2011 Season Preview: Dreams, Lullabies And The Auburn Tigers

AUBURN AL - NOVEMBER 13: Nosa Eguae #94 and Josh Bynes #17 of the Auburn Tigers react after a defensive stop of fourth down for the Georgia Bulldogs at Jordan-Hare Stadium on November 13 2010 in Auburn Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Auburn took a machete to all Bill Connelly thought he knew in 2010. They'll probably do so again this fall.

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. As always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words. 

National championship teams don't come out of nowhere.

One single player can't make that much of a difference, especially not for an entire season.

You can't be the best team in college football with a defense outside of the Top 30.

Teams can't go 7-0 in close games in one season.

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.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 14-0 | Adj. Record: 14-0 | Final F/+ Rk**: 1
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Arkansas State 52-26 W 47.8 - 21.1 W
9-Sep at Mississippi State 17-14 W 30.9 - 15.2 W
18-Sep Clemson 27-24 W 42.6 - 32.5 W
25-Sep South Carolina 35-27 W 44.5 - 33.9 W
2-Oct UL-Monroe 52-3 W 52.3 - 18.8 W
9-Oct at Kentucky 37-34 W 37.4 - 32.9 W
16-Oct Arkansas 65-43 W 56.1 - 33.1 W
23-Oct LSU 24-17 W 48.1 - 22.7 W
30-Oct at Ole Miss 51-31 W 41.0 - 32.6 W
6-Nov Chattanooga 62-24 W 50.7 - 31.8 W
13-Nov Georgia 49-31 W 48.3 - 32.5 W
26-Nov at Alabama 28-27 W 41.2 - 21.9 W
4-Dec vs South Carolina 56-17 W 51.0 - 24.4 W
10-Jan vs Oregon 22-19 W 42.1 - 16.8 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 41.2 7 24.1 53
Adj. Points Per Game 45.3 1 26.5 53

(Okay, first a note: yes, there is evidently still an NCAA investigation going on. Yes, the "One day, we'll look back fondly at the 2011 BCS Championship Game, when Vacated beat Vacated, 22-19" joke could still come to fruition. Yes, Cam Newton's dad apparently tried to sell his son's services. And yes, the allegations and investigations cast a pall over the final month of what had been an incredibly entertaining 2010 regular season to that point. I just wanted to acknowledge the elephant in the room; now I will ignore it for the rest of this profile.)

Large elephant aside ... man, was 2010 a dream for the Auburn Tigers. A stressful, rewarding dream. We'll go into detail in the Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit later on, but let's just say that teams going 7-0 in one-possession games in a season are, to put it lightly, a rarity. On September 9, AU needed a late stop to preserve a three-point win over Mississippi State. On September 18, they beat Clemson when CU kicker Chandler Catanzaro made a field goal in overtime, then missed the retake after an illegal procedure penalty. On September 25, Auburn trailed South Carolina, 27-21, heading into the fourth quarter before two Cam Newton touchdown passes (and two Stephen Garcia fumbles) gave them the win. On October 9, they beat Kentucky when, after the Wildcats tied the game at 34-34, they calmly milked the final 7:31 off the clock, converting on three third downs, and kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired. All before mid-October.

On October 16, Arkansas took a 43-37 lead over the Tigers with 14 minutes remaining, and Auburn responded with 28 points in the next eight minutes to pull away. On October 23, tied with LSU at 17-17, Onterio McCalebb ripped of a 70-yard touchdown with five minutes left to give Auburn the win. On November 26, they evidently got bored and upped the degree of difficulty; they spotted Alabama a 24-0 lead, in Tuscaloosa, midway through the second quarter ... and won, 28-27. And of course, in the national title game, Oregon tied them at 19-19 with two minutes left before, with assistance from a crazy Michael Dyer run, they won the title with a last-second field goal.

I got tired just typing that. Auburn had endured a season's worth of drama and good fortune one-third of the way through the season, and then they just kept going. And they actually got better through all the drama, which is possibly most impressive of all.

First Four Games: Auburn 41.5 Adj. PPG, Opponents 25.7 (+15.8)
Next Five Games: Auburn 47.0, Opponents 28.0 (+19.0)
Last Five Games: Auburn 46.7, Opponents 25.5 (+21.2)

The toward-the-mean regression could be harsh, but that won't invalidate the National Champions! Sports Illustrated set most of Auburn nation surely owns.

And now, they start over.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 1 1 1
RUSHING 1 1 1 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 1 2 1 1
Standard Downs 1 1 1 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 1 1 1 51
Redzone 2 2 2
Q1 Rk 1 1st Down Rk 2
Q2 Rk 1 2nd Down Rk 1
Q3 Rk 1 3rd Down Rk 1
Q4 Rk 3

It's actually easier to start with who returns. The Auburn offense might resemble a desolate strip of Kansas interstate right now, but it will still field 11 guys per play (until Les Miles gets involved, anyway), and we should probably try to figure out who that will be. World Most Buzzworthy Offensive Coordinator™ (and Vanderbilt tease) Gus Malzahn does have the luxury of building a new offense around two potentially outstanding running backs and a solid base of skill position talent.

Running back Michael Dyer (1,093 yards, 6.0 per carry, -3.1 Adj. POE) stole the show as a five-star freshman last year, but the offense wouldn't have clicked had he been the only threat. From an Adj. POE perspective, the most solid running back in the stable (not counting Cam Newton) was Onterio McCalebb (810 yards, 8.5 per carry, +13.7 Adj. POE), and he is back as well. H-Back and safety valve extraordinaire Philip Lutzenkirchen (185 receiving yards, 12.3 per catch, 88% catch rate) also returns, as does a potentially solid No. 1 receiver in Emory Blake (554 yards, 16.4 per catch, 65% catch rate). And hey, throw in a nice right tackle in Brandon Mosley to boot. Considering how much Auburn lost, they could certainly do worse than that nucleus.

Of course, that leaves six to seven other spots on the field to fill at any given time. That's where things get a bit dicey. And that's where we have to talk about who won't be in an Auburn uniform this fall. Cam Newton, the Heisman-winning No. 1 draft pick who came within 146 passing yards and 27 rushing yards of a staggering 3,000-1,500 season, now plays for the Carolina Panthers. Go-to receiver Darvin Adams (963 yards, 18.5 per catch, 62% catch rate) does too. Terrell Zachery (633 yards, 14.4 per catch, 80% catch rate) is gone -- the two combined for 49% of Auburn's 2010 targets -- as are four starting linemen (and seven of the top ten), including thirteen-year starting tackle (and, you guessed it, Carolina Panther) Lee Ziemba. Lord knows that Gene Chizik and his staff (particularly this guy) are recruiting circles around a good portion of the country -- in the last two recruiting classes, they have brought in four five-star recruits and 26 four-stars -- but you just don't lose that much in one year without suffering.

Other tidbits:

  • For obvious reasons, most of this offseason has been spent trying to figure out who gets the dubious honor of succeeding Newton. Neither Barrett Trotter nor Clint Moseley seized the No. 1 job and ran away with it in spring practice, and there's a good chance that a two-way race in the spring will turn into a three-way race in August when blue-chip freshman Kiehl Frazier joins the fray. Good luck being the Ryan Minor to Newton's Cal Ripken, guys.
  • Obviously without a quarterback capable of rushing for 1,500 yards, the play-calling should skew back toward the pass a bit. Auburn's Adj. Run-Pass ratio last season was one of the most run-heavy in recent years, but in 2009 (Year One Pre-Newton), they ran seven percent less. Granted, they would be well-served in handing to Dyer and McCalebb as much as possible, but balance will likely be more of a focus without Newton, who ran when everybody in the stadium knew he was going to, and succeeded anyway.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 36 41 34
RUSHING 21 29 15 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 42 50 36 21
Standard Downs 37 52 31 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 22 30 16 36
Redzone 58 76 55
Q1 Rk 64 1st Down Rk 42
Q2 Rk 38 2nd Down Rk 31
Q3 Rk 16 3rd Down Rk 16
Q4 Rk 15

Auburn's defense was thrifty in 2010, pocketing every good play it had and waiting to spend it in the second half. Their offense was so far ahead of everybody else's in 2010 that they ranked No. 1 overall despite the defense; clearly this unit made the plays it needed to make, but the record would have been quite a bit different without a transcendent O.

As with the offense, the losses here are staggering: Auburn must replace their top four defensive linemen, their top two linebackers and three key defensive backs, but they did a commendable job of priming a large group of freshmen, almost a second 11, to take over in 2011. That won't stop a bit of a regression -- teams returning four or fewer defensive starters in the last five years have averaged a regression of 4.5% in Def. F/+, and a unit with potentially one starting senior probably isn't going to be ready for success, even with a solid coordinator in Ted Roof; but it could make for a less steep tumble in 2011 and a strong rebound in 2012.

On a line that was a key to the team's success, particularly in the national title game, two key sophomores will take over for the departed Nick Fairley (48.0 tackles, 24.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 FF), Zach Clayton (23.0 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks) and Mike Blanc (20.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks). Jeffrey Whitaker and Kenneth Carter each registered 5.5 tackles as four-star freshmen last year, and at a combined 600 pounds, they do look the part.

Meanwhile, three sophomore ends must combine to replace the production of Antoine Carter and Michael Goggans (combined: 41.5 tackles, 16.0 TFL/sacks). Nosa Eguae (18.0 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks) started 11 games as a redshirt freshman and is, therefore, the wily veteran by default. Corey Lemonier (14.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks), Craig Sanders (7.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks) and junior Dee Ford (9.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks) will also play key roles. When the team was making key stops last year, odds are good it was the defensive line doing the prompting. If Auburn is to avoid a significant tumble this year, this batch of (mostly) sophomores will have to come up huge. The good news, of course, is that they are guaranteed to return an outstandingly experienced line in 2012.

Other tidbits:

  • Linebackers Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes (combined: 100.5 tackles, 9.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 6 PBU) are gone, to be replaced by some combination of Eltoro Freeman (29.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks), Jake Holland (9.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks as a freshman), Jonathan Evans (21.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks) and perhaps (or perhaps not) incoming five-star freshman Kris Frost (6-foot-3, 210). Strongside linebacker Daren Bates (39.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 FF) is the rare returning starter.
  • Hey, get this: the secondary has to account for some losses! Cornerback Demond Washington (51.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT) and safeties Zac Etheridge, Mike McNeil and Aairon Savage (combined: 134.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 7 PBU) are gone to either expired eligibility or armed robbery, leaving behind four interesting "veterans" and four blue-chippers. The safety position is in pretty good hands with former corner (and senior!) Neiko Thorpe (54.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks, 9 PBU) and Demetruce McNeal (20.5 tackles, 1 PBU as a freshman), who potentially saved the national title game with a shoestring tackle. (By tripping up Lavasier Tuinei at the Auburn 1, he set the stage for an incredible goalline stand that preserved Auburn's lead.) The reins at cornerback get handed to T'Sharvan Bell and Chris Davis, but four four-star freshmen could have a major role to play in the DB depth chart: Erique Florence, Jonathan Rose, Robenson Therezie and Jermaine Whitehead.

Auburn's 2010 Season Set to Music

If I'm feeling mean ... "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time," by Willie Nelson (or, yes, Lefty Frizzell).

If I'm feeling nice ... "Wonderful," by My Morning Jacket.

(Side note: "Wonderful" is going to make for an incredible lullaby for Baby Girl C in the coming months. Actuallly, every slow MMJ song will. But that's neither here nor there.)

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 14
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 11
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +5 / +5.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 7 (3, 4)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -3.2

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.

Of course, the numbers don't see it that way. Of course they don't. What Auburn did in 2010 -- casting aside recent history with sudden success, etc. -- made no sense to the numbers, and this fall they're dealing with an entirely new set of "knowns": championship-caliber teams don't fall off the face of the planet (then again, Texas probably tamped that sentiment down a bit), returning starter numbers don't matter as much as we might think, etc. In what is immediately the shakiest-looking projection in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011, AU is projected to fall, but only to fourth in the country and 9-3 overall.

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?

 

Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! The college portion is available for just $5, and if you pre-order the entire book, you can download the college portion instantly.

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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