How far can Auburn go in 2012?


Call it excellent hires at offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. Call it 18 returning starters from a team that overachieved in 2011 with one of the nation’s toughest schedules. Call it a home schedule that includes LSU, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Georgia. Call it the extreme optimism showed by usually-reserved head honcho Gene Chizik.

Whatever you call it, it points towards a good season for Auburn in 2012. How good? That remains to be seen. However, one can use past results to see that this year’s Tiger squad can surprise a lot of people.

Before I give currently relevant reasons to explain why Auburn could surprise, I will first give statistical, historical facts that could indicate a great 2012 for War Eagle.

Allow me to go Phil Steele on you for a moment: Auburn opens the season against Clemson in the Georgia Dome in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game. Since the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game began in 2008, SEC teams have gone 3-1 in Atlanta’s season-opening event. 3 of the 4 SEC teams that opened the season in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game went on to return to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. The lone SEC team that didn’t, LSU (in 2010), went 11-2.

Also, the 4 SEC teams who played in the Kickoff Game since 2008 combined to go 47-8 those seasons. Simply playing in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game has provided a big boost for SEC teams.

The Georgia Dome seems to be a second home for the Tigers. Auburn has won four straight at the Georgia Dome dating back to 2004, winning by an average score of 40-22. One of these wins is a 23-20 win over Clemson in the 2007 Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

The past two times Auburn has lost exactly five games in a season, the Tigers responded by going undefeated the next year. In 2003, Auburn went 8-5. In 2004, the Tigers swept through the schedule, going 13-0 and winning the Sugar Bowl. In 2009, Auburn went 8-5. In 2010, Gene Chizik’s team powered through the SEC, going 14-0 and knocking off Oregon to win the national championship.

Now that numbers are out of the way, let’s examine the positives and negatives for Auburn heading into this season.

Positive: The schedule sets up for success. The Clemson game is a neutral site game that will be played a whopping hour away from Auburn, Alabama. LSU, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Georgia all visit Jordan-Hare, making it possible for Auburn to host three top 10 teams in those four games. Before the trip to Tuscaloosa for the Iron Bowl, the road schedule takes Auburn to Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt (teams that went 15-23 last season). The only road game before the Iron Bowl that could see Auburn lose is the game at Vanderbilt. No offense, Mississippi State, but returning only 12 starters from a team that failed to live up to expectations last year doesn’t really intimidate anyone at Auburn the way a dangerous Vanderbilt squad does.

Negative: What about the quarterbacks? Kiehl Frazier, the QB expected to start this season, struggled through the air last year. He barely threw, and when he did, it was often to a defender. He had a great spring game, going 7-9 for 92 yards in the first half alone, but spring games can’t be used to accurately judge quarterbacks. Cam Newton went only 3-8 in his only A-Day game. This isn’t saying the quarterbacks are bad, because Frazier has the potential to be a superstar this season. But this position is a question mark going into the season, and will continue to be until an Auburn passer proves doubters wrong. The Clemson game should tell a lot about this position.

Positive: Running the ball. Despite a really young offensive line and inconsistent RB play last year, Auburn did run for 182 yards per game. The problem was that in the biggest games, the Tigers couldn’t run the ball. While Auburn did torch South Carolina’s awesome defense to 246 rushing yards and nearly run for 300 yards against Arkansas, for the most part, Auburn had a tough time running the ball well against good competition. Auburn combined to run for 294 yards against Utah State, LSU, Georgia and Alabama. However, after torching Virginia on the ground in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, the running game looks to be absolutely dominant in 2012. Auburn returns almost all offensive linemen from last year. The new offensive coordinator, Scot Loeffler, loves to run the ball. Jay Prosch, an All-American fullback at Illinois, will be immediately eligible to play for the Tigers this Fall. The running back position is more talented and deep than it has been in years. You’d have to go back to the Tuberville years to find a running back corp this good at Auburn, even without Michael Dyer. Onterio McCalebb has world-class speed. Tre Mason has an excellent mix of speed and power that made him a force on special teams last year. Mike Blakely and Corey Grant are both considered great running backs that could easily start on some SEC teams. Freshman Jovon Robinson may also get some touches. With a more experienced offensive line, an All-American paving the way and the nation’s most underrated group of running backs, expect Auburn to be one of the SEC’s best rushing teams.

Negative: The defense. These guys gave up 408 yards per game last year. That’s inexcusable at Auburn, no matter how young you are. Broken tackles were an issue, as always. The secondary was torched by just about every QB not wearing a Florida helmet. Hopefully, new defensive head-man Brian VanGorder and his mustache of excellence will lead to a reversal of fortunes for an Auburn defense that was horrid in 2011.

Positive: The defense… again. Despite the struggles last year, they were very young and return 9 starters for this season. They had flashes of brilliance in 2011, such as holding Florida to 194 yards of offense and 6 points (both fewer than the respective yards and points Florida earned against Alabama, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina, the nation’s top four defenses in 2011). Brian VanGorder has coached in the SEC before, as he was the defensive coordinator at Georgia from 2001-2004. At Georgia, his defense gave up over 30 points in a game only once in four years. His defense gave up 16.2 points per game in four years with the Bulldogs, helping Georgia go 42-10. As defensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons from 2008-2012, the Falcons became one of the best run-stopping teams in the NFL. Now with the Tigers, he will have plenty of talent to work with. With 2011 in the books, the defense is more experienced and will be ready to fix their mistakes. The bright spot on the defense? The defensive line. The defensive line has been hailed by some as the deepest in the SEC. Some believe Auburn has the second-most talented defensive line in the league behind LSU. The defensive ends are among the nation’s best, led by preseason All-American Corey Lemonier. With guys like Corey, Nosa Eguae, Jeff Whitaker, Gabe Wright, Kenneth Carter, Dee Ford, Craig Sanders, Angelo Blackson and others, this defensive line will be ready to wreak havoc in the SEC this year. With a strong line, a rock star coordinator and a year of experience, Auburn’s defense looks to be the most improved in the SEC.

Negative: The depth at linebacker is concerning. Behind Jake Holland, Daren Bates, Jonathan Evans and Kris Frost, there isn’t much to work with at this position regarding depth. Gene Chizik should pray that the linebackers can avoid any serious injuries. This is the only position on the team that has depth issues.

Positive: Philip Lutzenkirchen. According to the Lutz himself, there’s a section of plays in Scot Loeffler’s playbook called “Get the Ball to Lutzenkirchen.” If that’s not a promising sign for Auburn fans, I don’t know what is. Lutzenkirchen is a masterful receiver, touchdown machine and excellent blocker. Don’t be surprised if he ends this season as a 1st-team All-American and top tight end prospect for the NFL Draft.

2011 was expected to be a rebuilding year. It was. 2012 is an absolute mystery. The Tigers will likely start about 24th in the preseason top 25. How far can they go? Can they take the nation by surprise once again and roll to a 12-0 record? Will they falter against Clemson and stumble to a disappointing 6-6 or 7-5 season? Will they pull off an upset here or there and put together a respectable 9-3 record? Is this a year where Auburn can actually contend, or is it just a season that will pave the way to a potential title run in 2013? Nobody knows.

However, if you ask any Auburn player, they aren’t looking for a good 9-win season. They have only one thing in mind: getting back to the BCS National Championship Game.