Before the 2012 season started, most rational Auburn fans were not expecting huge things from this team. With two new coordinators, it was clear that Auburn would be dealing with some adjustment/developmental issues. Still, with all the talent on the roster, the majority expected anywhere between seven and nine wins, with the consensus being that an 8-4 season would be likely. For the first month of the season, a 2-2 record was predicted by those attempting to stay grounded in reality, but it wasn't unreasonable to believe that the Tigers would enter October with a 3-1 record.
Instead, Auburn struggled through its first four games with a 1-3 record. Many of the issues that were expected showed up -- erratic quarterback play, a lack of playmaking at receiver, poor linebacker play -- and those problems have taken longer than expected to be solved. To make matters worse, unforeseen issues -- poor fundamentals, inconsistent defensive line play, questionable play-calling -- have cropped up, as well. Add it all up, and Auburn has been pretty bad on paper:
To say that Auburn's overall numbers through the first third of the season are ugly would be quite an understatement. Against real defenses (i.e. not Louisiana-Monroe), the Tigers have barely been able to move the ball. And even against the Warhawks, Auburn's offense went through long periods of ineptitude. The reasons for the offensive struggles have been fairly clear.
Kiehl Frazier has been worse than anticipated -- Everyone knew Auburn's sophomore quarterback was going to go through some growing pains, maybe even serious growing pains. Not many people predicted Frazier to be as bad as he's been. Confidence has been a major issue, as any mistakes have taken a huge toll on the young QB and rendered him essentially incapable of playing the position. At 96.0, Frazier's quarterback rating is easily the worst among SEC starters, 31 points lower than No. 13, Missouri's James Franklin. Frazier has thrown the most interceptions in the conference -- seven -- and only two touchdowns. His passing yards and completion percentage -- 546 and 52.8, respectively -- also rank last when compared to other regular starters in the conference.
Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler finally decided to move from the booth to the field for the LSU game, and it seemed to help Frazier's psyche. Since Loeffler will be on the sideline for emotional support going forward, we can hope that the quarterback will begin to show signs of progress.
Play-calling has been questionable at times -- Speaking of Loeffler, offensive gameplans through the first month have been ... let's just say "interesting." In the opener against Clemson, Auburn used Tre Mason and the power running game to march down the field on several drives. Inexplicably, the plan changed when the Tigers reached the red zone. Loeffler elected to go with finesse runs around the end and fades to the end zone, abandoning the power running that had put Auburn in scoring position. The change was for the worse, and four potential touchdown drives all ended in field goals. Clemson won that game, 26-19, but it very easily could have been a different result with better play-calling near the end zone.
Early on against Mississippi State, it was more of the same. Auburn used the power game to drive down inside the State 10 in the first quarter, and Loeffler changed things up. An ill-fated jet sweep lost a chunk of yards, stalling the drive that would eventually end in another field goal. Auburn's offense was stuck in neutral for the rest of that game, so the early miscue didn't make the difference between a win and a loss. Nevertheless, it was a curious decision that blew up in Auburn's face.
While Frazier certainly hasn't been helping matters, many of the passes Loeffler has called have not allowed the quarterback to get into a rhythm. This improved a bit against LSU, but earlier in the season. Loeffler was calling too many slow-developing plays that led to Frazier overthinking his throws. More quick slants and outs, especially early in games, would help Frazier get a few completions under his belt and build confidence.
The wide receivers haven't been providing a ton of support -- This has actually improved over the last two games, but Auburn's receivers still need to get better. Seniors Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen are the stalwarts, the men we knew would be there for Frazier. Against Clemson and Mississippi State, they were essentially the only receivers Frazier could find. Thankfully, a third man has started to emerge: Quan Bray. Blake and Lutzenkirchen each have 12 catches on the year for 222 and 128 yards, respectively. Bray now has 11 catches for 82 yards. Sure, those aren't great numbers, but they're better than nothing. The rest of Auburn's wide receivers have combined for four catches and 59 yards. Oof.
One of those four receivers is redshirt freshman Sammie Coates. You may remember Coates as the man on the receiving end of Frazier's Hail Mary toss at the end of the first half against ULM. While he only has two catches this season, Coates has started to show his ability to streak past defenders. He had another long catch against the Warhawks called back, and against LSU, a potential early big play slipped through his hands. Had Coates been able to make that catch against the Bayou Bengals, Auburn would have been in good position to put an early score on the board. He needs to continue his progression and become a true big-play threat for the Tigers.
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Defensively, Auburn has actually been improving thanks to the tutelage of coordinator Brian VanGorder. While there's still a long way to go, the Tiger defense looked like a competitive unit against LSU, playing with better fundamentals and rattling the opposing offense. Considering the miserable play in the first three weeks, that was a sight for sore eyes. Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford have been excellent all season, but the rest of Auburn's defenders have had more downs than ups.
For the most part, the interior linemen have been manhandled -- Considering the amount of rushing yards Auburn is giving up, this isn't much of a surprise. The Tigers' interior linemen, led by Angelo Blackson and Jeffrey Whitaker, have not been able to clog the middle, and opposing running backs have found wide open lanes. This improved greatly against LSU, but even though Auburn shut down their ground game for most of the night, the Bengal Tigers were able to break off a few big runs up the middle.
On passing downs, the Tigers have relied almost exclusively on the ends to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Auburn's tackles have been responsible for just one sack and six hurries. Auburn must get better in the middle of the line to take some of the pressure off of Lemonier and Ford. If the tackles can begin to command respect from opposing blockers, the ends will be able to make a huge impact. Blackson and Whitaker were better against LSU, and Gabe Wright has begun to show some of his talent. Hopefully, they're headed in the right direction.
Jake Holland, please get better -- We hate harping on Holland so much. He's a great kid, and we love every player that suits up in the orange and blue. But Holland has been a huge liability at linebacker. As a unit, the linebackers all need work, but Holland needs it the most. While his pre-snap alignment has improved, Holland is still being blocked out too easily on too many plays. Auburn's defensive tackles are, obviously, the first line of defense on runs up the middle, but Holland needs to provide support. Too often this season, he has allowed plays that should gain three or four yards turn into 10-to-15-yard explosions. Holland seems to be getting better, but he needs to make some big strides.
Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals -- It's hard to completely blame the players for their inability to make proper tackles or play decent pass coverage. Former defensive coordinator Ted Roof ruined just about every linebacker and defensive back he mentored, and Auburn is paying the price. VanGorder is working to make his defense better at that basics, but it is going to take time. Fortunately, some of the younger Tigers that weren't completely corrupted by Roof are beginning to see the field. Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost at linebacker, and Erique Florence, Robenson Therezie and Jonathan Holsey in the secondary have received increased playing time lately, and they have all taken advantage. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Auburn's younger defenders make an impact in October and November.
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PLAYER OF THE MONTH: DE COREY LEMONIER
Lemonier has easily been Auburn's best player this season, which isn't really a shock. Through four games, the junior has amassed 19 tackles, five tackles for loss and five sacks. In addition to those fine totals, he has five quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and a blocked kick. He's been a terror on passing plays, and his run defense, the only downside to his game coming into the season, has greatly improved. Lemonier has been one of the very few bright spots in an otherwise dismal month. If he keeps it up, we wouldn't be surprised to see Lemonier leave for the NFL and earn a first-round selection. Although, we'll be begging him to stay.
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Frankly, September was brutal. There is plenty of talent on Auburn's roster, but for the most part, that hasn't translated to impressive play on the field. With three losses already, it's hard to imagine Auburn finishing with a better record than 7-5 -- 6-6 is much more realistic -- and missing a bowl game is a real possibility. Auburn looked much better on defense against LSU, but that was against a straightforward pro-style offense. The Tigers struggled mightily against spread offenses, and there are plenty of those left on the schedule. Will Auburn be able to build on its performance in the heartbreaking loss to LSU, or will the Tigers fall back to the type of play that was seen in Weeks 1-3? Is there any hope for offensive improvement this year, or is quarterback play going to doom Auburn until 2013? The October slate begins with a home game against an incredibly beatable Arkansas team. How the Tigers perform in that game will tell us if there is any hope of salvaging this season.