This post continues our series checking in on next season's opponents. Our goal is to have gathered useful information about each opponent prior to the beginning of the season. We've previously talked about the East Carolina Pirates, the Georgia Bulldogs, the Navy Midshipmen, and the Vanderbilt Commodores. Today, we're discussing the defending national-champion Auburn Tigers.
Despite relatively modest pre-season projections, the Tigers blitzkrieged their way to the SEC and BCS Titles last year, notching two wins against the Gamecocks along the way, one a hard-fought game at Auburn and the other a laugher in the SEC Championship Game. Auburn was led by Heisman winner Cameron Newton, who combined the rushing abilities of Tim Tebow and the passing abilities of Joe Montana. Although it was mired by questions about Newton's recruitment, the championship was a watershed moment for a program that has in recent years oftentimes come close to the pinnacle of college football, but that has, for various reasons, never quite sealed the deal.
Significant Personnel Losses
The Tigers lose numerous players from their championship-winning squad. Phil Steele ranks Auburn dead last in the country with only seven returning starters. The most significant, of course, is Cam Newton--whatever you might think of Newton's off-field behavior, there is no doubt that he was a once-in-a-lifetime talent on the field, and he'll be sorely missed by the Tigers. Even if Auburn finds a serviceable QB for 2011, that QB won't play on the level Newton did. Another key loss will be several offensive linemen. The Tigers had one of the nation's best lines a year ago, but the rotation was almost completely composed of seniors. The Tigers will also lose key WRs, defensive linemen, and linebackers. The only good news, perhaps, is that Auburn returns its talented backfield, composed of RBs Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb.
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As said, the Tigers lose a massive amount of offensive talent, and that has many predicting that Auburn will struggle mightily on offense this year. I'm not so sure. I don't doubt that there will be an adjustment period for Auburn, as you don't lose a great QB like Newton and such an experienced offensive line without missing a beat. However, the cupboard is not bare--far from it. Since Gene Chizik arrived on the Plains, Auburn has recruited on pace with SEC heavyweights like Alabama, Florida, and LSU. With some exceptions, those programs don't rebuild, they reload. I feel the same will be true of Auburn. That's especially true on offense true considering that Gus Malzahn remains offensive coordinator. Malzahn turned a relatively talentless bunch that had struggled mightily in 2008 into a feared offense in 2009. Don't doubt that he can do the same with the mass of four- and five-star talents he currently has at his disposal, even if those players are inexperienced.
The main personnel question marks for Auburn, as already indicated, are QB and offensive line. I actually think that Auburn will be OK at QB. The position will be held by either Barrett Trotter or Clint Moseley. Neither possess Newton's physical profile (who does?), but both have experience in Malzahn's system and are the kind of dual-threat QBs he likes. With Auburn loaded at RB, they won't have to be Newton--they'll just need to be capable enough to give Dyer and McCalebb room to run. I think they can do that. The real trick for Auburn will be fielding a line that's good enough to keep up with the SEC's best. Auburn only returns a couple of linemen with significant experience and loses multiple All-SEC talents. It remains unclear who will start, as Auburn continued to experiment throughout the spring to figure out what might work. That points to a likely lack of chemistry for this unit, and considering the typical learning curve involved in fielding a good line, I expect Auburn to struggle here next year.
Auburn also loses quite a few players on defense, including Nick Fairley, perhaps the nation's best defensive player from a year ago. The line, linebacking corps, and secondary will all need to replace multiple key contributors. As with offense, Auburn has recruited plenty of talent to step in and contribute now that the veterans are gone. However, I'm a bit more skeptical about this group than I am about the offense. Whereas the offense has Malzahn leading the way, the defense has Ted Roof. Roof's defense had some success last year, but I'm not sold that he's an elite DC, particularly when he doesn't have a bevy of seniors at his disposal. And if the offense is less successful in keeping the defense off the field than it was last year, you could see this unit take a pounding. Defense wasn't really Auburn's strength a year ago, despite the great defensive line, and I expect it to struggle even more this year.
In addition to counting towards our SEC record like any other conference game, this one is significant for the revenge factor. The Tigers burned us twice last year. One was close and the other was a blowout, but both hurt. Carolina would like to dish out a little payback for those losses. That's particularly true considering that we haven't beaten Auburn since the 1930s--we've never beaten them since we joined the SEC. That's a statistic we'd like to bury.
Although I do think Auburn will perform better this year than some of the prognostications predict (many have Auburn finishing dead last in the SEC West--I think that's highly unlikely), this is a game Carolina should clearly win. While Auburn's offense should be good enough to score some points against us, their defense will have lots of problems. Marcus Lattimore should be able to control this game for us against Auburn's green front seven, helping us wear Auburn down throughout the contest and take over the game in the second half. I also think our defensive line--likely the SEC's best--will have a field day against Auburn's young offensive line. I predict that Carolina will win by at least 7-10 points.