Season report card: Auburn

The regular-season grades are in for the Auburn Tigers, who face Virginia on New Year’s Eve in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.


What a difference a year makes. Better yet, what a difference Cam Newton made. We all knew Newton was a difference-maker and a special player. But after watching him sparkle as a rookie with the Carolina Panthers and watching Auburn struggle just to make a first down for much of this season, it’s obvious how much the Tigers missed him. Other than sophomore tailback Michael Dyer, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the second straight season, Auburn never found anything to hang its hat on offensively. And, now, Dyer is suspended indefinitely after violating team policy. The Tigers averaged just 24.2 points per game after leading the league in 2010 with an average of 41.2 points per game. They juggled three different quarterbacks, never established any kind of downfield passing game and gave up 31 sacks in 12 games. In their last seven SEC games, they scored more than 17 points only once, and that came against Ole Miss.


Even during their 2010 national championship season, the Tigers weren’t a dominant defense. But they made plays when they had to, particularly in the fourth quarter, and rose to the challenge in the BCS National Championship Game. With so many of the key pieces from that defense gone, the Tigers went from an opportunistic defense to a bad defense and didn’t stop much of anybody this season. They were a poor tackling team and gave up more than 1,600 yards in total offense in their first three games, which sort of set the tone. They did hold South Carolina to 13 points and Florida to six points in wins. But LSU, Georgia and Alabama all ripped through Auburn for more than 40 points in what was an ugly end to the regular season for the Tigers. It didn’t take defensive coordinator Ted Roof long to skip town. He left for the UCF defensive coordinator’s job, and head coach Gene Chizik will oversee the defense during the bowl game.


Punter Steven Clarke was one of the best in the country at pinning teams deep. Of his 69 punts, 32 ended up inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. The Tigers were also third in the SEC in net punting and had two different players -- Tre Mason and Onterio McCalebb -- to return kickoffs for touchdowns. They led the league in kickoff return average and also led the league in kickoff coverage. Cody Parkey was second in the league with 34 touchbacks and made 11 of his 15 field-goal attempts. The Tigers also perfectly executed an onsides kick in the final minutes of the season opener to help them escape against Utah State.


Even though it wasn’t always pretty, Chizik and his staff were able to squeeze five wins out of this team through the first seven weeks of the season. The 16-13 win at South Carolina looked like it might propel the Tigers to a big season, bigger than most outside the program expected. But they went south from there and were blown out by LSU, Georgia and Alabama down the stretch. Getting blown out is one thing, especially given how well LSU, Georgia and Alabama were playing at that point. But most troubling to fans on the Plains was how uninspired the Tigers looked in those games. They weren’t even competitive. Auburn’s staff will have a new look to it next season. Roof is already gone, and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn will leave after the bowl game. He took the Arkansas State head coaching job. Despite the deficiencies on offense and defense, the Tigers did find a way to win four SEC games.