College football preview: No. 22 Auburn

AP Photo/Todd J. Van Emst

22. Auburn

2011 record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC), fourth in SEC West, Chick-Fil-A Bowl champions

Key returners: TE Phillip Lutzenkirchen (Senior), DE Corey Lemonier (Junior), WR Emory Blake (Senior)

Auburn’s 2012 schedule

This won’t be Auburn’s year, but they’re getting there. Two years after having a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, the offense probably still won’t be a juggernaut, but the Tigers are building their defense — a staple of all successful SEC West teams.

The offensive and defensive units will both have new coordinators, but defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will have arguably the most crucial role on the coaching staff. A former assistant with the Georgia Bulldogs and, more recently, the Atlanta Falcons, VanGorder has several pieces that will make his first season at Auburn a little easier.

But seven of VanGorder’s players suffered through or sat out spring practice because of injuries, and that’s not the start he was hoping for. Installing a new defense means all players need to be healthy and focused, and he simply didn’t have that luxury when he stepped onto the Tigers’ practice field the first time.

Just imagine how urgent training camp in Auburn is right now.

(MORE: Top 25)

And while VanGorder’s defense will attempt to stop opponents from scoring, an offense that was simply too young to be good in 2011 will be gaining more experience against those SEC defenses we all hear so much about. The offensive line was learning on the job last season, but Auburn fans are confident the blocking will be much-improved this year. Keep an eye on two linemen in particular — Reese Dismukes, who started every game as a true freshman last season, and Chad Slade, who started 11 games.

Head coach Gene Chizik hasn’t picked a starting quarterback yet, and it sounds like he’s not very close to making a final decision. Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier are the two finalists, but if they can’t separate themselves, Chizik might be forced to use both in the upcoming season. Luckily, they have solid leadership at tight end with Philip Lutzenkirchen, a great safety blanket that’s an easy target for the young quarterbacks when pressured by defenses. Wide receiver Emory Blake will also provide plenty of offense for the Tigers, as he was the team’s leading receiver in 2011.

The first game of the season will be a true test for Auburn, facing off against Clemson in the Georgia Dome. From there, they’ll have consecutive home games against LSU and Arkansas in late-September and early-October, and all-important games against Georgia and Alabama in November. ESPN projects Auburn to finish 6-6 this year, but I think that’s a little conservative, even in a stellar SEC West. I think there are eight wins in that schedule, especially if the new coaches can get the players to buy into their systems in preseason camp.

More previews: Nos. 25-23

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