Okay, Tiger fans—picture this scenario:
Our head coach is finishing his third season on the Plains.
In the previous year, he had us playing for a championship, thanks in part to a junior college transfer who outperformed most people’s expectations but has left Auburn a year early for the NFL.
Auburn has a QB controversy much of the season. We are reluctant to start a coveted and highly-recruited freshman QB who ends up running the ball more than we all hoped, as his passing skills aren’t quite there yet. So we turn to an older QB who isn’t very athletic but is at least mostly unafraid to gun the ball in the direction of the receivers.
We lose to LSU and they go on to play in Atlanta. We lose to Saban the year after beating him. We very narrowly escape with a last-second home win against a lightly-regarded out-of-conference opponent. We eke out a tight win over Miss State. We lose on the road to an out-of-conference opponent in orange and white, and look forward to a rematch with them the next year. We get blown out by Arkansas on the road. We win an ugly game over Florida at Jordan-Hare that mostly comes down to the kicking game. We get blown out by Alabama in Jordan-Hare.
By the end of the season we’ve lost the services of our big-name, highly-recruited RB but the other one steps up and plays lights-out in the bowl game.
We end the year with 5 losses, having played in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl in the Georgia Dome on New Year’s Eve in Atlanta against an ACC team we last played 13 years previously.
At the end of the season, both of the coordinators are gone. The DC was lightly regarded and the OC liked to play around with multiple formations.
We hire a new DC with a tough, hard-nosed reputation and a new OC with NFL experience who is considered a passing/QB guru.
The year ends in “1.”
It’s not 2011.
It is 2001.
We’ve seen this movie before.
What About 2012?
So Auburn has been here before—and just a couple of years later (2004), it worked out pretty well. What about the present? What can we take from last year’s results and developments over the off-season to give us insight into 2012?
One some level, last year’s record was predictable, as certain Wishbonians warned a year ago. While the Tigers did manage to avoid the dreaded 6-6 that we feared, they didn’t quite climb up to 9-3, either.
Why do we think THIS year, and THIS transition at OC and DC, will work out well? Are there reasons for hope??
Sure there are. And here are four big reasons:
2. The defense will get better.
3. At certain positions Auburn will be better this fall.
4. The schedule is more favorable.
Let’s break it down:
Here is a statement you may not expect: Auburn will have as much talent as any college football team in America this fall. A pretty bold statement, but true.
When Scout publishes its recruiting rankings each year it also includes a number of points – this is to try and measure quantity as well as quality of recruits. A very simple way of looking at the amount of talent on college teams is just to add these point totals up year by year. (We understand that this is a crude measure; if someone has every player in college football in a database and wants to sort out transfers and kids who have failed out or been kicked off all the teams, please go ahead and do that analysis and let us know.)
And remember: the 2009 class was this coaching staff’s first and is the weakest of the four classes –it is dragging down Auburn’s average. 70% of Auburn’s roster will still be underclassmen this fall. Auburn lost a relatively weak senior class (not a lot of starters or strong contributors) and replaced it with the 8th best recruiting class in the nation.
Think of these numbers as a rough estimator of recruited talent on these teams:
Notre Dame 13028
Most of those other teams will be ranked in the top 15 to start the 2012 season. The days of Auburn no longer having the talent to stand toe to toe with the best teams in college football is over.
How could it not be? There is nowhere to go but up. Auburn’s defense was a mess last year, yielding huge chunks of yards almost every play. Auburn allowed 10 yards or more on 197 defensive plays last year. To put it another way, Auburn allowed a first down or more on 21% of defensive snaps last year. (And remember all those third-and-longs that were converted?!) With more talent, more experience, more depth and a better defensive coordinator, the Auburn defense will show dramatic improvement this fall. Fear the ‘stache!
While we have already written an ode to the departed Gus Malzahn, we have not yet weighed in on the departure of Ted Roof and the hiring of Brian VanGorder. Ted Roof is a good human being (unlike some former Auburn coordinators who recently crashed motorcycles). His defense was an important part of Auburn winning the National Championship in 2010 and in the 28-27 comeback where the defense dominated Bama in the second half. We wish Ted Roof lots of future success.
Having said that, the Auburn defense gave up way too many yards and points the last two years. Last year was painful to watch for Auburn fans. But on January 9, 2012, that all went away when Brian VanGorder was hired as the new defensive coordinator. For those of us who love good defensive football and love Auburn it was like Christmas times Birthday plus Halloween. Football is a results-oriented business—that is why Roof needed to go and why VanGorder is the same level of slam-dunk hire that Malzhan was when he came on as offensive coordinator.
What is safer than someone who has already proven he can do the job as an SEC defensive coordinator? How about a proven SEC defensive coordinator who has also been a defensive coordinator in the NFL?
Auburn’s defense will get off the field much more often, and more quickly, on 3rd down in 2012
1. Outside Linebacker. Auburn will continue to play a 4-3 defense and last year the team had one improving outside linebacker (Bates), two middle linebackers—the departed Eltoro Freeman and Jake Holland, who struggled at times. The other position was manned by Jonathan Evans (Junior), Jawara White (redshirt freshman) and Justin Garrett (freshman). What’s on the horizon? Kris Frost is a five star recruit who sat out last season due to injury. He has the size and athletic ability to develop into a Karlos Dansby type outside linebacker for Auburn, if he can (the coaches tell us) adapt to the speed of the game sooner rather than later. True freshman Cassanova McKinzy is big and fast and has turned a few heads. This position could be on the rise in a hurry in 2012.
2. Tight End. Most Auburn fans are reading this and thinking, “Improvement at tight end—are you crazy?” But listen close: With the addition of fullback Jay Prosch (assuming he is cleared to play this season—and, Van notes, we never take anything for granted when the NCAA is deciding something eligibility-related) Phillip Lutzenkirchen can be used as a second blocker (better for the running game) and released into the passing pattern much more often than last year. Do you realize that he only averaged two catches per game last year? He should double that this year. The other tight ends? Two catches total in the regular season. Brandon Fulse and CJ Uzomah are solid players and we have two more tight ends coming in this fall. Scot Loeffler has gone on the record a couple of times now as saying that he has molded this year’s Auburn offense around the players we have, and the particular skills they possess. If that’s the case, the tight ends should be dominant. Expect to see more two-tight-end sets out of this offense and a lot more catches and production from this position.
Mark it down right now – Lutzenkirchen will win the Mackey Award as the best tight end in the nation after the 2012 season.
3. Defensive Line. Auburn did not get enough production out of its defensive line last year. (We will refrain on any comparisons between Tracy Rocker’s coaching and Mike Pelton’s—for now.) Under VanGorder the defense line will be attacking up the field more and not waiting around as much for the offense to come to them. With this more aggressive approach, manned by a group that now can boast solid depth and very good talent, we expect big things in 2012.
4. Quarterback? Dare we suggest it? Keihl Frazier certainly looked like a quarterback reborn in the spring game under Loeffler’s tutelage. He seems happy with, and excited about, the new system. In fact, most of the offensive players we’ve heard from during the spring had only good things to say about it.
5. Running Back?? How can a team that loses (via transfer) the No.1 recruited running back—and the MVP of the BCS National Championship Game—possibly be improved at that position the next season? But the key here is a combination of depth and attitude. With the additions of Corey Grant and Mike Blakely at tailback, transfer Jay Prosch at fullback, and the return of senior lightning bolt Onterrio McCalebb and now-sophomore sensation Tre Mason, you have to feel this position is absolutely loaded. That wasn’t quite the case last season, when the mystery ailment that seemed to plague (and slow or bench) Mike Dyer turned out to be a bad case of the bad attitudes. If this were an NFL trade, we just acquired something like a first-round fullback and two second-round (or better??) running backs for one malcontented guy who needed fresh scenery. We’ll take that deal every day of the week.
We will discuss this much more in our preview column in the fall, but (as this is an even-numbered year) the schedule is obviously much better in terms of home games vs. road games. There is, of course, our opening tilt with seemingly eternal foes Clemson in the Dragon*Bowl in the Georgia Dome on Labor Day weekend. (Van will be there, taking time out between panels at the convention!) And it always seems to work better to have the Mississippis on the road and the big boys like LSU and Arkansas and Georgia in Jordan-Hare.
A quick aside: Do you realize that we will have played Clemson—a team not in our conference—four times in six seasons? Meanwhile, Auburn will be playing a home game against teams (other than Georgia) from the SEC East once every twelve years. TWELVE YEARS. Once every twelve years!! Unbelievable. Welcome to the new, 14-team SEC, ladies and gentlemen.
What—You Still Have Questions?
1. LeftyMania! What will the Scott Loeffler offense really look like? And how good of a play caller is he?
2. Rookies. Which members of the highly-rated 2012 signing class can make an impact this fall?
3. Fear the ‘Stache! Rumors had it that our defense had grown positively soft last year. How quickly can VanGorder get the guys playing with a mean streak again?
4. Rub your eyes. Can you believe how different this year’s Auburn team will look from last year? It’s really remarkable how much turnover we will see; it will bear very little resemblance to the National Championship team. Certainly much less than last year’s team did. Oddly enough—and it sounds pretty odd to say, but it could be true—that might be a very good thing.
Image via @AUlteredEgo.
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.
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* That time they burned the Glom
* Auburn’s 1960 cheesecake schedule
* I think of Kurt Crain
* Smithsonian Magazine photographs kid in Auburn hat at Texas prom
* Auburn’s Legend of Zelda
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* Former Nitro Girl recalls time at Auburn
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Van, did you watch the 2010 AU-Arkansas game? I was just wondering since you, like so many others, didn’t see the handwriting on the wall portending the death of defense even in 2009. Auburn’s defense played about 90-minutes of good solid AUBURN defense in 2010. Ted Roof was and is a better person than Petrino (unless you are a UCF fan). Good luck to him up north; I hope he retires there.