6 Aug 2012 05:59 PM EST
-By Daniel Mogollon, Staff Writer; Image: Defensive end Corey Lemonier gets to Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. (Image Source: Getty Images)
The college football season is 24 days away and today we begin our countdown of the top 25 teams in the Coaches Poll. Every team, whether it’s No. 25 Auburn or No. 1 LSU has questions and answers entering the upcoming campaign. We will examine the biggest question each team has heading into the season and the best answer they will have for the opposition in 2012. Today we begin with the No. 25 Auburn Tigers of the SEC West.
A year after winning the BCS Championship with Cam Newton at quarterback a drop off was expected in 2011 and Auburn lost five games, finishing just 4-4 in SEC play. They look to bounce back in 2012, as head coach Gene Chizik hopes to prove the Tigers can win big without Newton.
Auburn’s Biggest Question: An Offense in Transition
Arguably the biggest question is how are they going to deal with a schedule that includes No. 14 Clemson, No. 1 LSU, No. 10 Arkansas, No. 6 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama, but we digress. The Tigers learned last season that the spread offense wasn’t as explosive without a dynamic quarterback and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn departed to take the head-coaching job at Arkansas State. Assistant head coach Scot Loeffler, formerly of Temple, was brought in to take over the offense.
Regardless of the system, Auburn needs to not only find a quarterback, but also someone to replace the departed Michael Dyer, who would have been their best offensive player in his junior season. The QB battle will likely come down to sophomore Kiehl Frazier and junior Clint Moseley. The more experienced Moseley may have some health issues [rotator-cuff in throwing arm], while Frazier is relatively unproven as a passer and according to Loeffler there is “no separation between either of them.” They do return Onterio McCalebb in the backfield, but he’s more of scat back, while Dyer would have been an ideal pro-style between-the tackles runner. Even if expected starter Tre Mason plays well, he probably won’t be as good as Dyer. The questions don’t end there, as the Tigers lack proven talent at wide receiver. Senior Emory Blake [36 receptions, 613 yards] is the only returning wide out who caught more than 13 passes in 2011.
Auburn’s Best Answer: The Defensive Line
The Tigers were downright awful defensively last season, finishing 11th in the SEC in both scoring and total defense, but that was somewhat expected. They were young and raw, but almost the entire starting defense is back. Their experience is no more evident than along the defensive line, where most of the backups return as well, which is why the front four will be the strength of the 2012 Tigers.
Defensive end Corey Lemonier was a first-team All-SEC performer as a sophomore and with his ability to get to the quarterback [9.5 sacks in 2011] he is a legitimate All-American candidate. The Tigers also hope to get improved production from Dee Ford, who had a strong spring after missing much of last season with a back injury. The same can be said of defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker, who could be ready for a breakout season after failing to fulfill his potential in his first two years in Auburn. End Nosa Eguae is stout against the run, with six tackles for loss among his 38 stops in 2011. Ford and Eguae are battling for the starting job opposite Lemonier. Craig Sanders and Devaunte Sigler also contributed coming off the edge a year ago, while Gabe Wright, Ken Carter and 325-pounder Angelo Blackson were all part of the defensive tackle rotation. Yep, they are not lacking for depth in the trenches.
In addition to all the talent along the front four returning from 2011, new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons, should be a difference maker for the defensive line. Last season Auburn ran a more complex system, which may have been too much for the youngsters to digest. This year they are getting back to basics, with a renewed emphasis on physicality and good ole fashioned aggressive, smash-mouth football. A better offense that can control the ball longer wouldn’t hurt either. Finally, all the depth has resulted in competition-filled fall camp, which the players have raved about and should only help them in their development.
Daniel Mogollon is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of American. He is also a voter for the Thorpe and the Rotary Lombardi Award, as well as the Latino Sports MVP Awards.
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