contemporary comic books, science fiction, and fantasy literature. Our selection of accompanying art for The Wishbone's 2011 Auburn preview is the 202nd Google Image result for "Auburn Football," and it is a tribute to Van's day job. And a "thank you" for all of his and John's hard work. Nothing more.

The other eleven universities competing in the Southeastern Conference are out of the way—we looked at the East and at the West in previous installments—and now it’s time to turn our attention to the only one that really matters.  Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the Auburn Tigers.

Going into the 2011 football season, what should an Auburn fan’s frame of mind be?

First, go back and watch the AUHD season highlights video.  Go ahead and watch it—you know you want to.  Again.  It’s fine—we’ll wait.

Done? Okay, then.  (Yeah, wasn’t it great?  Just as great as the first twenty-seven times you watched it?)

As we’ve said before and will say again, Auburn fans should continue to savor every moment of this year.  The Auburn Tigers are the National Champions of college football!  Enjoy every day.   (Van’s favorite Twitter hashtag is, after all, the one he invented:  #BCS365!)  Do not for a moment let the petty ramblings of stupid people on the Internet or talk radio take away your enjoyment of that fact for one second.   While the crazed masses stay outside and throw mud at Auburn hoping beyond hope that something will stick, we will stay in here and celebrate every day.

Last season was an amazing, fun thrill ride of a year (as we laid out in Season of our Dreams.) But now, somewhat reluctantly given that we’re still wallowing in the jubilation that erupted out of the desert of Arizona in January, we must turn our attention to the present and to the future.

Auburn heads into 2011 with the fewest returning starters of any team in college football—and it’s not even close!—and a much more difficult schedule than last year.  While some forecasters are predicting doom and gloom for Auburn, we see a few reasons for optimism here and there.  And beyond that, understand that 2011 is in many ways just an appetizer—a preview of what is to come.  Auburn’s team is very, very young.  With another top five recruiting class coming in next year and the shift back to the easier even-years schedule, the Tigers should find themselves in position to win the SEC again—and again.

The Schedule

Auburn’s 2011 schedule is the ninth toughest in the nation, according to Phil Steele.  Auburn faces every other SEC team (a record seven of them!)  listed in the AP pre-season Top 25.  Road games are at Clemson, at South Carolina (as we attempt to defend our South Carolina state championship), at Arkansas, at LSU, and at Georgia.  Ouch.  Remember back when the odd-numbered seasons were the easier ones?

October is once again the Bataan Death March of scheduling, with the Tigers facing in consecutive weeks South Carolina on the road, Arkansas on the road, Florida at home, LSU on the road, and Ole Miss at home.  Not even the Zoroastrians conceived a purgatory as intense as that.

Out of conference, the Tigers take on the aforementioned Clemson plus Utah State, Florida Atlantic, and the Bulldogs of Samford.  Of particular note: the Samford game actually falls on November 19, the week between Georgia and Alabama.  It also serves as a remarkably late Homecoming.

A Look at the Offense

Offense lost:  Passing Yards: 95%; Rushing Yards: 47%; Receptions: 68%

(And it’s a testament to the productivity of the group of players we lost after last season that all three of those numbers look somehow low!)

The 2011 Auburn offense is going to be pretty good.  That is a somewhat bold statement when compared to most outside perceptions.

Why do we think so?  It’s not blind faith.  We have confidence in a Gus Malzahn-coordinated offense.   And with good reason; let’s look at recent history:

2007 Tulsa:  first in the nation in total offense; averaged 43 points per game.

2008 Tulsa:  first in the nation in total offense; averaged 47 points per game.

2009 Auburn:  sixteenth in the nation in total offense (up from 108th the year before!); averaged 33 points per game .

2010 Auburn:  seventh in the nation in total offense; averaged 41.2 points per game.

The 2007 and 2008 Tulsa teams had different quarterbacks.  The 2009 Auburn team had Chris Todd at quarterback.  Todd was a good college quarterback in this system.  Cam Newton came in with much more talent but little experience and became the best offensive player in America in this system.

So we have confidence in Malzahn’s system and in Malzahn the quarterback coach.  With the level of talent Auburn has on offense, this team should be at least as good offensively as the 2009 team, which was the third highest-scoring team in the SEC.

So what about this year’s quarterback?

Only a few days ago, Barrett Trotter was given the nod as the starting quarterback, beating out sophomore Clint Moseley and freshman Keihl Frazier.  The coaches believe that Trotter gives this team the best chance to win now; since almost all of practice has been closed, there is no way to argue this decision.  Trotter does have the most experience—he signaled in the plays in 2009 and appeared in a few games last year in mop-up duty.  He showed a little mobility and has the most experience.  His arm is not as strong as Moseley’s but is clearly better than Todd’s was.  Having an older, experienced quarterback, with so many young players on the team, may have influenced the decision.

Here’s a tiny bit of Trotter rambling with the ball during clean up duty in the SEC Championship Game:

Barrett Trotter needs to have a better year than Chris Todd had in 2009.  That sounds easier than it actually will be; Todd had a really good (record setting, even) year.  This year’s team is going to look a lot more like Todd’s 2009 team than Cam’s 2010 team.  Ol’ Hairy Trotter (to borrow our own Jeremy Henderson’s nickname for himed. only the messenger, credit goes to @Aubie1966) knows the offense and possesses a few tools.  He has to protect the ball and get it to his supporting cast of playmakers in an efficient fashion.

We have to pause here and briefly note the controversy that briefly swirled immediately after the announcement of Trotter as the starter.  Moseley came to the podium—he didn’t have to—to answer questions from the media, and was clearly emotional.  He took the decision hard.  Many saw this as a positive, commending the young man for having the guts to talk to the beat reporters so soon after learning he’d failed to secure the starting job, and for clearly being a strong competitor who hated to lose.  Others, including some within the Auburn Family, condemned his emotionalism and his failure to display a more stoic resolve.  They pointed to the way Kodi Burns famously handled his own failure to beat out Chris Todd in 2009, among others.  In particular, former Auburn QB Ben Leard went on Cole Cubelic’s radio show in Huntsville and admonished Moseley to “sack up” and show less emotion about the decision.

We think too much has already been said about this.  Every individual reacts to major events in his or her life in different ways.  Further discussion can only lead to division.  Moseley is the backup and we are confident he will step up and fill that role with great dedication and success.

Frazier, meanwhile, is clearly the future.  (Though with Zeke Pike heading to the Plains next year, one has to wonder exactly how the future will play out for the two of them.) The possibility does exist that Frazier could see playing time if the team  struggles; Chizik and Malzahn are not afraid to do what has to be done to get results.

The Backfield: Who gets the carries for Auburn?  

Here are the number of carries from 2009 and 2010:

2009:  Tate 263; McCalebb 105; K. Burns 56; Fannin 34

2010:  Newton 264; Dyer 182; McCalebb 95

So who will get all of those carries in the 2011 Auburn offense?  It certainly won’t be one of the quarterbacks carrying the ball 264 times.  Fortunately for Auburn, running back is a position with a lot of talent coming back—if not a lot of depth.  We expect to see something like this for the distribution in 2011:

Dyer 250; McCalebb 130; Tre Mason 40; Trovon Reed 35

(That’s with Mason carrying mostly in games where Auburn has a big lead.)

Throw in five carries for Ladarious Phillips, the big redshirt freshman fullback.  (With at least one of those carries he will absolutely trample a defender, rumble 50 yards for a TD, and Van will go bananas.)

Mike Dyer has to stay healthy.  He had the benefit last year of being the second or third option to carry the ball and therefore didn’t absorb as much punishment as he could have.  This year, he will occupy the Ben Tate role, expected to get those tough yards as the first choice on the ground.  To preserve Dyer’s health through a long season, other running options have to emerge.  The main one should be that notorious squirrel-chaser, Onterrio McCalebb.

McCaleb is the most dangerous player in the SEC with the football in his hands.  He averaged 8.53 yards per carry last year.  The dangerous Randall Cobb was second in the SEC at 7.7 per carry.  McCaleb is not a gimmick, he is a weapon.  And Malzahn will utilize that weapon more this season.

One of the bigger questions facing the offense is the rebuilding of the offensive line.  As much faith as we place in Malzhan, we place just as much in OL Coach Jeff Grimes.   Auburn has depth on the offensive line; the questions will be, “Can talented freshmen such as Dismukes, Westerman, and Greg Robinson beat out returning players like Chris Slade, Jared Cooper and John Sullen?”  The younger guys have all the talent in world and Grimes seems to like their toughness.  Either way, Auburn’s offensive line will be solid in 2011.  Maybe it won’t be as great as last year’s group, but it should be much better than some people expect.    At the same time, the inexperience will manifest itself on the road, with a few more false starts and missed assignments when this group has to play together in the hostile stadiums the first few times.

Where will the big plays come from?

This is the real challenge facing the offense:  Where will the really big plays come from?  Cam Newton was so great that at times in mid-season last year Auburn resembled an old Chicago Bulls squad just watching Michael Jordan and waiting for him to take over and make a great play in the clutch.  In 2011 everyone on the offense will have to have step up and make plays.  We know Dyer will have to serve as the dependable workhorse, but who can create an explosive play when we have to have one?

1. McCalebb.   He’s allegedly a bit heavier and just as fast, and can be the true home run hitter on this team—taking a handoff all the way at any point on the field.  And defenses know it.  They will scramble to contain him.

2. Trovon Reed.   Kept under wraps until the opener, we fully expect Mr. Reed to emerge as a playmaker this fall.  Trovon Reed will have the kind of freshman season that Percy Harvin had at Florida (34 catches for 427 yards, 41 rushes for 428 yards, and averaged 10 yards every time he touched the ball).

3. Emory Blake.  By the end of last season, despite his occasionally shaky hands, Emory Blake was emerging as an extremely solid component in the passing game, and was getting into the end zone with remarkable regularity.  That needs to continue, because he’s likely to be the elder statesmen of the receiving squadron.  This is his time.  We’re confident he will emerge as one of the best receivers in the SEC.  Behind him, Quindarious Carr and DeAngelo Benton (remember him?) need to (finally) live up to their potential.

4. Phillip Lutzenkirchen.   Do you know how many catches he had last year in the regular season?  15.  Yes, it seemed like a lot more—though a fair number of those were touchdowns.  We fully expect that number to at least double this year as he becomes a valuable short yardage receiver.  At the same time he can run past people, especially as the safeties start to focus on the Auburn running game.  Yes, we can all look forward to more “Lutzie-dancing” this fall.  [Van notes:  And so, in the tradition of the Aromashodus and the Obomanus and others, here comes another Auburn player with a long name that John will have to grudgingly learn how to spell!]

The Defense

The most important question for Auburn in 2011 is not who plays quarterback or how the offense will perform, but “Can we stop the run?”

With the loss of Fairley, Blanc, Carter, Goggans, Clayton, Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens, along with defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, Auburn clearly has a lot of toughness and talent to replace in the front seven.  A new “terrorizer/tenderizer” needs to emerge; the guy who wreaks particular havoc on opposing quarterbacks and disrupts plays before they begin.  Several candidates for that role exist.  The opportunity is theirs.

Can the new players step in and stop the physical teams that Auburn is going to face?  More than the offense, this is a great unknown.  There is talent, size and good coaching here, but we don’t know how they will perform.

Guys like Jeffrey Whitaker, Kenneth Carter, Gabe Wright, and Angelo Blackson are going to have to be strong on the inside.  At defensive end Auburn is in much better shape with Nosa Eguae, Craig Sanders, Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford creating pressure.  (In fact, that could be the defensive line Auburn sends on the field on third and long—and that would be fun to watch!)  If the defense can hold the opponent often enough on first and second down, this squad should be able to wreak havoc on the quarterback on third and long.

The linebackers are another unknown.  Can Jake Holland step into middle linebacker and run things the way Bynes did?  Can Eltoro Freeman harness his talent and play consistently?  Who else at this position can step up and make plays?  Answers will be needed here, and quickly.  Only the heat of battle will tell the tale.

Can Auburn stop the pass better than it did in 2010?

Last year’s pass defense was maddeningly inconsistent and often downright porous.  That was in large part a product of an Auburn offense that put insane pressure on the other team to pass the ball and score, as well as on some simply poor coverage by the Tigers secondary.  DC Ted Roof knew that he did not need to take a lot of chances with the Auburn offense being so good, so he played zone and backed off; he let the other team catch the ball and then made the tackle.   As the year went along that changed and Auburn began to cover better.  One of the reasons for that was the return of T’Sharvan Bell.  The other cornerback spot, manned by a combination of Chris Davis, Jonathan Mincy and true freshman Jonathan Rose, will be an early target for opponents.

Safety should be an interesting position for Auburn in 2011 with Neiko Thorpe, Demetruce McNeal (a star on special teams last year) and true freshman Erique Florence.  (We expect Florence to play a lot this year and be a defensive playmaker for Auburn in his first season.)

What do all of these defensive backs have in common?  Other than Thorpe, they will be back again in 2012.  And other than Thorpe and T-Bell, they will all be back in 2013, too. So Auburn’s secondary is getting ready to move from a position of weakness last year to solid this year to one of the best in the SEC next season.

Special Teams

From Gainesville in ‘07 to Glendale in January, ol’ Wesley Byrum came through in the clutch, time and time again.  Can Cody Parkey step up and be that guy, on the road, with the game on the line, when the other team calls a time out to ice him?  He’s going to have to be, because with the offense likely needing a few games to adjust to its new identity (and without that big 255 pound QB to bulldoze into the end zone), last year’s touchdowns might well turn into this year’s field goal opportunities (at least early on).  Those points will probably be critically important.   Parkey will have to deliver.

One unheralded star of the kick coverage team last year was Emory Blake.  He wasn’t flashy but coaches said he was in on a huge number of tackles and had an enormous impact on special teams.  With him likely becoming the top target for passes, will he still play on coverage teams?  If not, how much will he be missed, and who will take on his role?

When it’s the other team doing the kicking, who will step up in the return game?   Demond Washington is a big loss at kick returner.  Someone is going to have to be back there with McCalebb to create some big plays and positive field position.  And we would love for this finally to be the year that Auburn’s punt returners move from, “Oh please just catch the ball” (we’re looking at you, Quindarious Carr) to “Wow, what a great return!”  (We’re looking at you guys, Trovon Reed and/or Quan Bray.)

The Bottom Line

The schedule is much harder than it was last year.  Road trips to the homes of top 15 teams LSU, South Carolina and Arkansas, along with Georgia and Clemson, mean that a less experienced, less seasoned Auburn team has to go on the road and make plays in front of hostile crowds. We think that the result of this will be a few mistakes in the early road games; a penalty, a missed assignment, a missed tackle.  In the uber-competitive SEC, those mistakes spell the differences in otherwise close games.

This team will be better than the 2009 team, which was good on offense, but last in the SEC in points allowed.  Even so, to avoid a disappointing 6-6 type of season, the Tigers will have to steal a win somewhere.  In 2009 Auburn won losable games over West Virginia and Ole Miss, but lost winnable games to Kentucky and Alabama.  These things tend to even out.  We can’t have them even out this year, though, or we’ll find ourselves at 6-6 in a hurry.  This year, we need to have some luck in, for example, winning at Clemson or upsetting Arkansas or Georgia, without turning around and dropping the Ole Miss game.  The fact that so many of those “winnable but tough” games are on the road this year is a major reason why the experts don’t rate our chances of having a dramatically successful season as very high.

Speaking of potentially winnable games:  We need for Florida to be about as mediocre this year as they were last year.  The Tigers will be shooting for third straight win over them, and a fourth in the last five contests.  Beating the Gators would definitely help push 2011’s balance toward the “winning season” side of the ledger.  (We have to grab our wins over the Gators when we can, because it’s always a tough matchup.  Remember—in 2012, when Auburn—hopefully—will be making another run at the BCS title, the road will pass through Gainesville…!

Best case scenario:  The defense comes together, the mistakes are minimal, and Trotter makes opponents pay for bringing everyone up to stop the run.  A final regular-season record of 10-2 and a huge win over Alabama.  A New Year’s Day bowl game.  Aubie gets a new fur coat.  The future is so bright we have to wear shades.

Worst case scenario: The defense cannot slow down other teams, who play keep-away with the ball and make every game a shootout.  When teams focus on stopping the run, Auburn cannot take advantage and create big plays in the passing game.   A 6-6 record and it’s home for the holidays—with our most hated adversaries gaining a little circumstantial ammunition for their argument that we were one-hit wonders in 2010.  Ugh.

Our prediction:  We see a better Auburn team than most experts are predicting.  Let’s say 9-3 and we spoil the Tide’s party with our first Iron Bowl win in Jordan-Hare since 2007.

It’s not long now!  The eagles are practicing their circle-dive-pounce maneuver; Aubie’s trying on a few new wacky costumes; the band’s polishing up their instruments.  Mere days from now, the predictions go out the window and the toe meets the leather.

Your defending National Champions are about to hit the field again.  War Eagle!

Graphic via.

Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.

John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.

Previous Wishbone columns can be found here.

Order Season of Our Dreams — every “Wishbone” column from the 2010 preseason through the fabled Date in the Desert, plus a stadium full of extras.

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