The Tigers finished the season with six games decided by seven points or less, winning all six compared to their 2-3 record in close games the season before. Auburn's high number of scholarship seniors and experience provided the Tigers with the strength to rise to the occasion when they needed it the most.
Though the defense was not a dominant force in 2010, that unit did have the knack for making plays during critical moments of the game to go along with an offense that could be unstoppable at times.
When the 2011 Tigers take to the field on September 3rd against Utah State, they will do so without the services of 27 scholarship players with 1,056 combined appearances in Auburn games. The personnel loss from 2010 is the primary reason why many in the media are projecting the Tigers to struggle this year.
During the past seven seasons Auburn was fortunate enough to field four teams with at least 20 players having 20 games of experience. Those teams compiled a record of 47-5, including a record 14-1 in games decided by seven points or less. The three remaining teams compiled a 22-16 record, including an 8-10 mark in close games. These numbers clearly show the importance of having an experienced roster.
If having experience is a key ingredient to success, how does the Auburn coaching staff make up for the deficiency in 2011? Auburn won't be able to replicate the experience level from 2010, but the Tigers can prepare and focus on their existing talent.
It wasn't until the second half the 2010 Tigers became a complete team. Over the past 25 seasons, Auburn's 2010 average lead of 7.9 points by halftime was tenth best, but its average lead of 9.1 points during the second half was No. 1 over the same 25 seasons.
Coach Ted Roof's defense adjusted well during the second half, allowing only 8.9 points after intermission, slightly below the 8.3 allowed by the unbeaten 2004 defense. Auburn's "Jekyll & Hyde" personality on defense during the 2010 season often made games closer than they should have been.
Neiko Thorpe is the most experienced member of Auburn's 2011 defense. The senior is making the move from cornerback to free safety.
In terms of scoring by quarters, the 2010 offense was No. 1 over the past 25 seasons, putting points on the scoreboard in 49 of 56 quarters. On the other hand, the defense held its opponent scoreless in only 16 of 56 quarters, the lowest percentage of scoreless quarters during the past 25 years. Eleven of the 16 scoreless periods came during the second half. Achieving a better "team" balance in 2011 could benefit a youthful squad and prevent the Tigers from being involved in too many close calls.
Since 1987 Auburn is 60-3-0 when scoring at least 14 points in the first quarter and 103-10-0 with 17 points scored by halftime. Coordinator Gus Malzahn has proven a team can win it all with a strong offense, but even his offense has its limits in terms of the team's overall goals. In his 69 games as an offensive coordinator, his team has scored at least 14 points during the first period 26 times and at least 17 points by halftime on 33 occasions. Since 1987 Auburn is 101-6-1 with a lead of seven points by the end of the first quarter and 105-7-0 with a 10-point lead by halftime.
An early start by the 2011 offense can establish the momentum, but the defense needs to make its presence known before the second half begins. Auburn has compiled a 114-16-2 record since 1987 when holding its opponent scoreless during the first period.
The 2010 defense developed a strong propensity for closing out games, but having a strong defense early in 2011 would increase the probability for success. Since 1987 Auburn is 27-65-1 when trailing on the scoreboard entering the final period, including a 3-2 record under Gene Chizik.
Over the past five seasons Malzahn's offense has averaged 21 points by halftime, which is a trend that Auburn fans hope will carry over in 2011. His 2009 offense scored on 38 percent of its first four possessions of the game, improving to 55 percent in 2010. If the 2011 offense can apply the pressure early on, it will allow the team to play downhill the majority of the game. Early success on offense will be a key, but how does a youthful offense achieve this goal?
Last season Auburn averaged more than six yards per rush on first down, allowing the Tigers to run the football 78 percent of the time on first down. Because the 2011 offense won't likely be as physical running the football with four starters to replace on the offensive line, featuring the pass more often on first down could offset the loss in running production.
Over the past five seasons Malzahn's offense has compiled a phenomenal pass rating of 156.1 throwing on first down while throwing 27 percent of the time on first down. It would be advantageous for Auburn to throw more often on first down to keep the opposing defense honest and to develop the confidence of the starting quarterback. Throwing the football by choice tends to be more productive than throwing the football out of necessity.
Since 1987 the Tigers have won 89.6 percent of their games they led after the first period, 71.1 percent when tied and 41.6 percent when losing. This includes winning 89.3 percent of the games they led at halftime, 66.7 percent tied at halftime and 34.7 percent when losing at halftime. This is a clear indicator of the benefits of early success during a given football game, which means playing downhill more often than not.
From 1987-2010 Auburn has compiled a record of 97-10-2 when scoring during the first two quarters and holding opponent to one scoreless period during the first half. It happens 37.3 percent of the time, but results in a 90 percent winning percentage. Under Chizik it has happened 41 percent of the time, resulting in 10 victories out of 11.
During the first two years of the Chizik Era, the offense has performed far more consistently than the defense and the time has come for the defense to make its mark. For the first time since Roof was named defensive coordinator, Auburn should finally be in position to operate in multiple fronts, which was the long-term goal. This will enable the defense to play more aggressively, which means more control over the opposing offense.
Auburn's ability to adjust the point of attack on defense should translate to dictating what the opposing offense can and cannot do rather than countering each offensive play. Over the past 25 years when Auburn has allowed opponents nine or fewer points during the first half it has won 88 percent of the time.
Youthful or not, Auburn's 2011 defense must shave the 15 points per game average it surrendered during the first half of 2010 for Auburn to be competitive this season. Over the past two decades, Auburn has won 35 percent of its games when surrendering 17 or more points in the first half. That number improves to 54 percent when the Tigers allow 17 or more points in the second half.
History indicates if Auburn is going to have one good half of defensive football, it's better to be in the first half than the second half. Logic states that it's better to play downhill for one half than uphill for two. With the loss of so many experienced players, it would be a huge plus for the Tigers to get the offense and defense on the same page during the first half. It would be a confidence booster to have early success this season, especially for the young players on the field, and the Tigers will have plenty of those this season.