National Signing Day has almost become a national holiday for many football fanatics, watching their team open up gifts with each letter of intent that rolls in on the fax machine. With the transfer of Florida's Mike Blakely to Auburn, the Tigers moved up to No. 1 with their 2011 signing class, according to Scout.com. Though it's not as exciting as Auburn winning the BCS National Championship, it is a major building block for Auburn to compete for another one.
College football fans know recruiting is not an exact science and certainly no guarantee for success. A team could sign what is projected as a top five class, but a high attrition rate will prevent that class from reaching its full potential.
Auburn's 2007 recruiting class was ranked No. 6 nationally, but 16 players from that class departed before the 2009 season began and only nine have made a major contribution to the program.
On the flipside, 20 recruits from the 2006 and 2007 classes were major contributors to Auburn's national championship season, including 14 starters. The 2010 Auburn Tigers were a veteran squad and their experience played a major role in Auburn's close games.
Under Coach Gene Chizik's direction we have witnessed a level of recruiting not seen at Auburn in a very long time. The current coaching staff is on the cusp of delivering three consecutive Top 10 classes, which is steadily improving the depth of talent on the roster. Note the following data as it pertains to the average rating of Auburn's scholarship players, percentage of 4-star players and above and the percentage of 2-star players and below.
2005: 2.86 average rating/29.7 percent 4-stars/36.5 percent 2-stars
2006: 2.89 average rating/27.8 percent 4-stars/34.2 percent 2-stars
2007: 3.09 average rating/35.1 percent 4-stars/27.3 percent 2 stars
2008: 3.03 average rating/32.5 percent 4-stars/29.9 percent 2 stars
2009: 3.14 average rating/33.3 percent 4-stars/23.6 percent 2 stars
2010: 3.22 average rating/34.6 percent 4-stars/22.2 percent 2 stars
2011: 3.32 average rating/41.9 percent 4-stars/17.6 percent 2 stars
The 2011 team will actually be more talented, on paper at least, than the 2010 Auburn roster with a higher percentage of 4-star players and a fewer number of "project" players. From 2002-2008, 34.5 percent of the players rated as 4-stars or better eventually became starters at Auburn while 14.5 percent of the players rated as 2-stars or lower eventually became starters. Though there is no guarantee for success being a 4-star rated player, there is a higher probability for success.
2004: 29 players with 20 games and 10 players with 30 games of experience.
2005: 23 players with 20 games and 13 players with 30 games of experience.
2006: 21 players with 20 games and 12 players with 30 games of experience.
2007: 16 players with 20 games and 9 players with 30 games of experience.
2008: 17 players with 20 games and 5 players with 30 games of experience.
2009: 19 players with 20 games and 7 players with 30 games of experience.
2010: 23 players with 20 games and 12 players with 30 games of experience
2011: 15 players with 20 games and 3 players with 30 games of experience.
There appears to be a direct correlation with experienced teams faring better in close ball games. Auburn's four most experienced teams over the past seven seasons had a combined 14-1 record in games decided by seven points or less and the three remaining Auburn squads had a record of 8-10.
The 2004 and 2010 teams were blessed with a combination of talent and experience, making them a rare entity and a difficult team to defeat. Both teams possessed the talent to overpower their opponent and the experience to survive the close games.
The 2006 Tigers lacked talent, but possessed plenty of experience, which included 21 players with at least 20 games of experience and 21 seniors on the roster. Auburn's average star rating of its starting offense was 2.18 and the starting defense was 2.64, yet those Tigers managed to win 11 of 13 games. In comparison, the 2010 starting offense had an average star rating of 3.64 and 3.54 on defense to go along with a veteran roster. Based on the first team rotation from the A-Day game, the 2011 Tigers project to have a starting rating of 3.50 on offense and 3.55 on defense.
In terms of star ratings the 2011 Tigers just might be the most talented squad Auburn has fielded in the last 10 years, but youth could hinder the team's ability to execute consistently, especially in close games. The 2006 team proved you could win with experience and a roster not dominated by heavily-recruited players, but can the same be said if the roles are reversed in 2011? Of the 15 players on the 2011 roster with 20 games of experience, 12 are expected to be starters or significant contributors, which will account for only 27 percent of Auburn's two-deep depth chart.
The three most critical areas of a football team where coaches want to have experience at are on the offensive line, the defensive line and quarterback. Jared Cooper and John Sullen are the only two offensive linemen with 20 games of experience and Dee Ford is the only defensive lineman with that much experience. Auburn will also lack experience at quarterback.
During Chizik's first season Auburn endured issues with depth to go along with the normal struggles of installing a new offense and defense. This will be year number three under the same coaching staff, which should translate to a smoother transition for the new players.
Based on Scout's ratings, here is the average star rating of Auburn's starting lineups since 2005.
2005: Offense 3.18/Defense 3.00
2006: Offense 2.18/Defense 2.64
2007: Offense 2.45/Defense 2.82
2008: Offense 3.00/Defense 3.09
2009: Offense 3.36/Defense 3.18
2010: Offense 3.64/Defense 3.54
2011: Offense 3.50/Defense 3.55 (projected)
Since 1992, and including the 2004 Tigers, the teams that finished No. 1 in the AP poll or captured the BCS title dropped from an average winning percentage of .971 during their championship seasons to an average winning percentage of .817 the following year. That equates to at least two losses the year after winning it all and half of those teams lost at least three games.
Only three of the 21 teams equaled or improved on their record the following year, which means this year's Auburn team should have too many obstacles to overcome to repeat.
Despite being youthful the 2011 Tigers will be motivated by preseason predictions that Auburn will crash and burn this fall. The coaching staff is utilizing the negative press to inspire commitment from their team. The schedule will be difficult with Auburn facing 10 opponents in 2011 that went bowling in 2010.
Look for Auburn's defense to be more dynamic in terms of schemes. That group that will be called on to be the backbone of the team early in the season. If Jeff Grimes can put together a cohesive offensive line, coordinator Gus Malzahn will have plenty of skill players to field an explosive offense.
Chizik has gone on record stating there will be no excuses this season despite Auburn's baby-faced lineup. The goal is to win championships no matter which 11 players are on the field. If Auburn's coaches can keep the focus of their team on one game at a time, 2011 could be a rewarding year. Rather than peaking ahead to the final result, the players should visualize each game like a rung on a ladder.
Auburn is currently riding a 15-game winning streak of which 23 of the current scholarship players have been a part of making it happen. This year's leadership will likely come from those 23 players, hopefully in time to show the younger players the right direction to travel on the ladder.