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The Countdown

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

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Auburn (8-5, 4-4)

The only problem with Cam Newton’s one-and-done blur of a Heisman season — really, the only problem — is that it was so unexpected. The Newton who played at Florida, prior to his being dismissed from the program, was a wildly athletic runner with minimal skills as a passer: he could throw far and he could throw fast, but accuracy, let alone the ability to diagnose a college defense, remained far out of his grasp. But there was no doubting his unparalleled physical gifts, and there was no limiting the excitement over the idea of teaming Newton’s athleticism with Gus Malzahn’s never-fail spread offense. If nothing else, Newton could give Auburn the running dimension it lacked at quarterback in 2009.

Not that the Tigers didn’t expect more. The Tigers expected a difference-maker, and in rolling out all the stops to land Newton’s signature the program hoped for the sort of quarterback who could lift it into the SEC West hunt. Auburn got that and more, and the never-ending reel of Newton-themed highlights remains fresh in our minds.

What Auburn got was the best JUCO transfer in college football history; the best one-year wonder in history; the finest quarterback in school history; and, perhaps, the finest single season by a player in the history of college football. And Auburn excepted it all willingly, of course, but Newton’s amazing season left the program with an issue: there was no succession plan.

There was no plan for 2011, that is. Gene Chizik’s plan when adding Newton was to have him run the show for two years while developing his eventual replacement; as it was, the Tigers were forced to embrace life without Newton one year ahead of schedule, heading into SEC play with the quarterbacks Newton was first brought into replace.

The gap in talent between Newton and Barrett Trotter is larger than the gap between an Alabama fan and an Auburn fan as they pass on the street. Newton was once in a lifetime; Trotter, while a serviceable starter in the SEC, had none of the gifts that made Newton such a jaw-dropping talent.

This isn’t news: Auburn struggled offensively because Newton was no longer in the fold. What was surprising was the ease with which the fan base soured on Malzahn, who only eight months before the start of the 2011 season had been viewed as the one irreplaceable piece of Chizik’s staff. Was Malzahn really to blame for the drop in offensive production, or was the decline merely a byproduct of Auburn being caught unprepared by Newton’s one-and-done junior season?

The answer will come in September, in a way. Malzahn is out, having taken the head job at Arkansas State. His replacement, former Temple offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, has dipped into both the spread — he was a former assistant at Florida under Urban Meyer — and more pro-style offenses during his 14-year coaching career, with heavy focus on the latter.

And Trotter is out, having opted to skip his senior season. That leaves Auburn with a new coordinator but a similar problem. Three quarterbacks: one junior with some experience, a sophomore with little experience and a true freshman trying to learn the system on the fly.

The junior, Clint Moseley, lost a spirited battle for the starting job in August before replacing Trotter as the starter in late October. The sophomore, Kiehl Frazier, has tremendous promise but didn’t impress in his limited duty last fall. The true freshman, Zeke Pike, chose Auburn from a slew of offers from across the SEC.

Another thing hasn’t changed: Auburn’s season will be defined by its quarterback play, as in 2011. And another: Loeffler, like Malzahn before him, is widely viewed as a strong developer of quarterback talent. In addition, Loeffler has some experience handling a long-running quarterback competition; Temple played three quarterbacks last fall before finally settling on Chris Coyer, who looks like the program’s future at the position.

The offense will change, however. While Loeffler will give lip service to the idea of maintaining a Malzahn-era spread, the Tigers will make a distinct move towards a more prototypical offensive philosophy. Auburn’s offense will be more Alabama, in short — which isn’t such a bad thing, given the way A.J. McCarron and the Tide ripped Auburn to shreds in last November’s Iron Bowl.

Season grade: C The defending national champs didn’t play a complete game all season, unless you count a Nov. 19 win over Samford. You shouldn’t count Samford. Auburn barely sneaked past Utah State in the season opener. The defense was inept for all but the final two plays of a 41-34 win over Mississippi State. Mighty Florida Atlantic held the Tigers to 315 yards of total offense. Mississippi ran for 220 yards on the ground. And these were wins; Auburn barely showed a pulse in defeat. Clemson had 624 yards of total offense. Arkansas, L.S.U., Georgia and Alabama beat the Tigers by the combined final score of 170-45. In all, Auburn scored 234 fewer points and allowed 39 more points in one fewer game than in 2010. Not quite the national title follow-up that the Tigers had in mind, I’m sure.

High point A 16-13 win at then-No. 10 South Carolina on Oct. 1. For one week, at least, the defense showed up. This game is notable for another reason: After five years and as many suspensions, this was Stephen Garcia’s final start for the Gamecocks.

Low point A 42-14 loss to the Crimson Tide. One year after blowing a 24-0 lead, Alabama took a 24-7 advantage into halftime and never looked back.

Offensive M.V.P. Michael Dyer followed up his 1,000-yard freshman campaign with a team-best 1,242 yards and 10 scores. He cracked the 100-yard mark six times, helping Auburn partially offset the rushing production lost when Newton opted to forego his final season of eligibility. Dyer did Newton one better: he chose to forego his final two seasons at Auburn in transferring to Arkansas State, where he’ll continue serving as Malzahn’s most valuable weapon at running back. Additional credit should go to tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who scored the eventual game-deciding touchdowns in Auburn’s wins over Mississippi State and South Carolina. There’s no better red zone weapon at his position in the SEC.

Defensive M.V.P. Three of Auburn’s four leading tacklers were defensive backs, which says much about the defense’s weak front seven. Weak, perhaps, but the front seven contained Auburn’s lone all-conference selection on the defensive side of the ball: Corey Lemonier, a sophomore end who paced the Tigers with 13.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, is a key building block in new coordinator’s Brian VanGorder’s reimagining of Auburn’s once-vaunted defensive attack. Lemonier accounted for 43 percent of the team’s sack total.

Stock watch It doesn’t get any easier from here. Auburn has a new offensive coordinator, Loeffler, and a new defensive coordinator, VanGorder. Then there’s the SEC West, which should have three teams ranked among the top 10 heading into September. There is good news, however. While the Tigers lost Dyer and both starting tackles, the majority of last season’s contributors on offense are back in the fold. VanGorder inherits a youthful but experienced group on defense, albeit one desperately in need of an injection of confidence. The bottom line: Auburn can’t possibly play with less consistency than it did last season. Even with a nice improvement, however, the Tigers cannot be considered more than the fourth-best team in the West heading into next season. It’s true that Auburn has surprised before; unfortunately, there’s no transcendent, Newton-like star capable of lifting this team to the forefront of the SEC.

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