It’s the end of the first semester in the college football season, and in the final exam against Florida, the Auburn Tigers finally showed some signs of confidence and improvement.
The Tigers have been fluctuating between solid, mediocre and sometimes just bad. The bad was really at the beginning of the season, some in the middle of the first half, and they have shown signs of real improvement since then.
But, remember – and dare I say it again – this is a completely new and different team than the one that ran out last year to win the BCS National title.
18 starters gone and major talent jumping to the NFL certainly doesn’t help a team made up of freshmen and inexperienced upper classmen in getting something going.
Head coach Gene Chizik realized all this when they came to preseason camp, and set out to work for the future.
Think about it, you haven’t heard any talk about championships or bowl games from him.
In Chizik’s mind all that will take care of itself, as long as they go about the plan he has set out to run.
And, so far it seems that everything is running according to plan.
What that means is getting improvement, confidence and experience in playing in this league.
As Auburn heads into the second half of the season, they have some momentum, but will be facing a buzz saw right out of the gate in LSU.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and look at where they’ve come from first.
Clint Moseley will now be the starting quarterback coming out in the second half of the season against LSU.
That may answer some of the problems the Tigers had in the first half, which was a dwindling ability by their first starter Barrett Trotter.
You could see the passing yardage going on a downward trend ever since the Clemson game.
- Clemson: 198 yds.
- Florida Atlantic: 178 yds.
- South Carolina: 112 yds.
- Arkansas: 104 yds.
- Florida: 123 yds.
That slight increase against Florida is related to Moseley’s numbers in the second half of the game.
Trotter just seemed to lose confidence and gain indecision in his passing attack, which led to the minus after the C.
Chizik holds his QB to be the leader of the team and any loss of confidence there could be detrimental overall, thus the change.
You could see the uptick in confidence against the Gators as receivers caught diving passes from Moseley, where before they let Trotter’s throws go right through their hands.
Also, some of the second string receivers, filling in for injured Emory Blake and Trevon Reed, started stepping up with Moseley at the helm.
They have four very solid receivers in Quindarius Carr, DeAngelo Benton, Travante Stallworth, and Mr. Clutch Philip Lutzenkirchen who could adequately fill in for the starters.
The running game has finally come alive, even though it did dominate the stats versus passing in most of the games in the first half of the season.
Michael Dyer started showing the spark we saw last year and he’s getting more touches per game now.
The one thing about Dyer lately is that Malzahn may be burning him out in repetitive runs that have him gassed very quickly. He might want to trade off and get the ball to Onterio McCalebb more often.
Or, what about Tre Mason? He can do so much more than just return kickoffs. He will be a threat, so why not use him now.
Between Dyer, McCalebb and Mason, the running game could be a real threat.
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten Kiehl Frazier. He’s just getting better and better with each game, and as one commenter on another of my articles mentioned, “he eerily reminds me of Cam Newton.” Yes he does, but he surely needs more seasoning and this is just the season to do it in.
There’s an interesting characteristic about the total offensive yardage from the first half of the season. The highest totals came in the two losses to Clemson (435) and Arkansas (395).
Maybe the losses had more to do with the defense.
I score the defense with a higher grade than the offense, mainly because they showed more improvement over the first half of the season.
In the Utah State game, fans were horrified at the defensive performance, and many fans were calling for Ted Roof’s ousting.
That was too hasty, and you have to go back to the mantra for the season, and that is “becoming the most improved football team in the country.”
The first three games of the season saw the yardage allowed climbing against the defense with each game, culminating in the 624 yards allowed against Clemson.
- Utah State: 448 yds.
- Miss. State: 531 yds.
- Clemson: 624 yds.
- Florida Atlantic: 307 yds.
- South Carolina: 289 yds.
- Arkansas: 438 yds.
- Florida: 194 yds. (Final Exam)
After Clemson you can see the improvement, with the exception of the Arkansas game, who just picked apart the secondary with 262 yards of passing.
At the time Auburn played Clemson, those Tigers were unranked and Auburn was No. 23. Those threats, Tajh Boyd, Andre Ellington, Mike Bellamy and the real defense killer Sammy Watkins were basically unknown until they played Auburn.
But, they’ve become household names now, as they played to an undefeated 7-0 first half and a No. 7 BCS ranking.
All you have to do is look at what Watkins did to Maryland in that roller coaster of a game to see what kind of threat he and the rest of team can present.
Nosa Eguae is starting to show more of the 2010 spark and is rushing with more passion.
Joining him out of obscurity is fellow sophomore Corey Lemonier. Both are providing punishing pass rushing along with outside blitzes from the secondary and linebacker crew led by Jake Holland.
Speaking of the secondary, at the beginning of the season they were getting burned, keying on the receiver and not the ball.
That seems to have improved now and Neiko Thorpe, T’Sharvan Bell and on occasion Ryan Smith have learned their lesson, and their timing to the ball has improved greatly. That comes from coaching and practice.
The Auburn Tigers defense has a lot more improvement to do, and I think with the confidence coming out of the Florida game, they are showing more comfort in the game plans and the defensive playbook in general.
Given that dynamic and the spirit they’re starting to show, their grade should improve in the second half of the season.
LSU will be a tough class for them to take, but necessary to get better.
This group has saved the Tigers more this season than any other special teams unit in the SEC, perhaps the country.
You have to hand it to special teams coach Jay Boulware. You don't hear his name very much, but he put together an outstanding group from the very start of the season.
The onside kick in the Utah State game helped set the stage for a consistently dazzling season for the group.
The two people that stick out the most are Cody Parkey and Tre Mason, but all the guys in the supporting cast were essential in getting them the A+.
Parkey’s consistency on the kickoffs leads the SEC in touchbacks and by game five, Auburn was leading the nation in kickoffs with the average going 69.54 yards.
His field goals are perfect, as long as he’s inside the 40. The two that he missed in the Florida game will probably haunt him, but he went right, he went left, then he finally made it to put the game out of reach for the Gators.
It's a bit hard to follow an act like Wes Byrum, but Parkey seems to be doing OK.
Tre Mason is just exciting returning kickoffs, and provided a real spark to the Auburn momentum in the Utah State game with the 97-yard return for a touchdown.
But, anytime he touches the ball, you can just feel like he’s going to break one.
Last but certainly not least is punter Steven Clark. He was named SEC Player of the Week after the South Carolina win, with seven punts and no touchbacks; hitting five punts inside the South Carolina 12-yard line, and two more downed inside the 5-yard line.
It's the first time in 14 years that an Auburn punter has had five punts downed inside the 20. Clark is just consistently good and a valuable part of the special team.
The remaining units could let some of the special teams' magic rub off on them, and I’m sure they help in giving the rest a boost.
Coach Gene Chizik’s staff was handed a monumental task going into the 2011 season.
That was to build something from the ground up, using what they had reaped from the previous years of recruiting and the new freshmen.
Some of those new guys were stellar high school seniors the year before, and promise for their futures at Auburn was high.
Still, imagine the task of replacing 18 starters and most of the key positions like quarterback, defensive tackle, the rest of the D-line and the secondary; a large part of which are freshmen.
Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn basically picked up where he left off in running his offense at the beginning of the season, but I think he has bobbed and weaved effectively toward the end of the first half that shows he’s flexible, and that offensive mind is starting to show again.
He's feeling his way with the running game, and maybe trying repeated plays too often, especially where Michael Dyer is concerned, but that’s the beauty of lessons learned.
The change to Clint Moseley may be the best move the offense has made to date. We’ll just have to see what happens in the LSU game.
But, as I said before, it takes a lot for a coach to remove the original starting QB, the leader of the team, and maintain a cohesively focused team. Typically, splinter groups can occur and you end up with a disjointed ineffective group.
Chizik inherited that kind of team three years ago, and with Gus, that was the first thing they fixed. They created some solidarity.
So, this QB move is bigger than you think, but I think the coaches know that, and probably handled it as effectively as they have in the past, which created the 2010 team.
And, I have to mention special teams coach Jay Boulware again here. It’s probably their performance that skewed the grade up to a plus.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof suffered the slings and arrows of the opening three games, many fans calling for him to go.
But, in Chizik’s program, it’s all about changing what you’re doing if it ain’t working, and Roof is well aware of that. He’s with the program, just like Malzahn.
The Auburn defense has shown the most improvement of any unit on the team and that has to land in Roof’s lap.
The defense played with more spirit in the last part of the first seven games, and they’ve gained confidence, which is inspired by the coaching staff.
Trooper Taylor is still doing his thing, backward baseball cap and towel waving, but he’s a major inspirational force – something that is surely needed when you have to instill that emotion to win. The Troop will always be a fixture at Auburn.
I have heard it in the comments over and over, that Auburn plays with a lot of heart. They have grit.
Those comments, by the way, came from fans of LSU and Alabama, so I know that Auburn demonstrates it in order for those guys to give it up.
But, if there is one trait that could describe the overall program this year at Auburn, it’s that no matter what the outcome of the game, if you put your heart into it, and if you learned something to improve on, it was a good effort.
Gene Chizik inspires those that have those kind of guts, and he really doesn’t want a player on his team that doesn’t have the stomach for the game.
Especially this season, it takes desire, determination, moxie, mettle, pluck (look it up), or whatever you want to call it, to achieve those goals, given what the team and coaches had to face this season.
So, I add this category to the report card, because outside of the offense, defense, special teams and coaches, this is just as important to any football program.
Some of you may think this overall ranking a bit high, and you probably have the argument that a C would be more appropriate. I can’t wait to see some of the comments on any of this.
But overall, the goals that the Tigers, and primarily Gene Chizik, set out to accomplish have been fulfilled.
It goes back to taking a group of green, inexperienced players and showing improvement and growing confidence, game by game.
Are the Tigers going to win championships this year? No.
Is Auburn going to get to a decent bowl game? Probably
And that would be a fitting reward for the hard work they have already shown in the first half of the season.
Auburn has truly taken this season one game at a time, and done just enough to win with the exception of No. 7 Clemson and No. 9 Arkansas – notice that I inserted their BCS ranking here for emphasis.
There is a lot of improvement they have to do, but they’ve shown it, more consistently in the last few games in the first half of the season.
And, that’s what it will take to at least go 8-4, but they’re always hoping to beat that Goliath that they meet this weekend.
What do you do with a student who is trying so hard, and improving with each test they go through?
You give them an OK grade so that they maintain some confidence and continue striving to be the best.
If you work hard enough, that too will come. Rankings and bowl games will take care of themselves.