Preseason countdown: No. 21 Auburn

BY foxsports • July 13, 2012

Considering the huge personnel turnover from the improbable run to the 2010 national championship, 2011 Auburn wasn’t all that bad.

But after Alabama won its second national title under Nick Saban the pre-2010 question remains – can Auburn keep up the pace?

The short answer comes from the national championship T-shirts and Cam Newton’s legacy, but this year the program needs to show that it’s not in a Vince Young-Texas sort of situation. Newton came up with the greatest individual season of any quarterback in college football history, and just like that – poof – he was gone. Can the Tigers bounce back to show that 2010 wasn’t a fluky aberration thanks mostly to one transcendent player?

Like Texas in the post-Vince Young aftermath, the Auburn recruiting classes have been solid and there’s talent and athleticism across the board, but Alabama doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, LSU appears to be getting better and better, and the addition of Texas A&M only makes the SEC West that much harder.

There’s no reason to panic or to think there can’t be more success around the corner.

No one is expecting the Tigers to compete for the SEC West title this season, much less the national championship, but head coach Gene Chizik needs to come up with a good season to show that things are on the right track to be as consistently great as Alabama has become. Auburn doesn’t have to be in the title hunt every year, but it has to build to get close and hope that in the right season it can all come together again.

The 2012 team is still way too young, but it’s talented, athletic and experienced with just enough star power across the board to hope for a solid and more productive season.

Auburn will be better than it was last season and it will be more competitive against the bigger boys. But with no margin for error in the suddenly-improved SEC West, this won’t be a national title-caliber season. Worse yet, Auburn isn’t better than Alabama. Chizik was able to get the program over the hump, but the mountain is looking a whole lot taller now.

What to watch for on offense: No more Gus Malzahn. It’s not nearly as devastating as Cam Newton taking off early for the NFL, but the Auburn attack takes a hit with the loss of offensive coordinator extraordinaire Malzahn to the Arkansas State head coaching job, and with star running back Michael Dyer tagging along for the ride after a slew of issues. New coordinator Scot Loeffler isn’t going to change the world, but the hope will be to get more passing production from the quarterbacks and more of the rushing workload to come from the running backs. The line will be one of the best in the SEC in the near future with nine underclassmen among the projected two-deep depth chart, but it’s an experienced unit. Loeffler will likely involve tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen more and will try to spread around the passes a bit, while the running backs should work in a committee to blast away in more pro-style looks.

What to watch for on defense: Health. New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has some work to do, but first and foremost he needs everyone to stay healthy. The 2011 defense wasn’t a killer by SEC standards, but it didn’t fall completely off the map after undergoing a major personnel overhaul and with injury after injury destroying the depth and rotation at several spots. There’s enough talent to field a starting 11 that could be good enough to hang around with all the mediocre SEC attacks, but all the big bodies on the defensive interior have to be healthy and start to produce more against the stronger running teams, and the linebacking corps needs to come up with solid options to work around Daren Bates.

The team will be far better if: The passing game works. The Auburn air show wasn’t just grounded against the better teams, it completely and totally crashed. The better defenses loaded up to stop the run and dared Tiger quarterbacks to come through, and they failed with the passing game cranking out just 62 yards with an interception against Alabama, 104 with three picks against Arkansas and 112 with four picks against South Carolina. In the five losses, Auburn threw two touchdown passes and seven interceptions, while in the eight wins the quarterbacks threw 16 touchdown passes and six picks.

The schedule: Auburn will know instantly whether or not it’s ready for a turnaround season with a date in Atlanta against defending ACC champion Clemson to kick things off and with the SEC opener at Mississippi State to follow. With LSU lurking on Sept. 22 and Arkansas up next – after a week off – the first half of the year will be taxing. It’s not like things ease up a ton, but they do relax a bit with road games against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt before getting a four-week home stand. While it stinks to get Georgia from the East, at least the game is at home, while New Mexico State and Alabama A&M will be light November scrimmages to rest everyone up. And then comes the Iron Bowl played this year in Alabama.

Best offensive player: Senior TE Philip Lutzenkirchen. A superstar prospect who was one of the key pieces to the 2009 recruiting puzzle, he has been decent so far and started to make some more noise last year, but he mostly has been used as a closer around the goal line with 14 touchdowns among his 44 catches. It’s not like he hasn’t been utilized, but he hasn’t gotten as much work as he should have. Under Loeffler he’ll get the ball early and often in what should be a breakout season before being one of the top tight ends taken in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Best defensive player: Junior DE Corey Lemonier. There were a few signs in his freshman season that he’d become a terrific player, and then it all came together as the key pass rusher on a line that didn’t get into the backfield nearly enough. He produced against almost everyone with a sack against Florida, two against Georgia, and at least one in seven games to go along with 15 quarterback hurries, five forced fumbles and 47 tackles. With more help about to come – if everyone on the line can stay healthy – a double-digit sack season should be expected.

Key player to a successful season: Redshirt freshman OT Greg Robinson. Sophomore Reese Dismukes is among the nation’s top young centers, and sophomore guard Christian Westerman has a world of upside if he can stay healthy. But among the talented, baby-young line, Robinson is the key part of the puzzle getting the first look at left tackle for a line that struggled way too much in pass protection. Athletic freshman Patrick Miller will also be in the mix, but Robinson has the size and the potential to be a four-year star before kicking inside to potentially play guard at the next level.

The season will be a success if: The Tigers win nine games. They’re not better than LSU, Arkansas, Georgia or Alabama, but games against the first three are at home; they have to come up with at least one win against those four. Beating ULM, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, New Mexico State and Alabama A&M should provide a nice base of wins to build on, and it will be a must to win two of three against Clemson, Mississippi State and Texas A&M. The team might not be among the elite, but it’ll be better. A one win improvement would be a nice step.

Key game: Sept. 1 vs. Clemson. Obviously there are bigger SEC fish to fry, but for a young team that went into the offseason on a high note beating Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, going back to Atlanta to start the season against the defending ACC champion should be a tone-setter. A loss could be potentially devastating with a date at Mississippi State the following week and with LSU and Arkansas coming up fast. If Auburn isn’t good enough to beat Clemson, then a 1-4 start is very, very possible before going to Ole Miss.

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