Auburn won the national title in 2010 behind Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, then plunged back to earth in a big way last season.
One season after finishing 14-0, the Tigers went 8-5; even worse, archrival Alabama won the national title for the second time in three seasons. In addition, the Tigers were outscored 170-45 by Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU – their four main rivals.
Clearly, there is ground to make up. Coach Gene Chizik has two new coordinators. OC Gus Malzahn left to take the coaching job at Arkansas State and DC Ted Roof went to UCF, then Penn State. While Roof's departure for UCF wasn't called a dismissal, coordinators don't leave high-paying SEC jobs for the same position in Conference USA. The new guys are Scot Loeffler (offense) and Brian Van Gorder (defense).
Last season: 8-5 overall, 4-4 in SEC (4th in SEC West)
Coach: Gene Chizik (30-10, fourth season at Auburn; 35-29, sixth season overall)
Returning starters (minimum seven starts last season): Offense (6) – WR Emory Blake, C Reese Dismukes, TE Phillip Lutzenkirchen, TB Onterio McCalebb, G Chad Slade (moving to tackle), G John Sullen. Defense (9) – LB Daren Bates, CB T'Sharvan Bell, T Kenneth Carter, CB Chris Davis, E Nosa Eguae, LB Jonathan Evans, E Corey Lemonier, S Demetruce McNeal, T Jeffrey Whitaker. Special teams (2) – P Steven Clark, K Cody Parkey.
Fast fact: After leading the SEC in rushing defense in 2010, the Tigers fell to 11th in the league in that category last season.
Loeffler spent last season as the coordinator at Temple and also has coached at Michigan and Florida. He has work to do. Quarterback again looks questionable, and Auburn also lost starting TB Michael Dyer, who rushed for 1,242 yards and 10 TDs last season.
QB Kiehl Frazier played in every game last season as a true freshman and showed off his running ability.But he attempted just 12 passes and has a long way to go in that facet of his game. Still, he likely will be the starter in Game 1. Junior Clint Moseley, who made six starts last season, is Frazier's main competition. Moseley is a far more accomplished passer than Frazier, but isn't near the running threat.
There are some good targets for the quarterback. WR Emory Blake, whose dad, Jeff, was an NFL quarterback, has all-league talent, as does TE Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who needs more opportunities. Lutzenkirchen caught 24 passes last season and seven went for scores; a senior, he has just 44 career receptions. Depth at wide receiver is iffy, and a consistent No. 2 receiver – and a No. 3, too – must emerge. Expect a freshman wide receiver or two (JaQuay Williams perhaps?) to see a lot of time.
TB Onterio McCalebb is a solid receiver out of the backfield, but he is too small (5 feet 11 but just 174 pounds) to be an every-down back. He served as a nice complement to Dyer last fall, and will need to be a more important part of the rushing attack this season. Sophomores Tre Mason and Corey Grant and redshirt freshman Mike Blakely are others who likely will see time at tailback. Blakely, like McCalebb and Mason, is a Florida native. He signed with Florida and enrolled in January 2011, but quickly realized new coach Will Muschamp's offense wasn't a good fit, so he transferred to Auburn and redshirted last season.
The backs will be running behind a solid line. Reese Dismukes might have been the best true freshman center in the nation last season and looks to be a rising star. G John Sullen and T Chad Slade are other returning starters, and there are high hopes for redshirt freshman T Greg Robinson.
The run defense was pitiful last season (94th nationally, 189.2 ypg), and Van Gorder – who had held the same post with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons – has to get that fixed. Van Gorder is a former defensive coordinator at Georgia, as well.
There are the makings of a good line. There are three solid ends, including pass-rush specialist Corey Lemonier, and T Jeffrey Whitaker is talented if not consistent. Kenneth Carter, Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright also will be in the tackle rotation.
LB Daren Bates led the Tigers in tackles last season (104), and he flashed some pass-rushing ability (2.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss). A converted safety, he also has solid coverage skills. Jonathan Evans, Jake Holland and redshirt freshman Kris Frost are the other key 'backers. Frost was a highly regarded recruit who had to sit out last season with an injury.
CBs T'Sharvan Bell and Chris Davis are returning starters; they combined for 105 tackles, an interception and 11 pass breakups last season. SS Demetruce McNeal, who is good in run support, returns as a starter, but the Tigers will miss FS Neiko Thorpe, who was the best player in last season's secondary. Sophomore Erique Florence likely steps into his starting spot.
P Steven Clark is a master at downing the ball inside the 20. Of his 72 punts last season, 33 landed inside the 20. He also averaged 40.8 yards per attempt.
K Cody Parkey has a strong leg and now is searching for consistency. He was 13-of-18 last season, with four of the misses coming from beyond 40 yards.
Mason and McCalebb are dangerous kick returners, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see backup WR Quan Bray replaced as the punt returner.
Punt coverage was good but kickoff coverage shaky last season; a team with this many good athletes should be better on kickoff coverage.
Plain and simple, the schedule is a monster.
The opener is against Clemson in Atlanta. Next comes a visit to Mississippi State. Then, after a breather against Louisiana-Monroe, LSU comes calling. After a week off, Arkansas comes to town. That's three 10-win teams and four bowl squads from last season in the first five games.
Later, there are visits from Texas A&M and Georgia, as well as a trip to archrival Alabama to close out the regular season.
Auburn won the national title in 2010, but the Tigers still have lost at least four games four times in the past five seasons, including three seasons with at least five losses. This doesn't appear to be the type of team that can get the Tigers back into the national elite.
Quarterback questions seem likely to crop up all season, which means the passing attack could be questionable. That's not good against a schedule this tough.
Expect the Van Gorder-led defense to be much tougher against the run. Still, Auburn allowed at least 34 points seven times last season and there are some questions about the overall talent level on that side of the ball.
Auburn should win at least seven games and could win as many as nine, but a top-three finish in the SEC West seems out of reach.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 12th nationally
The buzz: Chizik survived the loss of two coordinators to put together the No. 10 recruiting class in the nation and No. 3 class in the ultra-competitive SEC. Auburn's 21-prospect class was led by four-star OT Avery Young and four-star WR JaQuay Williams. Young leads a strong and deep offensive line class that also includes four-star Ts Shane Callahan, Patrick Miller and Jordan Diamond as well as four-star G Alex Kozan. In total, nine signees were members of the Rivals250. – Chris Nee, Rivals.com
DE Dee Ford. Ford signed with Auburn in 2009 as a speedy but undersized end. Ford was 6 feet 2 and 190 pounds when he signed, and has added 55 pounds of muscle since arriving at Auburn. Ford played in just three games a year ago before suffering a back injury, but returned in the spring to record four tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack in the Tigers' A-Day Game. Ford was named the Defensive MVP of the game and should carry that over to this season. Although fellow Es Nosa Eguae and Corey Lemonier have gotten most of the spotlight, Ford is on the brink of stealing a little for himself. – Jeffrey Lee, AuburnSports.com
For more on Auburn throughout the season, check out AuburnSports.com
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