Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: After going a perfect 14-0 in 2010 and winning the BCS National Championship, the Auburn Tigers came back to Earth a season ago, suffering a significant letdown after losing Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton, as the team would go a disappointing 8-5.
The Tigers' season started out promising enough, opening at 4-1, which including wins over No. 16 Mississippi State (41-34) and at No. 10 South Carolina (16-13). The tough SEC slate then got the best of them, as they went just 3-4 to finish off the regular season, with blowout losses coming against ranked foes in Arkansas (38-14), LSU (45-10), Georgia (45-7) and Alabama (42-14).
Head coach Gene Chizik and his team were able to salvage a disappointing season in their bowl game however, defeating Virginia in the Chik-fil-A Bowl in convincing fashion, 43-24.
OFFENSE: The Tigers were below average in the SEC in terms of offensive production a year ago, ranking eighth in total offense (337.8 ypg) and seventh in scoring offense (25.7 ppg). To improve those numbers, Chizik brought in a new offensive coordinator in Scot Loeffler - formerly the OC at Temple - to help bring them back to the offensive powerhouse they once were.
Most of the team's struggles came because of some shaky quarterback play, as Barrett Trotter and Clint Mosley combined for just 1,984 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. Sophomore Kiehl Frazier currently sits atop the quarterback depth chart, but Chizik doesn't rule out the possibility of competition from Mosley or elsewhere.
"(The quarterback position) is up for grabs," Chizik said at the SEC media day. "We're looking for the guy that can take Auburn and lead them to win football games. Kiehl is strongly considered in the mix. I think he's grown a lot as a football player since he has been here."
Running back Michael Dyer was named to the All-SEC First Team a year ago after rushing for 1,242 yards and 10 touchdowns, but he is no longer in the mix after the program relieved him of his scholarship late last season for violating team rules. Luckily for the Tigers, Onterio McCalebb should be ready to take over as the feature back after displaying great all-around production last season (707 rushing yards, 344 receiving yards, 338 return yards, 8 total TDs).
Top receiver Emory Blake (613 yards, 5 TDs) and Second Team All-SEC tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen (238 yards, 7 TDs) also return, along with a veteran offensive line anchored by tackle Chad Slane, guard John Sullen and center Reese Dismukes.
DEFENSE: The defense experienced plenty of growing pains a season ago, ranking 11th out of 12 SEC teams in both scoring defense (29.3 ppg) and total defense (405.8 ypg). There's reason for optimism this fall however, as the Tigers return 10 starters on that side of the ball.
Defensive end Corey Lemonier was one of the nation's top pass rushers in 2011, recording 13.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, 15 quarterback hurries, and 5 forced fumbles en route to a Second Team All-SEC selection. Joining Lemonier on the experienced defensive line is end Nosa Eguae (43 tackles, 6 tackles for loss), along with tackles Kenneth Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker.
Linebacker Daren Bates led the team in tackles last year with 104 and also chipped in with 8.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, while defensive backs Demetruce McNeal and T'Sharvan Bell tallied 2 interceptions apiece.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Cody Parkey was 13-of-18 on field goal attempts in 2011, and he was nearly automatic from inside 40 yards (7-of-8). Steven Clark was one of the busier punters in the conference, logging 72 punts for a 40.8 yard average, placing nearly half of them (33) inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
McCalebb returned 11 kicks last season, but with an expanded role in the offense it is expected that his chances on special teams will diminish. Speedster Tre Mason (24 returns, 633 yards, 1 TD) will likely serve as the primary returner once again.
OUTLOOK: After spending years among the SEC's best, Auburn took a significant step back in 2011 and is now looking up at the likes of Alabama, LSU, South Carolina and Georgia.
Auburn has neither the program-changing talent at the skill positions, nor the dominating defense that a team typically needs in order compete for the SEC title, but the one thing it does have is experience, as it returns more starters than any other team in the conference. Chizik hopes that the experience his players have gained will help them improve in 2012.
"Our senior class that's up right now has had a lot of success," Chizik said. "They've averaged 10 wins a year for three years. They've been undefeated in their postseason play in bowl games. They've got a national championship ring on their finger. They've had some great experiences in the last three years at Auburn."
While a run at a BCS bowl isn't likely, Auburn will certainly be a good team that will cause a lot of problems in the nation's most competitive conference this year.