August 10, 2011
The least you should know about the 2011 Tigers. Part of SEC Week.
• No use beating around the bush. Last year's BCS champions are no more. They're dissolved. Scattered in the wind. Gone. By whatever standard you can apply — returning starters, returning production, actual participation in a live college football game — Auburn begins the season as the greenest team in America.
Obviously, the attrition starts with headliners Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, arguably the two best players in college football in 2010, but it doesn't end there: With the early exits of Newton, Fairley and wide receiver Darvin Adams and the arrest and dismissal of safety Mike McNeill, Auburn returns a grand total of six starters from the championship win over Oregon, fewer than any previous BCS champion and fewer by far than any other FBS team in the nation this fall.
Altogether, the Tigers will defend their title minus their leading passer (who was also the leading rusher), two of their top four receivers, four starting offensive linemen, their top two pass rushers and six of their top seven tacklers. There's one returning starter on each line — guard Brandon Mosley on offense and tackle Nosa Eguae on defense — and with McNeil's arrest and cornerback Neiko Thorpe's subsequent move to safety, zero returning starters in the secondary at the same position they played last year. This is a brand new team.
• We can rebuild. We have the technology. Nowhere is that more obvious than at quarterback, where the scouting reports on holdovers Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley — both former three-star recruits — couldn't possibly read more differently than their five-star, übermensch predecessor's, and the most Newton-esque candidate on the depth chart is a true freshman. If the new quarterbacks have anything going for them, it's the management: Five years and six starting quarterbacks removed from his leap from Springdale High in Arkansas, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has still yet to encounter a QB he couldn't milk for 30 points per game.
This time, the scheme is likely to revolve much less around than the quarterback than the complementary talents of Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb, who combined for more than 2,000 yards last year in Newton's shadow and bring the same thunder-and-lightning dynamic that McCalebb and Ben Tate brought to an attack that finished second in the SEC in total offense and third in scoring in 2009. The quarterback on that offense was the infamously pedestrian Chris Todd, who might as well be featured on the cover of the playbook underneath the headline, "If he can do it, anybody can."
• Have the fire extinguishers ready. There are no such ready answers for the depleted secondary, which finished 108th nationally in pass defense, 76th in pass efficiency D and was torched for multiple touchdown passes in eight different games — shocking numbers compared to any other BCS champion. If you're thinking, "Well, it can't be any worse," this would be the point to remind you that Thorpe's slot at cornerback may very well be assumed by a true freshman.
The silver lining is that Thorpe and likely new starters T'Sharvan Bell and Demetruce McNeil have all played and incoming safety Erique Florence has the look of an immediate impact type. But considering that the pass rush and two of three new linebackers are going to be entirely new, too, you're clinging to the edges of one very, very large cloud.
• Welcome to the jungle. Projections of doom in the conference standings have at least as much to do with the crippling schedule as with the crippling attrition — besides the dog-eat-dog reality of the SEC West, the Tigers also draw the top three contenders from the East (South Carolina, Florida and Georgia) in the cross-divisional draw and visit Clemson in September. Altogether, they're going head to head with seven teams in the top 25 of the preseason Coaches' poll, four of them on the road. The championship outfit was already living right, taking seven games by a touchdown or less — three of them on the final snap. This edition will be overachieving if it's even presented with the same opportunity.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.