Throughout the 2011 season Auburn's youth movement and lack of experience was evident during its showdowns with the teams at the top of the SEC standings.
Alabama's combination of great defense and efficiency on offense allowed that team to navigate through its season with only one blemish during its march to a BCS National Championship. Incredibly, the Crimson Tide offense ran a grand total of 45 offensive snaps out of 865 last season when trailing on the scoreboard.
No other team in the nation came close to having 94.8 percent of its offensive snaps while leading on the scoreboard. This was the ultimate example of playing "downhill" on offense, which certainly took the pressure off of starting sophomore quarterback A.J. McCarron.
LSU was close behind Alabama with 86.8 percent of its offensive snaps being executed when the Bengal Tigers led on the scoreboard. Despite being ranked No. 86 nationally in total offense, LSU's defense and special teams allowed the offense to play predominately downhill the entire season, masking obvious issues in the pass offense until its rematch with Alabama.
The University of Georgia was No. 3 in the conference with 79 percent of its offensive snaps taking place with a lead and Arkansas was next at 70 percent. Auburn was No. 9 in the conference with 57 percent of its offensive snaps coming when the Tigers led on the scoreboard. Auburn's lost identity at quarterback during the 2011 season was compounded by facing five Top 10 ranked defenses and 47 percent of the pass attempts occurring when Auburn trailed on the scoreboard.
Last season 22 percent of Auburn's pass attempts came when trailing by at least eight points. Those 65 pass attempts resulted in one touchdown and seven interceptions. During the remaining 227 pass attempts Auburn completed 16 touchdown passes to six interceptions.
Loeffler makes a point to the quarterbacks during practice.
With either Kiehl Frazier or Clint Moseley as the likely starter in 2012, Auburn will again lack experience at the quarterback position. The harmony on offense and defense Coach Loeffler spoke of will be vital in maintaining the confidence level of Auburn's quarterbacks.
The coaches will strive to achieve this goal with an effective power running game and a defense that will attack the gaps rather than control them. New coordinator Brian VanGorder's philosophy on defense is for the line to attack rather than waiting and reacting on the play to come to them.
The overall theme during spring practice was for the Tigers to become more physical, something Auburn needed to get better at during the 2011 campaign. It's not just a matter of becoming physically stronger as individuals. It is important for the offense and defense to have a physical approach schematically. The ability to play downhill will come from winning the first snap followed by the first series and eventually the first half.
Though some Auburn fans become apprehensive over a conservative approach on offense, it is important to remember Auburn during the Tuberville Era was 70-10 when leading at halftime and 76-9 when entering the fourth quarter with a lead. In reality Coach Loeffler stresses execution within a system operating from multiple formations, shifts and motion. Based on his coaching pedigree expect the Auburn offense to have a West Coast flavor designed to transition the football to the playmakers.
If Auburn is to improve on playing more often downhill, the Tigers must become a more physical team in all three phases of the game. In terms of first down production during the 2011 season, Auburn was No. 8 in the conference on offense and No. 10 in defense. The Tigers gained 5.67 yards per play while allowing 6.08 yards per play on defense. Alabama was No. 1 in the conference gaining 7.10 yards per play on offense and No. 2 on defense, allowing 4.02 yards per play on first down.
Because first down is such a pivotal down in determining the outcome of a possession, Auburn must improve in this area if the Tigers are to play downhill consistently. The good news is that Auburn was No. 3 in the conference running the football on first down, however, the Tigers were dead last in defending the run in 2011. This might also be a strong indicator of how Auburn matched up physically on the field last season.
While the Southeastern Conference averaged 7.77 yards per pass attempt on first down, Auburn was No. 11 in the conference with 5.67 yards per pass attempt. It's not a matter of how often you run or pass on first down, but how successful you are in both phases. This clearly is an area Coach Loeffler must address in the passing game.
Brian VanGorder arrived in Auburn this season to take over as defensive coordinator, making the move from the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
The Tigers will likely be run-heavy on first down, but they need to become more efficient when they pass the football. Coach VanGorder has placed a high premium on third down defense, which means the Tigers must be more productive on first down defense.
During the 2011 season Auburn was No. 12 in run defense on first down and No. 10 in pass defense. This is the primary reason why the Tiger defense struggled getting off the field in a timely manner. Though third down defense is essential, improvement in this area won't likely occur if Auburn continues to struggle on first down.
Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes and defensive line coach Mike Pelton know the level of improvement in 2012 will be on the backs of their personnel. At the conclusion of spring practice Grimes commented the offensive line wasn't where he would like in terms of a physical standpoint, but predicted the group would get there. "If one of my five misses a block, the whole play is going in the wrong direction," Grimes said. "The key is developing consistency in technique and having a physical mindset in execution."
Pelton stated there were times last season the defensive line was asked to think too much just before the snap. Position assignment and responsibility is critical, but players can sometimes become bogged down with more of a focus on the mental portion of the game rather than basic execution. Under VanGorder the rules of engagement by the interior line will focus more on technique and attacking the backfield.
No player will exemplify becoming more physical more than fullback Jay Prosch. Now that the All-American transfer from Illinois has been cleared to play in 2012, Auburn's running backs have to be licking their chops to carry the football in 2012. Not only will Prosch be a focal point of the running game, he will also free Philip Lutzenkirchen and the other tight ends to have a more conventional role in the offense at their natural position.
Running back Tre Mason, when talking about new teammate Prosch, said, "Whatever is in his way he is going to smash it. We are going to run behind him. I have a lot more confidence in my game knowing he is in front of me."
Tre Mason is pushing for first string status this year as a sophomore.
Running backs coach Curtis Luper described Prosch in this manner, saying, "There aren't many guys who can power clean 400 pounds and run like he can run and block like he can, be as flexible as he is, have the hands he has. He's a prototype fullback."
Look for the physical exploits by Prosch to be contagious among his offensive peers.
There is no doubt the 2012 Tigers should be more experienced and more physically prepared than the 2011 edition. The key will be how much distance has Auburn shortened on Alabama, LSU and Georgia in terms of becoming a more physical team. As the Tigers set their goals to play downhill more often in 2012, they might be wise to reflect upon a quote made by legendary college coach Bud Wilkinson.
"Football, in its purest form, remains a physical fight," Wilkinson noted. "As in any fight, if you don't want to fight, it's impossible to win".
No matter how much the game changes in terms of X's and O's, the game itself remains a physical and brutal contest and becoming a physical team doesn't happen overnight. It's a transformation that comes with time invested in conditioning, preparation and execution to establish a will and mindset to compete at the highest level. The jubilation from 2010 and the disappointment from 2011 should be plenty of motivation for the 2012 Auburn Tigers.