Auburn linebacker Daniel Pond signs an autograph for Brantlee Bibb, of Hartselle, Ala., at the Auburn Arena at Auburn’s fan day over the weekend in Auburn, Ala.
WHO: Clemson vs. Auburn.
WHAT: 2012 season opener for both.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday.
LINE: Clemson by 3 1/2 points.
AUBURN, Ala. — These Auburn Tigers don’t bear much resemblance to Cam Newton’s version.
The Tigers have undergone major changes since celebrating the new year in Atlanta, much less from the Newton-led national championship season two years ago. Gone are title game MVP Mike Dyer, Gus Malzahn’s celebrated fast-break offense and both coordinators. The huddle is back in style in Auburn.
Whether it adds up to the winning continuing, well, that remains to be seen.
The Tigers fell from 14-0 behind their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback to 8-5 with a revolving door of three signal callers last season, but the Tigers did finish with a dominant performance against Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31. Auburn returns to the Georgia Dome to open Saturday against Clemson.
But what they got all summer was plenty of reminders from strength coach Kevin Yoxall during workouts that 2011 was a season to forget.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL KICKOFF
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s look at AUBURN continues a series of college football previews counting down to the 2012 season starting this week. On Friday, we’ll take a closer look at GEORGIA SOUTHERN and GEORGIA STATE.
“He made it real clear that 8-5 wasn’t good enough here at Auburn,” tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen said, “and I think everyone bought into that.”
Buying in is just one step. Coach Gene Chizik continues trying to rebuild depth and climb the ladder in the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division — and a state that has produced the last three national champions.
Auburn’s veterans can at least draw from that experience two years ago. Defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker could relate when he heard an interview with NFL star Ray Lewis recently.
“He was talking about his first Super Bowl and how hard it is to get back,” Whitaker said. “It’s always hard to get back but for us, we saw what great looked like. We saw the camaraderie. We saw how we’re supposed to be a unit. That’s what we’re shooting for.”
They’ll have to resolve some questions in the offensive backfield and improve the defense to make up much ground on SEC West rivals Alabama, LSU and Arkansas.
Newly named starting quarterback Kehl Frazier, a sophomore, has already edged Clint Moseley, a six-game starter who has been limited since the spring by a sore throwing shoulder.
Frazier was used mostly as a Wildcat quarterback as a freshman, going 5-of-12 passing with a couple of interceptions.
“Kiehl has gotten a lot better from last fall to where he’s at now,” Lutzenkirchen said. “Kiehl has taken that leadership role. I think last year being a true freshman trying to lead an offense, he wasn’t that comfortable with it. Now, he’s kind of assumed it’s an opportunity for him to take the reins of this offense. He’s gained everyone’s respect with what he’s done this offseason.”
Dyer followed Malzahn to Arkansas State after being suspended for the bowl game after rushing for 2,335 yards his first two seasons. He has since been dismissed from that team and is out of football.
That leaves speedster Onterio McCalebb and the more balanced Tre Mason, the SEC’s leader in kick returns. Much of Mason’s backfield work came in the bowl game when he had 64 yards and a touchdown.
Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, a former Florida quarterbacks coach and Temple offensive coordinator, replaces Malzahn. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder brings a background that includes both SEC (Georgia) and NFL (Atlanta Falcons) to try to turn around a unit that hasn’t ranked better than 53rd nationally in scoring or total defense over the past three seasons.
The defense returns nine starters and the offense seven, but perhaps the most encouraging thing for Chizik is that others have been challenging for some of those jobs.
“I think we’re in a much stronger position as a football team than we were a year ago,” Chizik said. “We’ve finally developed some depth and we’ve got a little bit of experience.”
Nowhere are those qualities more evident than the defensive line. All four starters return, including defensive end Corey Lemonier, who had 9.5 sacks last season. Dee Ford is likely to take over on the opposite side over returning starter Nosa Egaue.
Leading tackler Daren Bates is back at linebacker while cornerback Chris Davis also returns. Cornerback T’Sharvan Bell returns after starting the first 10 games in 2011 before sustaining a season-ending knee injury.
The Tigers also return Ray Guy Award finalist Steven Clark at punter.
Top receiver Emory Blake points out that the 2010 team also was picked to finish middle of the pack in the SEC West.
“Our national championship year, nobody was really talking about us before the season,” Blake said. “And the year before that we went 8-5 as well. We have to put ourselves on the map, but we’re ready to do that.”