by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

After winning the BCS title in its magical 14-0 campaign in 2010, it’s no surprise Gene Chizik's Auburn fell to 8-5 in its “rebuilding year” sans Heisman Trophy winner QB Cam Newton. The Tigers, who have 16 starters back, must undergo a transitional period with two new coordinators. Even so, armed with three consecutive top10 recruiting classes, Auburn hopes to show that 2010 wasn’t an aberration but a harbinger of things to come.

Defense was the main emphasis in the spring, which allowed nearly 29 ppg and 408 ypg year ago, a performance leading to the departure of Ted Roof. New, energetic defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who returns to Athens (UGA d.c. from 2001-04) after serving as the Atlanta Falcons d.c. since 2008, stressed greater discipline in the spring from a unit that allowed 34 points or more seven times in 2011! And there will be significant changes on the other side of the ball under new offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler (Temple o.c. LY), who replaced Gus Malzahan after he bolted to take over at Arkansas State. Loeffler, who did a superb job as the architect of the punishing Owl attack last year, has also served as the QB coach at his alma mater Michigan and at Florida, where he helped Tim Tebow throw for nearly 3,000 yards as a senior. Former Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr praised Loeffler’s flexibility as a game-caller, saying that he can work a game to suit the needs of his team on a weekly basis.

The heated battle between highly-mobile soph Kiehl Frazier (right; 4.5 speed; only 5 of 12 completions; 327 YR), who piloted the “Wildcat” sets in spot duty last year, and accurate but injury-prone 6-4 jr. Clint Moseley (61 %) continues in the fall. But most observors agree that Frazier will get the first crack to execute the experienced offense (7 starters back; 25.7 ppg LY) in the big lidlifter vs. Clemson in Atlanta. Chizik is extremely pleased with Frazier’s grasp of the pro-style attack (but still using some read option), asserting that he was reacting more rather than thinking in the spring. With breakaway RB Michael Dyer opting to join Malzahn at Arkansas State, versatile sr. Onterio McCalebb (641 YR, 5.7 ypc; 32 grabs) will be the featured runner, with sophs Corey Grant, Tre Mason and much-ballyhooed RS frosh Mike Blakely (blue-chip prospect was a Florida signee) getting ample opportunity to show their stuff. There is a plethora of speed on the outside, including game-changing WR Emory Blake (36 catches, 5 TDs), who was sorely missed when he was sidelined for two games due to injuries. And coaches are praising soph WR Travon Reed (21 catches), who demonstrated in the spring the explosiveness that they were hoping for in 2011. Plus, NFL-ready 6-5 sr. TE Philip Lutzenkirchen (24 catches, 7 TDs) should be a prime target. Both starting tackles must be replaced on the OL, with highly-touted RS frosh Greg Robinson taking over at LT.

Long-time SEC sources are expecting dramatic improvement on the seasoned defense (8 starters back) that was waaaayy too porous in 2011. After finishing 11th in the SEC in run defense LY (189 ypg & 4.6 ypc), the front seven should stiffen after being hit hard by injuries last year. After all, the top eight linemen return to the defensive front, spearheaded by DE Corey Lemonier (making a sack at left), who had 9.5 of the team’s 22 sacks. Keep an eye on super-athletic, highly-instinctive RS frosh Kris Frost, who figures to make an immediate impact on the middle-tier of the “D,” spearheaded by sr. LB Darren Bates (top tackler). And LY’s permissive secondary (allowed a woeful 63.3%) will be a much more aggressive unit under first-year DB coach Willie Martinez (former Georgia d..c.), who is VanGorder’s old friend and colleague from his days in Athens. After heavily relying on zone coverage in 2011, the veteran defensive backs (seven of top eight return!) will play press coverage more often. Fifth-year sr. CB T’Shavron Bell, who missed spring due to knee surgery, but he has promised to be ready for the fall. Solid special teams with soph P Steven Clark, who has terrific “hang time” (led SEC with his 33 punts inside the 20), and strong-legged PK Cody Parkey (13 of 18 FGs, including 6 of 10 from 40+ yds.). McCalebb, Mason and Quan Bray give the Tigers a trio of dangerous return men.

Summary...Sure, the talented and deeper Tigers are still a work in progress under Gene Chizik and his two new coordinators. But with a more home-friendly schedule (LSU, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Georgia visit Jordan-Hare Stadium!), AU has a chance to match or even improve on its 8-5 finish of 2011. However, even if Frazier or Moseley smoothly run the new-look “O” (that’s a big IF in the defense-oriented SEC), and the proud “D” resembles its previous stifling editions, the still-maturing Tigers are probably a year away from challenging LSU, Alabama or even Arkansas in the loaded West Division. Remember, Auburn was smashed by those three national title contenders by a combined 87 points in 2011. Note, Tigers will be serious revenge mode in the opener vs. Clemson after their 14-game series win streak was snapped in come-from-ahead 38-24 setback in “Death Valley” last year.


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