GLENDALE AZ - JANUARY 10: Head coach Gene Chizik of the Auburn Tigers walks the sidelines during the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game against the Oregon Ducks at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 10 2011 in Glendale Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Despite losing many of the key players from last year's national championship team, the Auburn Tigers enter the 2011 season ranked in every top 25 poll. This is far too optimistic, as are hopes for more than seven wins this year.
Auburn's magical 2010 National Championship season still has the War Eagle community wrapped in a beatific glow, despite the best efforts of an Alabama fan's black ops in Toomer's Corner and the specter of the NCAA's continued interest in L'affaire Newton.
For good reason.
Tiger fans saw their team successfully negotiate the toughest conference in the country, witnessed the ephemeral blossoming of a once-in-a-generation QB talent, scraped out several close games, gut-punched the Crimson Tide with a miraculous comeback, and edged a game Oregon Duck squad in the final minutes of the national championship game.
That the journey was hard made it all the more worthwhile.
Try to carry those good feelings and that perspective into 2011, Tiger fans. Because this season's hard journey will introduce a new reality. And it won't end well.
14-0. Meet 7-5. Or worse. SEC Champion? Meet 5th in the SEC West. We're No. 1? Meet unranked. This isn't program taunting or internet trolling. I have no dog in the fight. This is a gridiron reality.
Despite preseason polls like the AP, USA Today, and Sports Illustrated proclaiming that the Tigers are still Top 25 timber, those projections don't hold up under scrutiny.
Auburn's personnel losses are staggering: Even the most optimistic calculations says seven starters return. But more than 15 starters lost, three giants of the 2011 team are gone: Heisman Trophy winning QB Cameron Newton, All-American OT Lee Ziemba, and the heart of the defense, DT Nick Fairley.
Newton's direct production of 4,327 yards of offense, 50 TDs, and a 182.0 passing efficiency rating, though spectacular enough, doesn't fully describe his impact. The threat of Newton as a runner created Auburn's running game, forced single coverage outside, staved off a dozen certain sacks, and rescued many a 3rd and 8. The Cameron Tide lifted all boats and his departure will reveal a half dozen beached skills players wondering why they can't breathe anymore.
Ziemba was a dominant blocker in all phases and a physical mismatch (6'8", 320 pounds) on the edge against every opponent. It's tough enough to replace the muscle memory of 52 starts in a starting offensive tackle, but we're talking about an All-American Man-Wookie.
Finally, Fairley's impact of 24 tackles-for-loss, 11.5 sacks, and 21 QB hits - though utter dominance for a DT - barely tells the tale. Fairley intimidated, put people out of games, and forced offensive coordinators to create schemes focused on his containment. That's important for a defense that gave up 24.1 points per game anyway. Now we're to believe that they'll improve?
The pure offensive statistical impact of these losses is predictable:
- With Newton, running back yards per carry from Auburn's three primary ball carriers went 8.5, 6.5, 6.0. This year, hope for 5.0.
- Newton's 10+ Yards Per Attempt was a key passing and winning metric. Expect 7.0 to 7.5 YPA.
- Auburn's pass catchers averaged a phenomenal 15.5 yards per catch and scored 31 TDs. Expect more like 12.5 YPC and target 20 TDs
If you're not a stat head the sum total of the above means 12-14 less points a game on average. And there aren't (m)any teams in college football that can shrug that off.
It's particularly brutal. With the added motivational bonus of opponents who dearly want to take the National Champion down a notch and an October seemingly designed by a masochist looking specifically to break a young team.
Pencil in Utah State, Florida Atlantic, Samford as wins. Let's throw a W on that home stand against Ole Miss, too.
The Cecil Newton Bowl against Mississippi St is a toss up. As is Clemson on the road.
October features this brutal stretch: at Arkansas, at South Carolina, vs. Florida, at LSU. A 2-2 split is wildly optimistic.
November is highlighted by a roadie in Athens and a home stand against a loaded Alabama team eager to show Auburn that revenge is a dish best served with grits by a head coach wearing lifts. That won't end well.
Don't worry about early December, Tiger fans. You'll be watching at home with me. Until Liberty or Music City comes courting...
Human psychology is a curious thing and though Auburn fans logically understand what they've lost, they won't fully process that fact until mid-October. Seeing a team dressed just the like unbeatable guys from last year getting worked over is a test of cognitive dissonance.
Gus Malzahn will make an offensive omelet with what he finds in the fridge and exciting youngsters like Trovon Reed, Michael Dyer, and others from Auburn's recent elite recruiting classes will hint at what 2012 and beyond may hold, but this season will be a character builder.
Keep that 2010 season on your DVR for a just a while longer, Tiger fans. It'll help.