A Song of Turf and Pigskin, Book Three: A Dance with Tigers

The Wishbone concludes this year’s preseason SEC preview—Book One is here, Book Two here—with an in-depth look at everyone’s favorite and most cherished team, the Auburn Tigers.

We also conclude our 2012 theme of relating each SEC program with a character from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones books and television series.  And while we’re at it, our thanks go out to all the fantasy geeks out there who stopped by to read our previous two installments even though they had little-to-no interest in football.  Every eyeball counts, people, and we appreciate it.

Now, without further ado, we give you the Auburn Tigers!

Coach:  Fashion icon. Fear the short-sleeved jackets!  (Though the leather jacket seems to have disappeared into the recesses of the Chizik closet…)

Mascot makes us think of:  Fun times and national mascot championships.

Returning starters:  6 on offense, 5 on defense.

Offense loses:  Passing Yards: 58%; Rushing Yards: 52%; Receptions: 7%

Strength of schedule: 17th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele. (This is down from the third-toughest schedule in 2011.)  Road games are at MSU, Ole Miss, Vandy and bama.  Auburn avoids playing South Carolina.  They also take on Clemson (in Atlanta), Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State and Alabama A&M out of conference.

Questions:  See below for our expanded analysis.  Hey—we don’t do this for just any old team.

Game of Thrones character:  Jon Snow.  He is the bastard son of a powerful House who never gets his full due, despite what he achieves out on the field.

“PAAAAWWWLLL!!!  HE AIN’T GONNA EVER WIN NOTHIN’, PAWWWLL!  HE’S THE BASTARD SON OF NED STARK, PAAAWWWLLL!”

“But he did win a championship just a little over a year ago—”

“THAT WAS WITH THE NIGHTS’ WATCH, PAAAWWLLL!  THAT DON’T MEAN NOTHIN’!!”

Best case scenario:  Complete global domination.

Worst case scenario:   Auburn struggles with the new offense and mediocre quarterback play and returns to 8-4 or 7-5 level.

Van and John think: It’s coming.  Trust us.  But first, some analysis:

1. What should an Auburn fan’s mindset be heading into the season?

Auburn fans should be cautiously optimistic headed into 2012.

Coming off a national championship in 2010, expectations were naturally a little too high in 2011.   The team had lost too much in depth, talent and experience for the 2011 squad to be very successful against a much tougher schedule.  Now the schedule turns around and eases up a bit and Auburn has restocked those positions with players who gained much-needed experience last year.  But the 2011 Tigers did not appear to be close to the level of other top SEC teams, leading to changes in coordinators and lingering concerns heading into this season.

First, the cupboard is not bare.  As we pointed out in our spring preview, this coaching staff has brought in a ton of talent since they came on board at the end of 2008.  Auburn now has as much total talent on the roster as any team in the country.   Much of that talent is young or unproven, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t see the difference on the field this fall.

If this is the case, why is Auburn ranked so low in the pre-season?  Partially because the defense was so porous last season, and we don’t know yet if VanGorder can turn things around in one mere offseason.  Mainly, though, because of questions about the quarterback and about the new offense.

2. So what about the new offense? Who is this Loeffler character?  What kind of offense will he actually run, and how will it perform?

Discussing the new Auburn offense under Scot Loeffler is like talking about a movie no one has seen but lots of people want to see and have heard of.  There are little clues here and there but no one really knows exactly what the offense will look like by the time we reach mid-season.   Let’s talk about what we know and what we think we know:

What do we know?

- Auburn quarterbacks will operate under center more than in the shotgun.

- Auburn will huddle and slow the pace down.  (This is not to say that Auburn will huddle every play, but a lot more than the last three years.)  This probably means the end of the fan favorite “mongoose-speed” look.  No more TV shots of the offensive coordinator simultaneously chewing his gum furiously, hitching up his trousers, and jabbing a finger repeatedly at the ground –otherwise known as the Gus Malzahn universal signal for “Hurry up! We just made a first down!  Call the play and snap the ball!  And give it to the running back on a dive play!”

- The offense will have a run-first focus, designed to protect the defense and be physical with the other team.  Probably no more “put the defense back on the field thirty seconds after they just sat down, whether we’ve scored or not.”

- Fullback Jay Prosch transferred from Illinois and is eligible to play now.  Look out!

What do we think we know?

- Auburn’s offense will rely much less on misdirection and more on beating people at the point of attack.

- The receiver routes are more complicated and more adaptable than they were in Malzahn’s system.  For the most part, the receivers seem to like this change.

- Auburn will line up more often in a traditional I formation and less in the one-back set.  There might even be some split-back pro-style sets in there—something Auburn has never run before, at least in the modern era.

- Prosch’s arrival means Lutzenkirchen will play more of a traditional tight end role and less as a blocking back for the tailback. He seems very happy about this.  And of course a happy Lutz often leads to dancing in the end zone.

Beyond this we really don’t know anything about the offense.  Will it more NFL and old school Michigan-style I formation with drop back passing?  Will it be more Tebow-Urban Meyer spread influence with quarterback runs built in?  Will it be as completely run-centric as Temple was last season, when (under Loeffler) they ran the ball 72% of the time?

So how will the new offense perform?

A lot depends on the quarterback play.  Auburn has talent on the offensive line, at tight end, fullback and tailback to run the ball successfully.  However, unless the passing game is much better than last season, none of that will matter.  Remember—the same running and blocking talent on the 2004 team was also on the 2003 team.  The difference was, the ’04 team was able to loosen defenses up with motion, play-action and the very real threat of the pass.

Keihl Frazier was a very successful passer in high school and has passing ability that he did not show last year.  Moseley can throw the ball effectively but concerns about his shoulder persist.

3.  Who emerges to make plays?

The following data is courtesy of the “Football Study Hall” blog on SB Nation. It doesn’t just show how many passes each player caught but how many times we tried to throw the ball to them.

Which receivers did Auburn target the most last year?  Who caught the ball when we did target them?

Emory Blake
Targets: 60
Catches: 36
Yards: 613
Catch rate: 60.0%
Yds per Target: 10.2
Target %: 22.0%
Yds per catch: 17.0

Onterio McCalebb
Targets: 47
Catches: 32
Yards: 344
Catch rate: 68.1%
Yds per Target: 7.3
Target %: 17.2%
Yds per catch: 10.8
Philip Lutzenkirchen
Targets: 41
Catches: 24
Yards: 238
Catch rate: 58.5%
Yds per Target: 5.8
Target %: 15.0%
Yds per catch: 9.9
Trovon Reed
Targets: 27
Catches: 21
Yards: 164
Catch rate: 77.8%
Yds per Target: 6.1
Target %: 9.9%
Yds per catch: 7.8

What does this data tell us?

First, it tell us that somebody put an awful lot of time into studying Auburn’s passing plays on video, and they have both our admiration and our sympathy in equal measures.

Second, it indicates that Onterrio McCalebb was a very valuable piece of the passing game last year. And with more passing attempts this season, we expect these numbers to go up. We expect the numbers for Blake and Lutzenkirchen to go up, too, based on Blake staying healthy for a full season and Lutz getting more targets since he doesn’t have to stay in the backfield and block so much.

So the passing game has three dependable pieces and simply needs one or two more to step up.   We are optimistic that Trovon Reed can (finally) fulfill his potential with the stories of his increased strength and weight this fall.  Quan Bray emerged at the end of last season as another option.  Can one of the redshirt or true freshmen step in and help?  What about elder statesmen like Stallworth and Benton, who have been hanging around for a while and have yet to really make a mark? This question may the difference in this offense being excellent or just mediocre in 2012.

4. How will the new and improved defense perform?

As we have said before, we like Ted Roof—he is good guy who helped Auburn win a national championship.   We wish him well in his future endeavors.  And since he’s now at Penn State, he will need all the good wishes we can muster for him.  That being said, of course, the hiring of Brian Van Gorder elicited a lot of dancing from your intrepid Wishbone columnists.  There was no better hire by any college team in the off-season.

Van Gorder will make an immediate and marked improvement on the Auburn defense.  That, along with increased depth, experience and talent will make the defense better.  But how much better ?  What can we realistically expect?

First, Auburn is not instantly going to jump up to the 2011 LSU or Alabama defense class.  It will, however, be better than last year’s disaster.  We expect Auburn to move from the bottom of the SEC (thank you, Ole Miss!) back to the middle, allowing something around 21 points per game (an 8 point improvement) and 4.5 yards per play (almost 1.5 yards per snap less than last year.)  These numbers would bring Auburn into the mid-range of SEC defenses.  (Who would ever have imagined Auburn, with our proud tradition of strong defensive units, aspiring to reach the middle of the pack in the SEC in that category?)

The biggest and most obvious differences watching the defense this fall will be in the defensive line attacking upfield more and in the secondary playing tighter coverage and more man-to-man coverage.  (So those of you who screamed every time Auburn’s defensive backs lined up 10-15 yards away from the receiver last year and read a magazine and ate a sandwich while the play developed will feel better this season.)  With the depth and talent at defensive tackle and defensive end, Auburn should cause a lot of problems for opposing offenses.

5. Special teams domination

Without outstanding special teams play last year Auburn might have won only four games.  That is not a typo—not hardly.  Utah State, anyone?  And due to the excellent work by Coach Jay Boulware the last several years, we expect this high level of performance to continue.   Sending kickoffs into the end zone every time so that the other team never gets a return?  Yes, they did that.  Auburn led the nation in yards kicked per kickoff last year and had 57% of all kickoffs go for touchbacks, the highest percentage in the nation.  Excellent punting and punt coverage?  Yes to that, too.  Only 10 punts were returned against Auburn all of last season.  Kickoff returns?  No doubt—Auburn was first in the SEC.

With both kicker Cody Parkey and punter Stephen Clark returning, Auburn should be outstanding in the kicking game.  As we expected last fall, the influx of young talent on the roster led to better coverage teams and less wear and tear on the regular starters.   While Tre Mason will probably be too valuable as a running back to return kickoffs again, Corey Grant could be that player this year.

6. How about the schedule?

An SEC team whose four conference road games include Ole Miss, Miss State and Vanderbilt should consider itself fortunate.  As Auburn saw in 2011, it could be so much worse.  Nonetheless, those are all still dangerous teams and dangerous games for this Auburn team, but those stadiums and those teams are not nearly as bad as what the Tigers faced last season.

The early part of the schedule is tough and this team won’t have time to “work out the kinks” with the new offense and defense in September.  But a well-timed week off after the LSU game should allow the team to regroup and prepare for the Arkansas game, followed by back-to-back road games.  The entry of the two new teams—Missouri and Texas A&M—jumbled up the schedule such that Auburn does not have to go on the road to (deep breath) the Swamp at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field (aaaand exhale) to return the visit from the Gators last year—which is strange.  (Thanks for the home-and-nothing, Florida!  It’s like you were Louisiana-Monroe or something.)  Instead of Florida, Auburn travels to Nashville to play Vanderbilt.  Some might suggest that this is precisely the wrong time to be playing the Dores, since they’re suddenly pretty good, and in a couple of years (after someone else has hired their coach away) they will likely be terrible again.  Throw in the fact that the Tigers usually struggle against Vandy in Nashville (which is okay—Alabama historically has, too) and that game could be tricky.  But surely the football gods do not intend to punish Auburn—or Van, who was there last time and will be there this time—with back-to-back defeats by the Commodores.  Surely not.  Please not!

6. The bottom line.

This Auburn team has a more favorable schedule and more depth and talent than last year’s team.  We have seen the Vegas over / under of 7.5 wins for this team.  We say take the over.  They were able to take down both South Carolina and Florida last season, and this year we expect for them to find a way to beat one of the quartet of Arkansas, LSU, Georgia or Alabama.  If they can manage that, a 9-3 record is where this team should be at the end of the year. It could certainly be better than that but if the quarterbacks struggle it could also be worse—but not too much worse.

Here is a parting thought: Where are most football games won?  On the offensive and defensive lines.  Auburn has spent the last several years stockpiling talent on the lines and most of that talent got some playing time last year.  Now those lines can return to being among the best in the conference, especially the defensive line.  Good things are in Auburn’s future, if not immediately then just around the corner.  Be patient, Auburn Family, just a little bit longer…!

Related: Twitter Trooper Taylor Spy: A (Very Short) Novel of Espionage and ‘Crootin.

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 are waiting for you 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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