The AP preseason college football rankings have been released, and winning in the SEC looks to be no easier in 2012 than it has been over the last half decade. Six different Southeastern teams made the list and several others rest on its cusp.
The Auburn Tigers were one such team to fall just short of the AP Top 25 although they were 25th in the USA Today coaches' poll (not that the latter means anything).
If Auburn fails to play in a meaningful bowl game come season’s end, it will certainly not be for a lack of quality opponents. They will have five games against Top 15 schools, including four against teams currently ranked in the Top 10.
For all the vehement BCS opposition, it is undeniable that the current system makes any loss by a top program absolutely crippling. This is no truer than in the SEC. It is for that exact reason that trying to single out the most “crucial” games is particularly challenging.
These are the five matchups that carry the highest import for Auburn.
At the start of the 2010 championship season, Auburn was ranked 22nd in the AP preseason Top 25 so—at least at season’s start—winning the whole shebang should/will be the team’s goal.
The Tigers will need to make an aggressive climb up the rankings if they want to turn this optimism into a reality. They really could not have asked for a better opening game to help them accomplish this.
For those who like to talk about “momentum,” winning the first game of the season will get them rolling for the rest of the year. I put little credence in this notion; the college football season is too densely packed to spend any time thinking about a previous week’s accomplishments.
This is a big game because Auburn can claim a win against a top opponent and will immediately crack the Top 25.
But, the real beauty of this opening game is that Auburn stands to gain far more than it does to lose. While nobody likes to start a season 0-1, at least it would be to an out-of-conference school. The first long-term goal for every SEC team is to make the conference championship game.
- Best-case scenario: Auburn gets AP props and a nice strength-of-schedule boost.
- Worst-case scenario: Auburn gets good experience against a quality opponent and is no further removed from a chance at the SEC title.
Auburn has much to resolve before the prospect of upsetting LSU can become plausible.
Aaron Brenner of the Ledger-Enquirer reports that Gene Chizik still does not know who will be the team’s starting quarterback. Clint Moseley was diagnosed with shoulder tendonitis about a week ago and sophomore QB Kiehl Frazier has been taking a majority of the first-team reps.
Frazier, who was named USA Today’s Offensive Player of the Year his senior year of high school, seems to be the more natural choice anyway. Chizik is obviously very comfortable with multi-talented quarterbacks who can look to the run when in trouble. Frazier picked up 327 rushing yards in 2011 despite his limited action.
For their game against LSU, however, Auburn will need to get it done through the air. LSU allowed just 2.6 yards per carry last year (third best in the nation) and really only lost one defender largely responsible for that success (Michael Brockers). They were ninth against the pass.
While that is hardly a consolation, it may become a bigger weakness given the departure of defensive backs Claiborne, Brandon Taylor, Ron Brooks and The Honey Badger.
With a bye week to recover from their bout with LSU, Auburn will have plenty of time to prepare for the Razorbacks.
I prefaced this slideshow by saying that SEC teams cannot afford to lose in-conference games. This game, more so than any on the list, will signal whether Auburn’s ambitious preseason goals are within reach.
If they can go 2-1 against the three schools named thus far, Auburn will have a legitimate shot to at least compete for the SEC title. However, a 1-2 or 0-3 record would end any BCS bowl game aspirations and force Auburn to reassess its situation. Suddenly, the most important games would become those against lesser SEC opposition in Ole Miss, Vandy and A&M.
But, what fun is it to say that?
In case you haven’t noticed, none of these crucial games have been on the road.
Georgia will benefit in 2012 by playing in the weaker SEC East. This game against Auburn will be their last against a conference opponent, which means they will quite possibly be in a position to secure a spot in the SEC championship game with two games left on their schedule.
This could create a case in which Auburn’s greatest motivation will be to play the role of spoiler. Then again, if the Tigers can recreate their 2010 surprising success, they will be the ones within a game of reaching the BCS-bowl-sending title game.
Auburn wraps up its season with the most challenging game it will play. For once, the Tigers will be on the road. There is no reason to predict this to be any less of a playoff game for Bama than the one Georgia had with Auburn just two weeks prior.
The final game of the year is always a big one for the seniors, and if Auburn wants any shot at a BCS bowl game, this game against Alabama will need to be more than an opportunity to reminisce.
Emory Blake was the team’s best receiver in 2011, and the senior will need to not only claim that title once again but must also lead the influx of wideouts in the 2012 class. He seems to be embracing the role, as seen by these comments made to Charles Goldberg of the Auburn Bureau.
It’s more important that we, as leaders, keep the tempo up… Some players lose sight of that, so we, as leaders, have to be the one to let them know it's time to work, not time to play. So far, we've done a great job of that… I have the experience. I've been here. I've done things, so guys will listen to me. They're doing a good job of listening.
Running back Onterio McCalebb is another noteworthy senior. McCalebb, who has averaged 940 all-purpose yards over the last two seasons, must be the team's best back after the departure of Michael Dyer and ineligibility of incoming 4-star recruit Jovon Robinson (via Alex Scarborough of ESPN).
On the defensive side, Daren Bates, Jonathan Evans and T'Sharvan Bell will need to be models all season as Auburn adjusts to a new scheme, much like those on offensive will need to do under new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler.
Auburn’s success will hinge on the ability of the seniors to carry the team through the season and, if all goes perfectly, win this game against Alabama for an opportunity to play in a major bowl game.
All five of these games are against teams currently considered “better”—whatever that means. With all the unknowns heading into 2012, they could very well lose them all. Then again, if any team has taught us that preseason rankings are nothing more than a reason to write these kinds of articles, it is Auburn.