CLEMSON, SC - SEPTEMBER 17: The mascot of the Clemson Tigers cheers on against the Auburn Tigers at Memorial Stadium on September 17, 2011 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Auburn site College and Magnolia is a new addition to the SBNation team. I started following these guys a couple of weeks back to get information on our first opponent and quickly realized that these guys do a fantastic job. I think that much will be evident just from reading their responses to our questions. Here we go.
1. I have so many questions to ask with all the changes in the offseason at Auburn. I'll start with new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. What's his background? How does his offense differ from Gus Malzahn's in terms of scheme, pace, etc?
Before Loeffler's arrival at Auburn, his most recent gig was a one-year stint as offensive coordinator at Temple, where he ran a run-heavy, pro-style offense. In 2011, Temple's offense scored 30 points per game -- up from 25 in 2010 -- and led the MAC with 256 rushing yards per game. To say Loeffler's offense was run-heavy is really an understatement; it's almost as if he truly hated the idea of the forward pass. Temple averaged 49 rushes per game last season, compared to just 15 passes. Not surprisingly, Temple ranked second-to-last in the MAC with 127 passing yards per game. While Loeffler's offense was decidedly unbalanced toward the run at Temple, that was in part due to the OC playing to his strengths. The Owls had two fantastic running backs, Bernard Pierce and Matt Brown, on their roster and lacked a standout quarterback. While Loeffler's offense will favor the run at Auburn, it will be much more balanced. SEC defenses will make that a necessity.
In addition to his time as OC at Temple, Loeffler has held the role of quarterbacks coach at his Michigan, his alma mater, Central Michigan, the NFL's Detroit Lions and Florida. Over the years, he has mentored and helped to develop such standout QBs as Tom Brady, Brian Griese, Chad Henne, Drew Henson, John Navarre and Tim Tebow. Loeffler's experience gained at Florida could prove to be quite valuable, as Auburn is transitioning away from the zone-read spread. Having an OC that can implement pieces of that offense when necessary will make the transition a little easier.
Auburn's offense will look completely different compared to the last time Clemson saw it. Expect a straight-ahead power running game and a passing game that focuses on underneath throws to tight ends, running backs and receivers. Whether or not Auburn attempts to stretch the field too much will likely depend on Kiehl Frazier's performance in his first start at quarterback and what the Clemson defense showing. Frazier is a great ball-carrier, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see a few designed QB runs, but he will mostly be throwing in the pocket and handing the ball to his stable of running backs.
2. I saw that QB Kiehl Frazier was named the starter this week after being used sparingly as a situational runner last year. Can you talk a little bit about his progress during fall camp as a passer?
That's a tough one. Frazier had a great spring, which culminated with an MVP performance in the A-Day game, and just about everyone expected the sophomore to be pegged as the starter early in fall camp. But as camp wore on and one, Chizik refused to make the announcement. Some speculated that he simply wanted to keep his quarterback motivated and that the team knew Frazier was the man. He was praised throughout camp for his leadership and grasp of the offense, and wide receiver Emory Blake was quoted as saying Frazier's arm is even stronger than Cam Newton's (swoon).
The only thing that is worrisome is that throughout camp, Chizik continued to complain of inconsistency from the quarterbacks. Now, that could just be coachspeak -- most coaches will always see inconsistency in practice -- but it's still disconcerting, especially since it took Frazier so long to win the job when he was competing against a player with a hurt shoulder -- Clint Moseley -- and a true freshman -- Jonathan Wallace. At one point during the fall, Frazier alluded to the fact that former OC Gus Malzahn never taught him proper footwork or how to make reads. Hopefully, Frazier just needed some extra work on those fundamentals. At the few open practices and scrimmages, Frazier looked pretty good, but we really won't know what to expect until he faces a real opposing defense.
3. The depth chart shows two Freshmen tackles along the offensive line? Is this accurate? Can you talk about what you've heard about this group coming out of fall camp?
Auburn has done a fine job on the recruiting trail during the Chizik era, and over the last two years, no one has been better at pulling in offensive linemen. The Tigers have stockpiled four- and five-star talent at that position, and it will show this season. Senior John Sullen and sophomore Chad Slade are the starters at left and right guard, respectively. Sullen and Slade bring plenty of experience from last season, but Auburn's offensive line roster is incredibly green after you get past those two names. Redshirt freshman Greg Robinson is starting at left tackle, and true freshman Avery Young will make his debut at right tackle. If you think Auburn's starters on the line are young, you should see the rest of the two-deep. True freshmen Alex Kozan and Patrick Miller, and redshirt freshmen Christian Westerman and Shon Coleman could all see significant playing time. The inexperience on the O-line is scary for Auburn fans, but considering how much talent those players possess, one can't help but be optimistic.
Reese Dismukes, a sophomore who earned freshman All-SEC honors last season, should be starting at center, but he was stupid enough to get arrested for public intoxication on Friday night and is suspended for at least one game. Dismukes was a freshman All-American last season, and his leadership will be sorely missed, especially at a position as crucial as center. Sophomore Tunde Fariyike will make his first-career start at center, but offensive line coach Jeff Grimes could move Sullen over from his natural position if Fariyike is injured or ineffective, which would result in another freshman finding his way into the starting lineup. It's not yet clear how the line will shake out on Saturday, but the loss of Dismukes could potentially derail Auburn's offense.
Auburn's offensive line may experience early growing pains, especially without Dismukes, but it should be one of the SEC's best by the end of the season.
4. Defensively Auburn is breaking in a new DC as well. What do you expect to change from last year's defense now that Brian VanGorder has been hired to replace Ted Roof? Can you expect a dramatic turnaround in year 1?
The fact that you would call what Ted Roof fielded last year "defense" is laughable. Auburn's 2011 defense was the worst in school history, allowing 29 points, 408 total yards per game, 926 plays and 5.73 yards per play. The Tigers gave up 189 yards per game on the ground and 219 through the air. For a school that has always shown pride in playing physical, defensive football, the 2011 season was a nightmare.
So when you ask what changes should be expected now that Brian VanGorder is in charge, the answer is "everything." Under Roof, Auburn defenders didn't know how to tackle and defensive backs didn't know how to turn around and play the ball on passes. It was almost as if Roof never taught the basic fundamentals of defense. He carried a laid back personality, never raising his voice at his players. And while his defenses were pretty good at stopping the run -- 2011 can be excused here because of the lack of experience and depth -- his strategy appeared to be designed to allow tons of passing yards. Roof would have his linebackers drop off deep into coverage, allowing opposing quarterbacks to throw underneath all day. And when the secondary would finally get sucked in, opponents would strike for big plays over the DBs' heads. It was hard to understand how anyone thought Roof could be a successful defensive coordinator at Auburn. His hiring is the one bust Chizik has had in his time on the Plains.
VanGorder is the yang to Roof's yin. He's fiery, he yells at his players, and he has a fantastic mustache. During his time as defensive coordinator at Georgia in the early 2000s, he turned the Dawgs' D into one of the best in the country. Whereas Roof's defense requires the linemen to read and react, VanGorder's style is described as more attacking, asking his linemen to break through the O-line and get up field. He requires much more from his linebackers, who take the responsibility of reading the opposing offense and patrolling the middle of the field. VanGorder requires his players to master fundamentals and he'll determine playing time based on who is providing the most production. It doesn't matter if the player is a true freshman or a fifth-year senior, VanGorder will give playing time to the guy that deserves it.
Auburn won't have a top-tier defense this year. There are still questions at linebacker and changing systems usually takes a full season to take hold. However, the Tigers will be much better and should continue to improve throughout the year. In 2013, watch out. Auburn will have one of the best defenses in the country.
5. Knowledgeable college football fans are already aware of how good Corey Lemonier is. Who else on the defensive side of the ball should we keep an eye on Saturday night?
A few guys should stand out in the Dome. On the other side of the line, defensive end Dee Ford may end up having a better game than Lemonier. Clemson's inexperienced offensive line will have to key on Lemonier, and if Auburn's interior linemen play well, that should free up Ford to get into the backfield often. He missed most of last season with a back injury, but he claims to be 100 percent right now. Ford is a pure pass rusher with great speed and agility, and he has received rave reviews in spring and fall practice. Ford should have a breakout year in 2012.
Auburn's secondary, after being a huge liability for years, is likely going to be a strength this year. If Chris Davis carries his play from fall practice to the field on gamedays, he'll be a lock-down corner. At safety, Jermaine Whitehead and Ryan White have stepped up their play and are taking on the role of defensive leaders. Those three players will make a big impact on stopping Clemson's passing game.
6. Instead of asking "what's your prediction", which always seems to be Good Guys > Bad Guys, I'm curious to know what your confidence level is heading into Saturday night's game. Are you feeling confident in your squad? Or are there too many question marks to keep you from sleeping easy Friday night?
I honestly have no idea what to expect from this game. Believe it or not, I think it could be relatively low-scoring. I'm not expecting anything like 9-6, but it won't be the shootout that we saw last year. Auburn's defense will be able to slow down Clemson's offense and make some big plays. On offense, Auburn has too many question marks to expect a huge day. With a new starting quarterback and a shuffled, youthful offensive line, mistakes are to be expected, and Clemson's defense will be able to capitalize on some of those mistakes.
Do I feel confident? Not exactly. I think Auburn can win, and I won't be surprised if that happens, but there are too many unknown factors to go into the game expecting a victory. Honestly, I would feel the same way if I were a Clemson fan. These two teams match up pretty evenly. Sleep Friday night will only come after a healthy dose of bourbon.