Of course every fan, team and coach goes into the preseason expecting, or at least hoping, for great things from their team.
There’s always an element of luck involved for the ball to roll your way, the other teams to create all manner of mistakes, and for your team to get ranked and move up to BCS greatness.
Other teams have a Cinderella existence, with no real schedule, but still wins get the exaltation of the media and the BCS; Boise State and Oregon are cases in point.
The Auburn Tigers started out that way, given that they were defending national champions, and many of the returning players had been imbued with the karma of the 2010 season, at least in the eyes of some media and some fans.
But, who are we kidding here? There were 18-24 starters gone—I can never get the number straight—many of whom were the key creators of that 2010 season moving on to the NFL, and in their place was a bunch of unseasoned freshmen, all of whom had never set foot in an SEC game, let alone a college game.
This was the plight, or opportunity, that head coach Gene Chizik and his staff was presented with for the 2011 season.
Chizik, being the realist that he is, set out to have a team improve as the season progressed. The press and the rankings meant little, because Coach Chizik is in it for the long haul and rebuilding around his program was the key. Goals are different from season to season.
Did he accomplish this? Yes. Did he intend to win championships this year? No, but this is where the track was headed from the preseason and why the Tigers are on track to meet their goal this season of being the "most improved team" from the preseason to bowl game.
It was a fool’s game to try and compare the 2010 Auburn Tigers to this year’s team. Yet, there are those, especially on opposing teams, that insist on doing that.
Not only are the lion’s share of the starters gone, but the biggest gap on offense was the hole left by Cam Newton at quarterback.
Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier became the hope of the position, and the preseason QB battle had all the fans talking about prospects for the season.
However, Gene Chizik’s goal was to merely formulate a platform where the three would be interchangeable, all the while gaining experience. Chizik believes that the quarterback position is the overall team leadership role, so that the person in that role has to have the trust of the entire team right off the bat.
Original starter Barrett Trotter had that trust, and probably still does. Chizik would not have opened the season with him, if he didn't.
The telling of the tale came on Trotter’s evident fluster at the position and Moseley being able to carry the team better at that point. He too has earned the team's trust, probably emerging more as Trotter's tenure came to an end.
Winning against LSU was just not reachable, but the experience for Moseley? Priceless, and the confidence gained against Ole Miss only serves him well coming into Athens this weekend.
Kiehl Frazier appears to be the future of the Tigers, in what one reader called an "eerie resemblance to Cam."
However, in terms of maturity, he has a long way to go. Using Frazier as the wildcat QB, running where possible is the best for the offense. In term of passing, he’s got some learnin’ to do.
Nick Fairley is a hard act to follow at defensive tackle. There’s a good reason he was picked in the first round of the NFL draft.
But Auburn was left with yet another hole to fill, not just because of Fairley’s departure alone, but also a group of experienced seniors that went with him.
This year’s defense was green, inexperienced and in need of some molding, to say the least.
It was a painful thing to watch as the Tigers squeaked by Utah State and Mississippi State before Clemson really exposed the deficiencies, rolling up the season-high 624 total yards allowed.
But from the beginning of the season defensive coordinator Ted Roof knew it was an uphill battle, and head coach Gene Chizik is established in defense, so together they worked on improving what was considered a terrible defense early on.
After only allowing 194 yards against Florida and only allowing 393 in the lopsided loss to No. 1 LSU, they have turned it around to the point that the defense is improving more every week, and on track to end the season with some much-needed experience under its belt.
Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb both made an impact on the 2010 season and were key instruments in winning the BCS National Championship.
Dyer was a true freshmen who made the key play in that game to put the nail in the coffin for Oregon and won the MVP honors.
But starting the 2011 season, it was as if both needed a refresher course in what it meant to have an effective offense. In all fairness, this year’s offense was obviously not the same as last year’s, and for those that were part of that 2010 effort, it was like starting over.
The offensive line had to start at the fundamentals since they were inexperienced, and learning the offense of coordinator Guz Malzahn is not an easy task.
As time went on, the running game gradually got better with the blocking finally taking shape, so that Dyer and McCalebb have started looking like their 2010 performances; McCalebb even more so.
Add getting experience for the promising true freshman Tre Mason, plus a dab of Kiehl Frazier, and you’ve got a multi-pronged attack that produced 254 yards of rushing in their last game against Ole Miss.
They play with added confidence now and are right on track to be where they want to be for the remainder of the season.
As I mentioned before, this season is about improvement for the Auburn Tigers and getting some experience for the future.
In the Tiger class of 2011, there were 24 true freshmen on scholarship, which came from an incredible recruiting year.
A fair number of those freshmen have played this season, simply out of necessity for filling a clearly depleted team. However, it is not as prevalent as consistently reported.
According to al.com, Auburn has only played 15 of those true freshmen, and nine will likely get redshirted.
Reese Dismukes is probably the best known true freshman, because he has been at the critical role of center, starting the whole season.
However, those getting experience are the right ones for the future, and are being judiciously threaded throughout both sides of the ball, just to get them seasoned to the game.
Others are stepping in as starters such as Gabe Wright coming in at defensive tackle for Ken Carter last week.
Also seeing more time lately has been RB Tre Mason, and of course Kiehl Frazier’s role has been expanding all season, but don’t expect him to get the starting role this year.
It’s all part of the plan to use 2011 as the learning and growing year, and these freshmen will be able to make a difference for the remainder of the season, maybe more so as the Tigers get closer to the Iron Bowl.
According to plan, improvement is the key and that will carry over into 2012, when these freshmen will make their real impact.
Probably the most important aspect of running a football program is keeping your guys believing in what you’re trying to do, and ignoring all the outside influences that can cause dissension, fragmentation and a loss of focus.
Head coach Gene Chizik calls that outside influence, “impostors.”
He tells his players to ignore the impostors, and that means rankings, media ridicule...basically anything that has nothing to do with what they’re trying to accomplish on the field.
With the Auburn Tigers, it’s something you can see week after week with improvements that they've made. You really didn't see a downward spiral coming out of Clemson, Arkansas or LSU.
In fact, you saw them working more as a cohesive unit, rather than a dysfunctional group of individuals.
Chizik and his coaches have accomplished that, which is not an easy task given all the focus on the “defending national champs” moniker that came with this season.
Of all the improvements over the season, this one is probably the most all-encompassing to the plan.
This attitude can only grow with the coming weeks, and will serve the Tigers well as they face Georgia this week, and even more so in the Iron Bowl at home.