ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 31: Kiehl Frazier #10 of the Auburn Tigers celebrates scoring his second touchdown against the Virginia Cavaliers during the 2011 Chick Fil-A Bowl at Georgia Dome on December 31, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
2011 Record: 8-5 (4-4)
Last Five Years: 44-21
2011 vs BCS Teams: 5-5
2011 vs Bowl Teams: 5-5
Returning Starters: 16 (7 offense, 9 defense)
Coach: Gene Chizik, 30-10 since 2009
Last Meeting: Auburn 14 Alabama 42
All Time Record vs Alabama: 34-41-1
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In 2011 the Auburn Tigers followed up an unbeaten, National Championship season with a respectable 8-5 rebuilding year, but unfortunately for Auburn fans the rebuilding will likely continue on into 2012. Although the Tigers return sixteen starters, including eight on defense, they are once again looking to rebuild a team that is looking to replace several notable contributors both on the field on the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, whose wide open spread offense has been the biggest contributor to Auburn’s recent success, is now the head coach at Arkansas State. Workhorse running back Michael Dyer is likely out of college football altogether after a string of off the field issues. Quarterback Barrett Trotter elected to forego his senior season after losing the starting job to Clint Moseley midway through the season, who in turn looks to have lost his hold on the job over the course of the spring to true sophomore Kiehl Frazier. About the only good departure was defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who was replaced by NFL assistant Bryan VanGorder. Roof’s defenses have underwhelmed his entire tenure, and with plenty of returning experience they can’t help but improve after finishing at or near the bottom of the conference in every meaningful statistical category. Further the Tigers were actually outscored by 42 points on the season last year, making their 8-5 record somewhat of an overachievement, and expecting any improvement over that total may be a stretch.
The Tigers have had plenty of success on the recruiting trail under Chizik and have gotten better and deeper at nearly every position over the last two seasons, but with the turnover on the coaching staff the offense especially looks to have a lot of square pegs to work with. New offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler brings a more pro-style attack with him from Temple, where his offense finished seventh in the country on the ground last year while Auburn struggled to find a consistent ground game, finishing 32nd in the nation. The good news for Auburn is that Malzahn didn’t have another Cam Newton waiting in the wings and the continued stagnation on offense (Auburn scored 234 fewer points in 2011 than in 2010 while playing one less game) looked to continue, while Loeffler runs a much less quarterback intensive approach to offense that can weather a season or two with "game managers" under center. The bad news is that, without Michael Dyer, the Tigers don’t have much in the way of experience in the backfield or even running backs with the kind of in-between-the-tackles size that this new offense will almost certainly require. For the time being expect Auburn to continue to run a lot of spread looks to utilize the players that are currently on the roster while they recruit players more suited to a pro-style offense.
Solidifying the quarterback position is the first priority for Auburn, and the odds on favorite to start the season under center is sophomore Kiehl Frazier. Frazier saw time last season running a specialized wildcat package (finishing third on the team with 343 yds rushing and 3 TDs), but only attempted 12 passes, completing five for 34 yards and throwing two picks and no TDs. During Auburn’s spring game he threw only nine passes, completing 7 for 92 yards, so his ability to move the offense through the air and be a true pocket passer remains in doubt. Junior Clint Moseley finished last season with 66 of 108 for 800 yards, 5 TDs/3 INTs after assuming the starting role midway through the season, but yielded once again to Barrett Trotter after an injury in the bowl game against Virginia and has seemingly been supplanted by Frazier over the spring. Though Frazier is certainly the better athlete, if Moseley can show he’s absorbed the playbook over the summer and plays with more consistency during the fall, the Tigers could be facing a QB controversy through September.
Whoever wins out, they will at least have several options in the passing game to lean on in 2012. TE Phlip Lutzenkirchen will likely be the focal point of the offense, and at 6’5" 256 he’s a big enough target to carry that load. A preseason All SEC selection (2nd team All SEC last season), Lutzenkirchen finished last season 3rd on the team with 24 catches for 238 yards and a team best 7 TDs. At wide receiver, both Emory Blake (36 catches 613 yds 5 TDs) and Travante Stallworth (13 catches 214 yds 1 TD) are back, giving the Auburn offense it’s top four receivers. Trovon Reed (21 catches 164 yds) and Quan Bray (17 catches 93 yds) also look ready to contribute more in the passing game this season.
In the backfield, the Tigers do return Onterio McCalebb, the second leading rusher on the team with 112 attempts, 641 yards (5.7ypc) and 5 TDs, while adding another 344 yards through the air (good for second on the team). But at 5’11" 168 lbs he seems ill suited to be the a true every down workhorse, forcing Auburn to likely rotate any number of untested backs throughout the game. Sophomore Tre Mason (5’10" 196) saw action last season, mostly on special teams, and Alabama transfer Corey Grant (5’11" 203) is now eligible, but both are smaller speedster in the same mold as McCalebb and recruited specifically for Malzahn’s system. Illinois transfer Jay Prosch (6’0" 253) will provide some size in the backfield, while Florida transfer Mike Blakely and incoming freshman Jovon Robinson provide more options and depth. It’s a more than capable group of players, but how well and how quickly they can be utilized in the new system remains to be seen.
Up front, Auburn returns the interior of the offensive line but must replace both tackles. The Tigers are particularly young up front, with LG John Sullen the lone senior among them, but C Reese Dismukes, a Freshman All-American last season, and RG Chad Slade are both primed to build on solid performances last season. The biggest question marks are outside. LT Greg Robinson and RT Patrick Miller both had solid performances in the spring, but the lack of experience at both tackle spots has to be a little concerning.
Defensively, things couldn’t get any worse. The Tigers finished at or near the bottom of the SEC (and the country) in every meaningful category last season, which is inexcusable considering the level of talent they’ve managed to recruit over the past few years. Ted Roof was kindly shown the door, and Brian VanGorder has plenty to work with in rebuilding the defense into a real SEC caliber unit.
The strength of the Auburn defense will likely be it’s front seven. The defensive line is loaded with four starters coming back, including DEs Corey Lemonier, who led the team with 9.5 sacks last season, and Nosa Eguae, who had six TFLs and 38 total tackles. Lemonier in particular will give the Tigers a strong pass rush from the defensive line. He earned 2nd Team All SEC honors after his strong performance last season and was is already being hyped with first team preseason selection. Behind them, Craig Sanders and Dee Ford have 55 games worth of experience between them, while sophomore LaDarius Owens played in six games last season before going out with injury. Inside, Kenneth Carter and Jeffery Whitaker are both back at DT, with newcomers Angelo Blackson and Devaunte Sigler will be regular contributors. The Tigers have an enviably deep well of defensive line talent, and will have to rely heavily on them to disrupt opposing offenses.
Moving back, leading tackler (104 tkls, 2.5 sks, 6 TFLs) Daren Bates anchors the linebacking corps along with fellow returning starter Jonathan Evans. In nine starts Evans recorded 40 stops and one TFL. The biggest question mark will be on the inside, with Jake Holland stepping in for the departed Eltoro Freeman. Holland played in all 12 games last season, recording 43 tackles. Redshirt freshman Kris Frost drew rave reviews over the spring and will push for playing time all season. A former five star recruit, Frost redshirted last season after injuring his shoulder, but he’ll be a significant contributor in some capacity.
Finally, the secondary will have to improve over an abysmal showing last season. The Tigers finished dead last in the SEC against the pass, giving up 218.8 ypg, with youth and inexperience showing up time and again. Neiko Thorpe is a big loss, but they do return both corners and starting safety Demetruce McNeal. McNeal finished behind only Thorpe among the DBs with 74 tkls while also grabbing two picks. Enrique Florence, Ryan Smith, and Jermaine Whitehead have all made pushs for playing time opposite McNeal and we’ll likely see a three man rotation emerge from among them. At corner, senior T’Sharvan Bell led the team in PBUs with seven (to go along with two INTs), but had to sit the spring with a knee injury. Opposite him Chris Davis started 11 games last season, recorded 60 tkls and 4 PBUs. They can’t help but get better, and Auburn desperately needs them to.
Overall, Auburn has the talent to compete at a high level but with staff turnover and key personnel losses they remain a team that will be looking to find consistency and an identity. Transitioning from the spread offense of Gus Malzahn to the more run based pro style offense of Loeffler will likely result in some serious growing pains, putting even more pressure on the defense to keep the Tigers in games. That’s something this defense hasn’t been able to do in years, and it’s going to be undergoing it’s own transitional phase to boot. While I fully expect them to be much improved on the defensive side of the ball, there's too much elite offensive talent to face on the schedule to realistically believe the defense can singlehandedly carry the team to a better season. Expect the Tigers to put on a similar performance as last season; beat the bad teams on the schedule like New Mexico State and Ole Miss, struggle at times with the middlers like Mississippi State and Texas A&M , and more than likely get blown out by the upper level teams like Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas.