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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 33: Auburn

Last year’s Auburn preview placed the Tigers at No. 26, just outside a national ranking but far outside the national title hunt. Mistakes have been made, will continue to be made and will be made again and again in perpetuity. Perhaps the most egregious error, however, was the paltry word count afforded one Cam Newton, then a risky JUCO transfer, now the most recent Heisman winner, an Auburn legend and perhaps, just perhaps, the most dominant college football player some of us have ever seen. He was the story in 2011, on the field and off, and his departure leaves some questions unanswered, on the field and off. Those looking for the final answer as to his recruitment, I hope you’re comfortable: it could be a while. But his comet-like blaze in and out of college football history leaves Auburn searching for answers at a key position, which might be the defining storyline for this team as it enters 2011 with national title rings, confidence, a 15-game winning streak and a large, burnt-orange-and-navy bull’s-eye on its back.

Conference
SEC, West

Location
Auburn, Ala.

Nickname
Tigers

Returning starters
7 (3 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 26

2010 record
(14-0, 8-0)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 1

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Utah St.
  • Sept. 10
    Mississippi St.
  • Sept. 17
    at Clemson
  • Sept. 24
    Florida Atlantic
  • Oct. 1
    at S. Carolina
  • Oct. 8
    at Arkansas
  • Oct. 15
    Florida
  • Oct. 22
    at L.S.U.
  • Oct. 29
    Mississippi
  • Nov. 12
    at Georgia
  • Nov. 19
    Samford
  • Nov. 26
    Alabama

Last year’s prediction

Yet there’s significant reason to believe these Tigers capable of finishing second in the West and as high as third overall in the SEC. Now, as you can tell by this ranking, I don’t believe that’s going to occur. However, if the defense can progress, joining a talented offense, there’s no reason Auburn cannot beat every team on its schedule — minus the Crimson Tide. The state belongs to Alabama in 2010, for at least one more year, though with the way Chizik has recruited, Auburn is certainly capable of upending the Tide in the very near future. For now, in Chizik’s second season, I think this is a fair spot for Auburn: around the bottom fifth of the Top 25, fluttering in and out of national ranking depending on how it fares against conference opposition. This won’t be the norm, in my opinion; with the way the wind is blowing at Auburn, I expect this program to find itself back in conference title contention under Chizik. He’s surpassed my expectations.

2010 recap

In a nutshell How do you remove the albatross of 5-19 from around your neck? Try leading your team from five wins to a national championship in two seasons, a rapid reversal of fortunes that has taken Auburn’s Gene Chizik from laughable to laudable in 24 months — and has seen his Tigers follow along the same lines, though despite a 5-7 finish in 2008, Auburn’s stock was far higher than its first-year coach. It’s amazing what a fresh chance can do for a coach; that and a once-in-a-generation quarterback can truly perform miracles. Despite the somewhat untouched back story of Chizik’s refurbishment, the real message to take from Auburn’s 14-0 run through the F.B.S. is that Cam Newton might be the finest college football player in a generation — a striding, dodging, pinpoint-passing dynamo who was nothing if not superb. There are other pieces of this Auburn puzzle, but Newton’s the most meaningful piece: Auburn’s good without him, but the Tigers are not great, or anywhere close to great.

High point The win over Oregon, of course. That’s the only win that could overshadow the Comeback — all caps. Down 24-0 to Alabama, Auburn outscored the Crimson Tide by 28-3 over the final 36 minutes to keep its national title hopes alive. In a rivalry packed with memorable moments, players and coaches, this win should lead highlight packages for years to come.

Low point Not applicable.

Tidbit So which defending B.C.S. champ has taken the steepest slide in the year after its title? Technically, that would be U.S.C., which went from national champs in 2004 to 0-1 in 2005 — that would be according to the N.C.A.A., as the Trojans went 12-1 in games that were actually played on the field that fall. If we ignore N.C.A.A. penalties, the longest fall belongs to L.S.U., which went from 12-2 and atop the nation in 2007 to 8-5 the next season. No team has repeated since the B.C.S. era began in 1998: U.S.C. and Miami (Fla.) came close, however. Tennessee fell to 9-3 in 1999; L.S.U. to 9-3 in 2004; Florida to 9-4 in 2007; and L.S.U., as noted, to 8-5 in 2008.

Tidbit (Jordan-Hare edition) On fall Saturdays, Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium becomes the sixth-largest city in Alabama. It’s not actually a city, though the game day atmosphere sometimes does suggest that Jordan-Hare is another country in itself, one inhospitable to all non-natives — badlands to the rest of the SEC, you could say. But the 87,451-strong crowd would, if it was a city, make Jordan-Hare the sixth-largest in the state, trailing Birmingham (230,130), Montgomery (202,124), Mobile (193,171), Huntsville (179,653) and Tuscaloosa (93,215). Of course, if Alabama is playing at the same time Tuscaloosa becomes the third-most populous city in the state, leapfrogging ahead of Mobile and Huntsville.

Former players in the N.F.L.

37 WR Darvin Adams (Carolina), WR Devin Aromashodu (Minnesota), OG Mike Berry (New England), WR Montez Billings (New Orleans), DT Mike Blanc (San Diego), LB Josh Bynes (Baltimore), K Wes Byrum (Seattle), QB Jason Campbell (Oakland), DT Zach Clayton (Tennessee), LB Antonio Coleman (Buffalo), LB Karlos Dansby (Miami), OT King Dunlap (Philadelphia), DT Nick Fairley (Detroit), RB Mario Fannin (Denver), OG Tyronne Green (San Diego), LB Quentin Groves (Oakland), OG Ben Grubbs (Baltimore), LB Will Herring (New Orleans), OG Byron Isom (Minnesota), DT Spencer Johnson (Buffalo), CB Pat Lee (Green Bay), DT Sen’Derrick Marks (Tennessee), CB Walter McFadden (Oakland), OT Marcus McNeill (San Diego), QB Cam Newton (Carolina), WR Ben Obomanu (Seattle), CB Jerraud Powers (Indianapolis), C Ryan Pugh (Carolina), DT Jay Ratliff (Dallas), DT Pat Sims (Cincinnati), LB Takeo Spikes (San Diego), RB Ben Tate (Houston), DE Reggie Torbor (Buffalo), CB Demond Washington (Kansas City), CB Jonathan Wilhite (New England), WR Terrell Zachery (Baltimore), Lee Ziemba (Carolina).

Arbitrary top five list

Auburn men’s basketball players in the N.B.A.
1. PF Charles Barkley (1985-2000).
2. PF Mike Mitchell (1979-88).
3. SF Chuck Person (1987-2000).
4. SG Eddie Johnson (1978-87).
5. SF Chris Morris (1989-99).

Coaching

Gene Chizik (Florida ’85), 22-5 after two seasons at Auburn. He’s come a long way since Iowa State. What he did last fall was what countless other Auburn coaches couldn’t: win a national title. Chizik did so after building a foundation in 2009, when the Tigers made a three-win improvement over their 2008 mark. Auburn retooled on the field and off, beefing up its recruiting efforts under Chizik en route to landing one of the most ballyhooed classes in school history. And that run has continued, with Auburn reeling talented recruit after talented recruit to push this roster, as a whole, into the upper echelon in the country. Perhaps now we can put his uninspired tenure at Iowa State to bed, yes? So what attracted Auburn to the former I.S.U. coach? His superb resume as a defensive coordinator, for starters, but also his ties to the university, where he spent the 2002-4 seasons as its coordinator. The Tigers compiled a 30-9 record over this span, culminating in the team’s 13-0 finish in 2004. Chizik left for Texas in 2005, and helped lead the Longhorns to the national championship; at one point, Chizik-coached teams had won 29 straight games, beginning at Auburn and continuing at Texas. He was hired at Iowa State in 2007, and tied the 1996-97 Cyclones for the most losses over a two-year span in the program’s decidedly poor history. Nevertheless, it was rash to judge Chizik’s potential with the Tigers merely on his history at Iowa State; there may not be a tougher place to win in the F.B.S., though Chizik did fail spectacularly. Two years later, we begin to see just what Auburn saw in its former assistant. Two years later, Chizik has the last laugh. He’s a national title winner, after all.

Tidbit (losing seasons edition) Chizik has suffered only four losing seasons in his 24 years as a college coach. Two of those, of course, came while he was in charge at Iowa State. As an assistant, Chizik went 3-8 in 1992, his first season as the linebackers coach at Stephen F. Austin; U.C.F. went 3-8 in 1999, his second year as defensive coordinator. Chizik has now been part of three undefeated teams: 13-0 Auburn in 2004, 13-0 Texas in 2005 and 14-0 Auburn a year ago.

Players to watch

One thing I like about Auburn, in a very strange way, is that competition is in full swing across the board. I don’t think you could have said that about last year’s roster, which was very top-heavy; while the leadership presented by the upperclassmen was vital to Auburn’s national title run, it did prevent a good number of talented freshmen and sophomores from getting snaps. A year later, the roster is undergoing a undeniable transition, and the competition brewing at several spots will ultimately be to Auburn’s benefit. But the road from inexperience to experience is a rocky one, so Auburn’s going to take some lumps this fall.

No player in college football steps into quite as large a pair of shoes as Auburn quarterback Barrett Trotter. Or Auburn quarterback Clint Moseley. Or Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier, the true freshman and the future at the position. One is going to start, probably Trotter, and with the wonderful opportunity that provides comes the knowledge that there is no way, no way on Earth, Auburn is going to get a similar performance under center as in 2010. And that’s fine, to be honest: Newton was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of talent, and no team outside of Stanford could put forth a new starter and not miss a beat.

So it’ll be Trotter come September, in my mind. He attempted nine passes as Newton’s backup last fall, hitting on six, for his first action on the college level. What Trotter does have is a fine knowledge of the system, thanks to his three seasons under Gus Malzahn, and he seemed to fare better than Moseley during the spring — though Moseley played pretty well. Then there’s Frazier, who might have leapfrogged both the incumbents had he arrived in time to participate during the spring but is likely behind the eight-ball and playing catch-up without those added snaps. Don’t sleep on Frazier starting at some point this fall, but he’ll really need to hit the ground running to get a working grasp of this offense. With all due respect to the challengers, no team in the country will have such a night-and-day change at quarterback.

Auburn’s going to run the ball well, even if the quarterback situation is muddled and the offensive line full of new faces. Auburn simply can’t not run the ball well, not with Malzahn calling the shots and a pair of backs like Michael Dyer (1,093 yards, 5 scores) and Onterio McCalebb (810 yards, 9 scores) leading the way on the ground. Dyer was all he was cracked up to be as a five-star recruit, providing a significant impact from the start and, against Oregon, having his coming-out party: 22 carries for 143 yards. McCalebb was lost in the shuffle a bit, but as those numbers suggest he’s a big-time performer for the Tigers. There’s no better running back pair in the SEC; Dyer’s a Heisman dark horse — it’s a dark horse, to be honest — and McCalebb should earn all-SEC honors with the added touches now that Auburn won’t be so quarterback-heavy on the ground. Look for a beefed-up McCalebb to do the dirty work between the tackles, further increasing his importance to this offense.

The receiver corps took a big hit thanks to graduation, the N.F.L. and attrition, losing five components off last year’s group. While the quarterback situation is under a microscope, perhaps no player will end up being more important to this offense than Emory Blake (32 receptions for 526 and 8 scores), the only returning wide receiver with enviable playing experience. He’s clearly Auburn’s top target; Blake will have a big year, whether it’s Trotter, Moseley or Frazier under center. What the Tigers need is a larger role from returning receivers like redshirt freshman Trovon Reed, who was slated to play last fall before an injury ended his season in September. Junior D’Angelo Benton needs to step up his game, as he has the size and speed to be a player, and Auburn hopes that Quindarius Carr can transition his return abilities to the passing game.

It looks like Auburn will be forced to play some of the newcomers. In a perfect world, Sammie Coates and Jaylon Denson would either take a redshirt or learn the offense gradually, not hold key roles; Auburn may not have that luxury in 2011. At least the Tigers have a talented pass-catching tight end like Philip Lutzenkirchen (15 catches for 185 yards and 5 touchdowns), who was more a red zone threat in 2010 but should be a more important piece this fall.

Yeah, the offense carried the load for much of last season, but it was clearly evident that Ted Roof and the defense was not getting the respect they deserved throughout Auburn’s national title run. Perhaps some began to pay attention after Auburn did what few others could: slow down Oregon. When the dust cleared, the Tigers didn’t fare well against the run but did a few things remarkably well, like stop the run and get to the quarterback, which is all a top-notch offense needed to finish 14-0. However, as on offense, the defense must do some major rebuilding heading into 2011.

It begins up front. More specifically, it begins up and in the middle, where Auburn moves forward without Nick Fairley. As with Newton, his presence will be irreplaceable. The Auburn defensive line will now have a sophomore feel: it’ll be Jeffrey Whitaker and Kenneth Carter at tackle, Nosa Equae (22 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks) and Corey Lemonier (17 tackles, 5 for loss, 2 sacks) at end. As those numbers suggest, Equae and Lemonier were big pieces at end a year ago. Equae was good enough to steal a starting role midway through the year, and while Lemonier held a reserve role he was a very valuable presence in some key situations. Add additional pieces like former JUCO transfer Joel Bonomono and Dee Ford into the mix and you have a nice crop of ends, albeit one that will need to get pressure in the backfield without a Fairley gobbling up blockers along the interior.

Whitaker played a bit last fall; Carter didn’t play much at all, so together you have a talented pairing with a troubling lack of experience. But they should compliment each other well, with Whitaker the bigger, run-stopping tackle and Carter the speedier disruptor behind the line of scrimmage. Any struggles they have in 2011 will lead to better things down the road, and this pair is going to surprise some with their talent and productivity. But neither is going to make a game-changing impact, which is not a huge problem but will force Auburn to make defensive adjustments to keep pace.

Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes didn’t have eye-popping numbers, but they came to play every Saturday. That’s a high compliment, by the way: not all-world talents, the departed starters were the sort of glue players any good defense — and any national championship-winning team — desperately needs. The linebacker corps return one starter from a year ago in junior Darren Bates (48 tackles, 1 interception), a converted safety still finding his way on the second level. He’ll be on the outside, joining senior Eltoro Freeman (37 tackles, 4 for loss) in flanking middle linebacker Jake Holland.

Freeman has my vote for the defense’s breakout star if he can get his head in game — and keep it there. He has all the talent in the world, but needs to harness it in order to be more consistent. The linebacker took a hit when incoming freshman Kris Frost suffered a weightlifting injury, one that could cost him the coming season. Frost would have absolutely played in 2011, if not started, and even had the athleticism to dabble on both sides of the ball. We may need to wait until 2012 to see him in action.

The biggest position move on this team comes in the secondary, where Auburn moved starting cornerback Neiko Thorpe (64 tackles) over to safety to counteract some painful losses at the position. Thorpe isn’t afraid to stick his nose into the mix, which should make his transition a graceful one. It’s a somewhat open conversation as to who joins Thorpe at safety, though it’s a safe guess to say that sophomore Demetruce McNeal (24 tackles) will get the nod. Like Thorpe, he’s not afraid of contact. Unlike Thorpe, McNeal needs to work on defending the pass.

T’Sharvan Bell could flop in his new role as a starting cornerback and still never buy a beverage in Auburn for the rest of his life, thanks to his sack of Greg McElroy in last year’s Iron Bowl comeback — or Comeback, if you prefer. Bell’s the answer for Thorpe as Auburn’s top cornerback, the guy you’ll see across from the opposition’s best. His running mate remains undecided, though it’s come down to sophomores Chris Davis and Ryan White. At cornerback and safety, the story is youth: you’ll see a number of freshmen in action, like Erique Florence, Jonathon Mincy, Jonathan Rose and Jermaine Whitehead.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Four starters must be replaced off one of college football’s best offensive fronts, one that was certainly aided by the talented pieces at the skill positions but one that undoubtedly got the job done against the best of the best on a weekly basis. It won’t be easy, and if you’re looking for a reason why Auburn’s going to take a step back in 2011, this is it. As noted above, one of the minor issues associated with last year’s team was that the seniors dominated, meaning the reserves did not see a tremendous amount of playing time. That didn’t hurt in 2010, but it may hurt depth in 2011. One thing we know about the Auburn offensive line is that A.J. Greene and Brandon Mosley will start at tackle. Greene won the right tackle job coming out of last fall, but an injury thrust Mosley, a JUCO transfer, into the starting role. Now healthy, Greene will help bookend the line with Mosley, who should be even better with that year of experience under his belt. Senior Jared Cooper and junior John Sullen have the sort of experience — not a ton, but enough — much-needed up front, so they’ll get the nod at guard.

Replacing Ryan Pugh is going to Auburn’s toughest task; no offense to Lee Ziemba, but at least Auburn can throw out a pair with starting experience at tackle. The center job should go to sophomore Blake Burgess, a former walk-on… at least for now. The real story up front is the wide number of freshmen, redshirt and true, who will constitute the second line and, perhaps, push for starting roles throughout the season. This is the case with Reese Dismuskes at center: he’s the future at the position, and should move ahead of Burgess once he gets his feet wet. At guard, Auburn has talented recruits like Eric Mack, Thomas O’Reilly, Greg Robinson and Christian Westerman. The latter looks like a tackle, based on his recruiting reports, so you could also pencil him in among a freshmen tackle group that includes Chad Slade and Ed Christian. Auburn’s offensive line in 2012, 2013 and 2014 should be among the SEC’s best. In 2011, the Tigers are going to take a step back.

Game(s) to watch

Alabama. How do you follow up on the Comeback? How about the Upset? Here’s guessing Alabama’s going to be knee-deep in the national title mix come the Saturday after Thanksgiving, while Auburn will be playing the role of spoiler. Sound familiar? Meaningful games abound, like Clemson, Georgia, South Carolina, L.S.U. — the entire schedule, in fact. Every team will be saving its best shot for the Tigers. That’s what you get for running the table.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I know, I know. Defending champs, 14-0, Chizik, Malzahn — him most of all, and more in a moment — talent, more talent, speed, a system and more. Auburn’s not going to drop off the map, as perhaps some have suggested, but rather remain a potent offensive team, despite the changes, and a team that will just get better and better with each passing Saturday. There’s simply too much talent to ignore; the problem is that the vast majority of the talent is unproven, and while talent is talent the SEC is not kind to young teams. And that’s why Auburn doesn’t look like more than an eight-win team in the regular season, in my mind, even if I admit that the Tigers have enough talent, not to mention the coaching, to beat any team on any day. There’s Malzahn, cooking up another scheme to befuddle the opposition. Regardless of which quarterback takes the nod or whether the offensive line needs to play a freshman or two, Auburn’s going to score points. There’s Chizik, three years into his defensive system, with Roof one of the nation’s most overlooked coordinators. Defensively, much depends on how quickly the sophomores up front and in the secondary can take to their new roles. If the starters play up to their talent, not their age, Auburn could win 10 games and challenge for a B.C.S. berth. If the youngsters show their youth, struggling early and getting chewed apart by the talented, experienced, hungry teams in the SEC itching to take down the Tigers, it could be a long year. It’s only safe, considering how much Auburn has lost and how tough the road will be to overcome, to expect the Tigers to take a step back. But respect the national champs, and not just for what they achieved a year ago. Respect Auburn because of its talent, which may be young but will certainly have this team capable of beating any opponent. It’s just young, unproven and untested. Auburn’s back in the hunt in 2012; for now, this team will take a step back. Eight wins would be a success. This team will be very exciting to watch, thanks to the young talent. If all goes according to plan, this youth will be game-tested veterans in 12 months.

Dream season Repeat. Auburn becomes the first team to win back-to-back B.C.S. titles, again taking down all comers in a perfect 14-0 season.

Nightmare season Those that take the under will be happy: 5-7, 4-4.

In case you were wondering

Where do Auburn fans congregate? Begin with the two recruiting sites, Auburn Sports and AUTigers.com. For independent Web sites, check out AUNation.net, AuburnFootball.com and Wayne and Hobbes’ Auburn Message Board. I’m not done yet: for a blog’s take, visit Track ‘Em Tigers and War Blog Eagle. The former site had a great quote about a national publication in a recent post, writing, “The [New York] Times covering college football is akin to Vanity Fair writing about NASCAR.” I have no comment.

Word Count

Through 88 teams 268,649.

Up Next

Who is No. 32? Tomorrow’s program had two coaches in its first year of existence; one gets bonus points for his later work advocating for special schools for the mentally impaired, negative points for being a proponent of eugenics.

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Comments

  1. Dan Fulton says:

    Excellent breakdown of Auburn and what to expect from them this year. With the loss of Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, I think Auburn will finish in the middle of the pack in the SEC west. They will probably start the season ranked somewhere between 18-12 range. I’m feeling an 8 win season too but maybe less. We will see. Good looking blog by the way, from one college football blogger to another.

    Dan Fulton
    bumpandrunblog.com

  2. roo says:

    5-7 may even be a little generous if they’re going to be underdogs in 8 games heading into the season which is the number that i’ve been hearing thrown around

  3. Xenocide23 says:

    USC is up next I believe.

  4. Ken M says:

    USC is next, and I think that leaves only 3 PAC- teams for the top 30 (Utah, Stanford & Oregon).

  5. UVA Wildcat says:

    Yep. USC is next. The coach in question is Henry H. Goddard. Frank Suffel was the co-coach.

  6. AU2008 says:

    Heath Evans was also a former AU tiger that is currently in the NFL (saints).

  7. Matt Rob says:

    Kallikak Family. Very odd piece of writing.

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