Auburn's 2011 campaign was supposed to be an embarrassing debacle. When Auburn showed up at No. 23 on the preseason polls, many felt it was too high. Well, they were half-right; Auburn finished the season as No. 25 in the BCS.
Auburn is still ranked, however, and is far from the seven- or eight-loss team that too many expected.
Graduation and the NFL draft does that to a school. The Auburn players loved being in underdog status coming into 2011. That mindset carried them into some very nice victories, including thumping ranked South Carolina and Mississippi State, as well as Florida. All three were teams they were supposed to lose to.
The team is young, with almost half the starters being underclassmen. Critics will say that's a foolish excuse, but what happens when these "young" players are grown up in 2012?
Here are the top five most exciting players to look forward to watching in 2012, with their class listed as what they will be next season.
With his size, one has to wonder how Clark ended up as a punter, but a punter he is and one heck of a punter at that.
With the Tigers struggling offensively this year, Clark played a key role in the team's seven wins, and possibly the most important.
Field position is absolutely critical, especially when your team has a bad offensive coordinator and a young, porous defense. It's a lot easier to force the opposing offense off the field when you have 80-plus yards to work with after a punt and almost half of Clark's punts made it into the opponent's red zone.
Clark was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award but came up just short, with the award going to Louisiana Tech's Ryan Allen.
On a day when your offensive is struggling, nothing is more exciting than watching your punter force the opposition to start on their own 5-yard line, and it whips the team's defensive linemen into a frenzy.
T'Sharvan Bell has been in the shadow of Neiko Thorpe this year, but with Thorpe's departure, Bell will be looking to become the team's most important defensive back next to Demetruce McNeal.
He's second on the team with two interceptions and leads the team with seven passes broken up.
Bell's secret weapon is his versatility. He's Auburn's most dynamic corner and is used on corner blitzes. He's the guy who sacked Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy in the 2010 Iron Bowl, knocking him out of the game.
Few things are more exciting than watching a cornerback drop from coverage and sack the opposing quarterback.
Kiehl Frazier was one of the most exciting prospects of his recruiting class, but to step into the SEC as a true freshman starting quarterback is asking for trouble.
Fortunately, Gene Chizik let him get his feet wet little bits at a time. He only attempted a handful of passes this year, but he has 60 rushing attempts for 272 yards. His career game thus far was against South Carolina, where he ran nine times for 48 yards—a 5.3-yard average.
His running ability helped the Tigers edge out a victory in a game they supposedly had no business winning.
With Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley struggling this year, 2012 may be the year for Frazier to take the reins as a sophomore. He's the only quarterback mobile enough to fit well in the offensive scheme.
He's no Cam Newton, but hey, who is?
This compact, little bowling ball of a running back may be the SEC's most underrated back. With Trent Richardson and Marcus Lattimore receiving all the attention and Auburn out of title talks, Dyer has fallen off the radar to everyone.
Everyone except the Auburn faithful.
Dyer has rushed for over 1,000 yards two seasons in a row now, something Heisman Trophy-winner Mark Ingram couldn't do, and Dyer did it with a depleted team.
Michael's rushing average went down from six yards per carry to 5.1, but that's what happens when your team doesn't have a deadly passing attack to keep opponents from loading the box.
It's no secret that Auburn's 2012 season is infinitely more promising than the 2011 campaign, and at his current pace, Dyer will be closing in on 1,500 regular-season yards. That's easily enough to become a Heisman finalist, especially when you start the year with over 2,000 career yards.
I would say 2012 will be Dyer's year to break loose, but he's already done that. In 2012, he's going to blow up.
There may not be a defensive lineman prospect in the nation as exciting as Corey Lemonier and his future.
He is tied for 10th in the nation with 9.5 sacks and leads his team with 13.5 tackles for losses, numbers that aren't too far behind those of Nick Fairley in 2010, nor Ndamukong Suh in 2009. Even better, Lemonier is coming back to the Plains after his breakout year.
He's performed well all year, though he did struggle in the Iron Bowl. Those struggles didn't stop him from making a big play (maybe the biggest of the day for the Tigers), however.
With Alabama on their own goal line, Lemonier beat Alabama's MVP, left tackle Barrett Jones. He slammed into A.J. McCarron's blind side, knocking the ball to the ground, creating one of Auburn's two touchdowns.
Lemonier is one of those lean-yet-powerful defensive ends and has a clear future in the NFL. Auburn fans might not like the idea of him declaring early, but that's what will happen.
He's versatile and swift enough to play as either a defensive end in a 4-3 system or as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. That makes him marketable to every NFL team.
If he continues to build on his amazing play, he should easily eclipse Nick Fairley's outstanding play in 2010.
Wouldn't it be something if he joined Fairley and Ndamukong Suh in Detroit?