Auburn Tigers Football Post-Spring Preview: The Good, the Bad and the Unknown
I remember last spring when I was doing my preseason SEC preview on the radio. I stated several times that Auburn would win nine games and finish just behind Arkansas and LSU in the divisional race. Almost every caller accused me of trying to sell shock value. I mean, come on, Alabama fourth in the SEC West?
Well, if it had not been for Auburn, I would have looked like a genius. Despite my higher-than-normal win prediction for Auburn, I missed them by five games. It is with that background that I am cautiously writing my post-spring report and predictions.
Over the next two weeks, I will be releasing my post-spring, pre-fall team previews. During this time, I will post articles on Bleacher Report for all 12 SEC teams.
I also will have a corresponding radio program you can listen to live online. You will be able to call the live show with any questions, comments or disagreements. In each of these reports, I will release the good, the bad and the unknown for each team.
Once fall practice starts, I will be attending at least one practice for each of the 12 teams. At that time, I will release a final preseason analysis and projected rankings.
Good News No 1, Gus Malzahn Is Still at Auburn
The best news that Auburn received this offseason is that they were able to keep their most valuable player around at least one more season. No, not Cam Newton or Nick Fairley but offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. While the expectation might be low for many outsiders, this team will be a threat to win any game they play in because of the offensive schemes of Coach Malzahn.
While the over-under seems to be around seven to eight wins for Auburn this season, it wouldn't be a bad bet to take the over with Auburn. In Malzahn's five years as an offensive coordinator, his teams have averaged almost 11 wins per season (10.8). Think he didn't have much to do with that success? Think again! The seasons prior to his arrival at these three schools that he served as an offensive coordinator for they averaged less than six wins per season (5.66) The season after he left they only averaged 6.5 wins.
Many are concerned about the quarterback situation. Rest assured, this season's quarterback will not win the Heisman. However, Malzahn once coached a quarterback from Tulsa named Paul Smith to throw for over 5,000 yards. Whoever the quarterback is, he is in good hands.
Good News No. 2, Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown Who?
Despite several key losses on both sides of the ball, the running game looks to be potent once again. The dynamic duo of Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb are back for another season and expect them to terrorize SEC defenses once more.
In fact, I will go on record as saying, with Coach Malzahn calling the plays, these two backs will beat Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams' 2004 rushing totals by several hundred yards. This dynamic duo is good for a minimum of 2,200 yards.
The only thing that could stop these two would be an injury, and neither seems to be fragile. One thing we know about the Auburn/Alabama rivalry is they are always trying to one-up each other, and this duo should surpass that of the 2009 tandem of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson.
Good News No 3, Expectations Are Low
There is something about this staff and this program that likes the underdog role. It does not matter if you think Gene Chizik is the fourth Stooge or a coaching genius, no one can deny the man's ability to motivate.
While many in the outside circle thought the slogan “all in” and “family” were borderline cultic, the AU team and AU nation bought in completely. If you messed with one of them, you had to fight them all. The result was a national championship. Fast forward to this season, and despite being the defending national champions, they have been left out of several preseason rankings and rarely breaking into the top 20 prediction.
Look for many more “world-against-us” speeches. I am not predicting another 14-0 season by any means, but AU will play their best ball as an underdog. Bottom line, they don't want you to like them.
Bad News No 1, Cam Newton and Nick Fairley Are Gone
I know the next generation of Auburn players will be great. I even predicted that Kiehl Frazier will win a Heisman trophy. However, you don't replace the nation's most dominant offensive player and perhaps the nation's most dominant defensive player in one season.
Both players commanded offenses and defenses to change their normal game plans to try to stop them. This would take teams out of the comfort zone, but their comfort zone would have netted them a 30-point loss.
Cam Newton not only changed the way defensive coordinators called games, but he changed the way offensive coordinators called games as well. They knew a punt or three points would not get it done. You don't replace that type of greatness with unproven players.
Bad News No 2, the Talent Is Unseasoned
I can't help but shake my head at people who think that Alabama has stockpiled all the talent and Auburn is sitting on a one-deep roster. Auburn is as deep with talent and potential as Alabama is at most positions. However, this talent has to be seasoned. Even the great ones have to take some early lumps.
This will be the case with Auburn this season. Talent is not an issue. You are looking at an offensive line that one day soon might be the very best in all of college football. However, they are going to miss some key blocks this season. They are going to get confused on different blitzing schemes. They are not going to be perfect but instead they are going to be growing on the job.
This will not be Auburn's season to win the West, but with enough seasoning this year and a favorable schedule next season, contention is just around the corner.
Bad News No. 3,Their Schedule Is Brutal
There are harder schedules in the SEC than the one Auburn will play. However, those teams will not be breaking in the amount of new players that the Tigers will. The first tough game of the season is Week 2, although Oklahoma showed you can't just ignore Utah State last season, against upstart Mississippi State. The next week they have to go to Clemson who will be playing for their head coach's job. I know historically Auburn has owned Clemson, but this is a new era and a new staff.
After that, they have one of the toughest stretches in all of college football in October with games against South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Florida. What do they have waiting for them as their reward for making it through that stretch? Games against UGA and Alabama.
It is fair to say that Auburn is a preseason underdog in almost all of those mentioned games. Although I don't think it would happen, it wouldn't take much for this team to finish 4-8 on the season.
Unknown No. 1, Who Will Be the Starting Quarterback?
As I mentioned earlier, I do not think this is the most pressing question of the fall. No matter who wins the position battle, they are going to be in a similar situation. Gus Malzahn will put them in a position to make plays and win games.
However, it is never a good thing to be entering fall with no clear-cut starter. Fortunately for them, this is the case for most of the top tier SEC teams. Outside of Aaron Murray, the bar is not very high. If they could have a quarterback step up with a great deal of composure, this could be a surprising team.
Unknown No. 2, How Big Is the Learning Curve for Auburn?
Make no mistake about it, there is plenty of offensive line talent to go around. What remains to be seen is how long will it take before their potential becomes a reality. Last season, all the focus was on Cam Newton's ability to run the football. However, most people fail to realize he was taking on more linebackers and safetys than he was defensive linemen..The line did a great job of holding up blockers and allowing the running backs and Newton to make plays.
The line production will not reach the level it did last season in 2011. However, with these running backs, they don't have to be great but just good enough.
Unknown No. 3, Who Takes over the Leadership Mantle?
Love them or hate them, the Tiger players followed the lead of Newton and Fairley. With them gone, who will step up as the leadership. I didn't put this under the negative because some players very well could step up, but will their voice be loud enough when the games are on the line? Last season, Auburn could have easily lost five games had they not had the vocal leaders they did.
What if they do lose two or three games in a row? Will they have the leadership to help right the ship? You look at teams in the SEC last season like UGA and Florida. They could have easily won three or four more games if the proper leadership would have been there.
I am not saying someone will not step up and be that leader, but talent alone doesn't do it. Some players like AJ Green and Mark Ingram are great talents, but are not in-huddle leaders. They lead by example but you need the guy who will grab you up and make you look him face mask to face mask and hold you accountable.
This season will have its ups and downs for this young Tigers team. Regardless of their record, they will be competitive and a tall task for any team. On paper, I don't think this team finishes better than 6-6. However, if there is one thing we have learned about this team, it's that the paper doesn't tell the whole story.
As a result, to many people's surprise, I think they come out of the gates 4-0. However, October will be a rough month. Right now I have them slated to finish 8-5. Who knows, I might end up off five games again.
I hope you will become a BR fan of mine and call in the show later this week on Nationwide Sports Radio (nwsradio.com) when we cover the AU preview.