2012 Auburn Football Preview: Four Stars And Late-Game Magic

AUBURN, AL - OCTOBER 15: Jeff Driskel #16 of the Florida Gators is sacked by Corey Lemonier #55 and Nosa Eguae #94 of the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on October 15, 2011 in Auburn, Alabama. Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Heading into 2012, the sheer quantity of Auburn's four- and five-star signees is the largest reason for optimism, but if you believe more in proven production, the Tigers might still be a year away from returning to the big-time. Related: Auburn's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Tigers football, visit Auburn blog College And Magnolia, plus SEC blog Team Speed Kills.

College football's upper tier is typically rather resistant to out-of-nowhere national title runs. When you think about it, the last two decades have produced almost none of them.

  • Alabama finished fifth in the AP poll in 1991 before winning the 1992 title.
  • Florida State's 1993 and 1999 national titles were part of a 14-year streak of Top 5 finishes.
  • Nebraska had finished in the Top 10 14 times, and finished third in 1993, before finally breaking through with national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997.
  • Florida made the national title game in 1995 before winning the title in 1996.
  • Tennessee had gone 32-5 in the three years before its 1998 tote, finishing in the Top 10 all three seasons.
  • Miami finished second in 2000, then first in 2001.
  • LSU had gone just 8-5 in 2002 before its 2003 title, but the Tigers did at least finish seventh in 2001. And the Bayou Bengals were the preseason No. 2 team in the country when they won in 2007.
  • USC finished fourth in 2002 before winning a share of the 2003 title and winning 2004 outright.
  • Texas had finished in the Top 6 three times in four years before finally breaking through with a title in 2005.
  • Florida had gone just 32-18 in the four years before winning the 2006 title, but the Gators had improved to 12th in 2005 and started 2006 ranked seventh. They were not a complete surprise. And they really weren't in 2008, when they won the title after beginning the year fifth.
  • Alabama started the 2008 season 12-0 and finished sixth, then broke through in 2009. And in 2011, the Tide started the year second and finished first.

Hey, y'all. Shutdown Fullback talks SEC.

Only four times in 20 years has a team truly surprised people by not only ending up in the title race, but winning it. In 2002, Ohio State began the season ranked 13th, having gone just 21-15 in the previous three seasons. In 1997, Michigan was ranked 14th in the preseason, having encountered four straight four-loss seasons, then claimed a split of the national title with Nebraska. In 2000, Oklahoma began the season ranked 19th, coming off its first winning season in six years, then went 13-0 and won the title.

Auburn, however, takes the cake. The Tigers had gone 13-12 in 2008-09 and were ranked 22nd to start 2010, seemingly out of name recognition. Gene Chizik returned a rather experienced core of players, but of perhaps the three most important players to AU's 2010 title run -- quarterback Cam Newton, running back Michael Dyer and defensive tackle Nick Fairley -- two were newcomers, and one (Fairley) had done little damage in his career to date. But with a new quarterback, an entirely new identity, and a mostly new coaching staff, the Tigers went 14-0 and raised the crystal football.

And in 2011, Auburn went right back to being a decent-not-great program, just like it had been from 2007-09.

Really, it's not supposed to work that way. The ruling class rarely claims new members, and when said members break through, they stay broken through. You can ride a perfect storm of new energy and breakthrough players to a conference title, maybe, not the BCS championship. But Auburn did it anyway. And then it was back to business-as-usual the next year.

So what's the baseline for Auburn at this point? Remove the 2010 outlier from the equation, and Auburn's averages for 2008-09 and 2011 are an F/+ ranking of 48th and a 7-6 record. Include 2010, and those averages jump to 37th and 9-4. Teams rarely return 16 starters without improving a decent amount, so the Tigers should absolutely expect to boost last season's No. 52 F/+ ranking. But with two new coordinators and a new(ish) starting quarterback, how much improvement should we really expect?

In the last two years, Auburn has proven both that a) recruiting rankings are rather predictive (Newton and Dyer were both five-star recruits, and in the two years leading up to 2010, Chizik had signed the No. 19 and No. 4 recruiting classes in the country, respectively, according to Rivals.com), and b) recruiting rankings aren't everything (no way should a team with back-to-back top-seven classes finish 52nd in F/+). Heading into 2012, the sheer quantity of Auburn's four- and five-star signees is the largest reason for optimism, but if you believe more in proven production, the Tigers might still be a year away from returning to the big-time.


Related: Check out Auburn's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Auburn last summer:

Pick something, anything at all, that I thought I knew at this point 12 months ago. Now throw it into a ceiling fan. Auburn destroyed pretty much every ounce of applicable logic I could conceive. They won the national title despite an offense that ranked 105th in 2008, a defense that ranked 48th in 2009, and the fact that they hadn't ranked in the F/+ Top 25 in three years. Cam Newton came in and almost single-handedly converted an offense from solid to transcendent, so good that Auburn ranked No. 1 in F/+ despite ranking 31st in Def. F/+. Auburn played in close games for literally half their season, and won every time. It was positively absurd.

And now they head into 2011 having lost two-thirds of their starting lineup and seemingly 95% of their difference-makers ... and chances are, they're going to wreck our projections (and my psyche) once again. It made no sense what they were able to do last year, and whatever is in store in the coming years, that probably isn't going to make sense either. Embrace the absurdity and uncertainty, Auburn fans. If you avoid both NCAA sanctions and some harsh regression to the mean in the Close Wins department, then you're doing pretty well. […]

Considering the close wins, Auburn was not tremendously lucky in 2010, at least not according to fumbles and Yards Per Point. The luck came in the perfect confluence of blue-chippers (Newton) and players peaking at the perfect time (Fairley, for example). The problem, of course, is that such a vast majority of difference-makers is gone from a team that won so many close games that, if Auburn is a touchdown worse in 2011 (certainly a possibility), they could fall from 14-0 to about 5-7 in a heartbeat. […]

Make no mistake: there is still a significant amount of talent on this team, certainly enough to play at the level of a Top 15 team. Dyer and McCalebb are great, the offensive line is laden with blue-chippers, and a still-athletic defense is going to be pretty damn experienced by midseason. And they still have Gus Malzahn calling plays. Things could be worse. But the margin for error is so slim in the SEC, particularly in today's SEC West, that any slippage could take you pretty far down the slope. Phil Steele made waves when he picked AU to finish last in the West. With looming road trips to South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia (plus Alabama, Mississippi State and Florida at home), not to mention the fact that you could be a Top 25-caliber team and still finish fifth in the West, would that much of a tumble really surprise anybody?


SB Nation Studios previews the SEC with SEC speeeeeeed.

It didn't take long to figure out that 2011 probably wasn't going to be a repeat of 2010. Auburn needed assistance from a late onside kick to eventually beat Utah State by four points in the season opener, and after a tight win over Mississippi State, the Tigers were subjected to the Sammy Watkins Experience, losing to Clemson by 14. From there it was just an odd year. Look iffy in beating a terrible Florida Atlantic team, then beat South Carolina. Handle Florida easily, then get romped by Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Alabama. That the season finished with an easy win over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl was nice, but while you want to see new starters improving as the year progresses, that was not the case with Auburn.

First Seven Games: Auburn 28.8 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 27.9 (plus-0.9)
Next Five Games: Opponents 31.2 Adj. Points per game, Auburn 27.2 (minus-4.0)

In 2010, Auburn had the No. 1 offense in the country according to both eyeballs and Off. F/+. In 2011, it fell to 55th. The defense, meanwhile, fell from 23rd to 64th. Auburn was a thoroughly mediocre team last year, but strong special teams and another batch of close wins (the Tigers were 3-0 in one-possession games and have won their last 10 such games, which is … difficult to do; their last close loss: to Alabama in 2009) prevented as much regression as might have otherwise been expected. Still, 8-5 is not 14-0, and to go from winning the national title to getting romped by almost every good team you play is still not typical.

Offense

Generally speaking, there are two ways to go about building a college offense: 1) Define your system, and recruit to fill it, or 2) Bring in the best possible talent, and build a system around it. In hiring Gus Malzahn in 2009, Gene Chizik appeared to be taking the former approach. Malzahn was one of the more respected spread architects in football at the time, and Chizik seemed to be pulling a Bob Stoopsian, "Build the offense you most hated trying to stop when you were a defensive coordinator" move. And it certainly worked. In 2009, Auburn improved from 103rd in Off. F/+ to 17th. The Tigers brought Cam Newton aboard in 2010 and improved from 17th to first. Malzahn's final year in Auburn was a bit of a frustrating one, however; dealing with an incredible amount of turnover and newfound conservatism, Auburn's offense fell to 55th in 2011.

When Malzahn left to take the Arkansas State job this past offseason, Chizik decided to take the LATTER approach to building an offense. He brought in 37-year-old Scot Loeffler, a former Michigan quarterback well-versed in two offenses: a) your general pro-style attack (Michigan quarterbacks coach from 2002-07, Detroit Lions quarterbacks coach in 2008) and b) something that resembles a pro-style spread offense (Florida quarterbacks coach from 2009-10, Temple offensive coordinator in 2011). Temple's offense aims for hybrids of hybrids of hybrids, aiming simply to get the ball to good players in areas of the field they can utilize, be it through the air or on the ground, from the shotgun or behind center, in a jumbo formation or five-wide.

Now, in Monday's Mississippi State preview, I said the following:

It is a time-tested rule in college football: whatever you choose as your identity, commit to it. Tommy Tuberville learned this the hard way in his Auburn dalliance with the spread offense in 2008. Either he, his staff or his players were not totally committed to Tony Franklin's spread offense, and it showed. The results were terrible, and Franklin was gone by midseason (Franklin, meanwhile, has led mostly strong offenses virtually everywhere else he has been).

In 2011, Mississippi State's problem wasn't so much the lack of commitment to an offensive identity; the problem was more the simple lack of an identity.

There is a fine line between the diverse, "multiple" offense Loeffler claims to want to build and one with no identity. Like a restaurant with an enormous menu, when you try to do everything, you run the risk of doing nothing actually well. If Auburn's offense succeeds in 2011, it will be because Loeffler figured out how to utilize the pure, uncut speed of senior "running back" Onterio McCalebb (in quotes because he is also best when serving a major role in the passing game), the deep-ball abilities of Emory Blake, the short-yardage receiving skills of tight end/H-Back Philip Lutzenkirchen, and the extreme depth of four-star youngsters available to him -- sophomore running backs Tre Mason and Corey Grant, redshirt freshman running back Mike Blakely, sophomore receivers Trovon Reed and Quan Bray, freshman receivers Sammie Coates, JaQuay Williams and Ricardo Louis, et cetera.

On the other hand, if Auburn's offense fails in 2011, it will be because nothing is intuitive, because receivers are thinking instead of running full-speed, because nobody has confidence in where to go with the ball on passing downs, and because an offensive line littered with youth -- Auburn signed five four-star freshmen in the 2012 recruiting class, one (right tackle Avery Young) might start, and as many as three to four others will end up in the two-deep; plus, redshirt freshmen Greg Robinson, Christian Westerman and Shon Coleman (one-time blue-chippers, naturally, though Coleman now holds a loftier label: leukemia survivor) could play a role as well -- is, like the receivers, thinking instead of acting. When you install a multiple, Cheesecake Factory offense, you run the risk of doing everything decent and doing nothing incredibly well. And to move the ball in the SEC, you have to do be able to do something really, really well.

Regardless of the system at hand, though, the Auburn offense in 2011 was so young that it is STILL pretty young. McCalebb, Blake, Lutzenkirchen and guard John Sullen are possibly the only seniors who will play significant minutes in 2012. The quarterback situation is, as it was in 2011, still unresolved; junior Clint Moseley and sophomore Kiehl Frazier are still battling away. Moseley alternated between showing potential (61 percent completion rate) and looking lost (13 percent sack rate) in 2011, while Frazier proved his four-star recruiting ranking on the ground (4.5 yards per non-sack carry, three touchdowns, Auburn's third-leading rusher despite minimal snaps) and looked utterly hopeless in 14 pass attempts (five completions for just 34 yards, two interceptions, two sacks, 1.9 yards per attempt). Until a quarterback asserts himself, and until a green offensive line (three players with starting experience, 35 career starts, the aforementioned youngsters on the two-deep) gets its sea legs, the offensive system of choice probably won't matter.

Defense

The change didn't stop for Chizik on the offensive side of the ball. When defensive coordinator was hired away to UCF (and then Penn State), Chizik either had to, or got to (depending on your view of Roof) hit the reset button with this coordinator spot as well. He brought in Atlanta Falcons coordinator Brian VanGorder, who has spent most of the last 23 years as a coordinator at one level or another (Grand Valley State, Central Florida, Central Michigan, Western Illinois, Georgia, Atlanta). The hire makes sense: VanGorder has succeeded in the SEC (his Georgia defenses were mostly stellar), and he certainly has a hefty background in defending "pro-style" offenses. He says he wants his unit to play "aggressive, fast, smart" defense, which basically puts him in the same camp as every defensive coordinator at every level in the country.

Of the issues VanGorder might face in 2012, a lack of experience will not be one of them. Auburn returns every defensive lineman of consequence from last year, along with all but one linebacker and all but one safety. And as with the offense, the defense is still rather inexperienced; seniors are few and far between. Granted, these players got their experience on a defense that wasn't very good last year; the Tigers 64th in Def. F/+, 60th in Rushing S&P+, 80th in Passing S&P+ in 2011. Still, VanGorder has options.

The line wasn't very good last year (79th in Adj. Line Yards, 99th in Adj. Sack Rate), but don't blame end Corey Lemonier for that. He could probably stand up to run blocking a little better, but as a rush end, he was fantastic, logging 9.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles. The problem in 2011 was that he had almost twice as many sacks as the rest of the line combined. All the four-star talent in the world couldn't account for the complete lack of experience up front, and if the Auburn defense is going to improve in 2012, it is probably going to be because the line matured. Junior ends Nosa Eguae and Craig Sanders (combined: 10.5 tackles for loss, one sack) might have potential, as might any number of tackles: Jeffrey Whitaker, Kenneth Carter, Gabe Wright, et cetera. The lone senior on the line: Dee Ford, who missed most of last season with a back injury. So even if Lemonier goes pro after 2012, the 2013 line is guaranteed to be wonderfully experienced as well. Whether it needs another year to develop, however, has yet to be determined.

At linebacker, things are still rather jumbled. One assumes that senior Daren Bates (8.5 tackles for loss, three passes broken up) will start, simply because he logged more tackles in 2011 than all other returning Auburn linebackers combined, and it appears that junior Jake Holland is developing into a nice quarterback-of-the-defense in the middle, but youngsters are still attempting to carve out roles, be it five-star redshirt freshman Kris Frost, senior Jonathan Evans, sophomore Justin Garrett or four-star freshman Cassanova McKinzy.

The secondary was forced to play rather passively in 2011, in part by design, in part because of injury, and in part because of a dreadful pass rush. Its improvement will be at least partially dependent on improvement in the front seven, but the depth of experience is strong. Five corners got solid experience last year, including junior Chris Davis (four passes broken up) and now-healthy senior T'Sharvan Bell (two interceptions, seven passes broken up, 2.0 tackles for loss in 10 games). Meanwhile, four different safeties all got a chance to show some aggressiveness: Demetruce McNeal (two interceptions, two passes broken up, two forced fumbles), Jermaine Whitehead (1.5 tackles for loss, a pick, three passes broken up), Erique Florence (one sack, one pass broken up among 19.5 tackles) and Ryan Smith (2.5 tackles for loss among just 19.0 tackles). The last line of defense is probably the last of VanGorder's concerns.

Defining Success

The Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 sees quite a range of possible results for Auburn in 2012. The Tigers have a two percent chance of going 4-8, a four percent chance of going 10-2 and a 54 percent chance of going either 7-5 or 8-4. Considering the turnover in the coaching staff, and considering the schedule features six opponents projected in the Top 25, we'll say that another eight-win season should probably be considered success.

Really, though, Auburn's 2012 season will once again be determined by how the Tigers fare in tight games. I see three likely wins (UL-Monroe, New Mexico State, Alabama A&M), two likely losses (LSU, at Alabama) and a whopping seven tossups (vs. Clemson, at Mississippi State, Arkansas, at Ole Miss, at Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Georgia). If you're optimistic, you view A&M as a likely win at home, but that still leaves half of the schedule in the tossup category. If Chizik once again presses the right buttons in tight games, as he consistently did in 2010-11, then AU could approach 10 wins. But if regression to the mean is harsh, the Tigers could struggle to reach bowl eligibility.

Prognosis

Gene Chizik has found a home in Auburn. In winning the program's second national title in his second year, and in winning quite a few high-profile recruiting battles, it probably goes without saying that he's got the fans on his side right now. But three years in, it is not yet clear whether 2010 was a one-time, lightning-in-a-bottle experience, or whether Chizik will be putting together a title run every few years. Recruiting suggests the latter, but last year's jarring mediocrity reminds us that the former is a possibility. It is likely we will have to wait a year to figure out the true impact of the new coordinators, and maybe that's all right -- the 2013 squad will be even more experienced than this one.

For more on Tigers football, visit Auburn blog College And Magnolia, plus SEC blog Team Speed Kills.

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