No. 26: Auburn
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 8, 2010
On paper, it didn’t seem like a fair fight: in one corner, powerful Nick Saban; in the other, the five-win wonder. Alabama remains Saban’s sandbox, to be sure, yet Gene Chizik has shown himself to be far from the overwhelmed field general his time at Iowa State might have indicated. Yes, the Tigers won only three games in SEC play. And yes, Auburn was forced to overcome its own blunders and Northwestern’s own kicking incompetence to land an Outback Bowl win — that gave the Tigers eight wins in Chizik’s debut campaign. However, one year after his hiring was met with laughs, guffaws and airport tarmac taunts, Chizik has Auburn back in SEC contention. When all is said and done, the five-win wonder — the coach formerly known as the five-win wonder — will have the last laugh.
15 (7 offense, 8 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 4
- Sept. 9
at Mississippi St.
- Sept. 18
- Sept. 25
- Oct. 2
- Oct. 9
- Oct. 16
- Oct. 23
- Oct. 30
- Nov. 6
- Nov. 13
- Nov. 26
Last year’s prediction
All told, I’m not picking the Tigers to win the SEC West, but I am predicting this team to win seven games and return to bowl play. As for the future of the Auburn program, Chizik was wise enough to surround himself with a strong coaching staff, so perhaps he won’t be as overmatched as his record at Iowa State would lead one to believe. Next season, 2010, is when you can truly judge if he has the Tigers headed back in the right direction.
In a nutshell A year of transitions. When taking that into account, 2009 must be considered a successful season for Chizik: a three-win improvement over 2008, progression paced by a vastly improved offense. This attack more than doubled its 2008 scoring output, racking up 433 points — up from 208 — while cracking the 33-point mark seven times. Not surprisingly, Auburn went 7-0 in such games. Unfortunately, when the offense wasn’t up to snuff, the Tigers — more often that not — lost. In each of its five losses, Auburn scored 24 points or less. This included a three-week span, against Arkansas, Kentucky and L.S.U., where the Tigers scored only 47 combined points, or 15.7 points per game. Yes, the offense saw massive gains post-Tommy Tuberville. The defense, on the other hand, did not. The next step for Auburn, of course, is combining an offense chock full of potential with a defense still finding its rhythm under a new coaching staff.
High point The 5-0 start. Yes, it did feature wins over Louisiana Tech (a better team than its 4-8 record indicated) and Ball State. However, three of those five victories came against Mississippi State (very pesky), West Virginia and Tennessee. This trio of wins came to mind when hearing many belittle Auburn’s opening month come mid-October. The year’s best win was a 33-30 victory over then-No. 25 Mississippi on Oct. 31.
Low point The fast start deteriorated into a sloppy finish, with losses in five of its last eight games sending Auburn to a fourth-place finish in the SEC West. Most important of all: Auburn lost its second straight to Alabama, though this one (by 26-21) was far closer than the shellacking the Tigers took in Tuberville’s final season. The Tigers even outgained the Crimson Tide (by 332 yards to 291), a far cry from 2008 (by 412 yards to 170 in Alabama’s favor).
Tidbit The most telling statistic of the Tuberville era continued under Chizik. The Tigers have now won 58 consecutive games when scoring at least 30 points; last year’s seven victories join Tuberville’s 51 straight wins. Perhaps this fact doesn’t fit Chizik as well as it fit his predecessor: as last season illustrated, Auburn is far more likely, when scoring more than 30 points, to allow roughly the same amount.
Former players in the N.F.L.
34 WR Devin Aromashodu (Chicago), WR Montez Billings (New Orleans), S Eric Brock (Atlanta), RB Ronnie Brown (Miami), QB Jason Campbell (Oakland), LB Antonio Coleman (Buffalo), LB Karlos Dansby (Miami), RB Tristan Davis (Miami), OG Tim Duckworth (New Orleans), OT King Dunlap (Philadelphia), FB Heath Evans (New Orleans), OG Tyronne Green (San Diego), LB Quentin Groves (Oakland),OG Ben Grubbs (Baltimore), LB Will Herring (Seattle), CB Kevin Hobbs (Detroit), CB Roderick Hood (Tennessee), DT Spencer Johnson (Buffalo), CB Pat Lee (Green Bay), DT Sen’Derrick Marks (Tennessee), CB Walter McFadden (Oakland), WR Ben Obomanu (Seattle), OG Jonathan Palmer (Arizona), CB Jerraud Powers (Indianapolis), DT Jay Ratliff (Dallas), FB Tony Richardson (New York Jets), CB Carlos Rogers (Washington), DT Pat Sims (Cincinnati), LB Takeo Spikes (San Francisco), RB Ben Tate (Houston), LB Reggie Torbor (Buffalo), CB Jonathan Wilhite (New England), RB Cadillac Williams (Tampa Bay).
Arbitrary top five list
Writers with Alabama ties, with notable work
1. Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
2. Zora Neal Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
3. William March, “The Looking-Glass.”
4. Tobias Woolfe, “This Boy’s Life.”
5. Shelby Foote, “The Civil War: A Narrative.”
Gene Chizik (Florida ’85), 8-5 after one season at Auburn. A fine debut season for the former Auburn assistant, with the Tigers making a three-win improvement over their 2008 mark. Auburn retooled on the field and off, beefing up its recruiting efforts under Chizik en route to landing one of the most ballyhooed classes in school history. His decision to leave Iowa State for Auburn was a not a difficult one for Chizik, no. Yet let’s give the second-year coach credit for two things: not only did he take on the daunting task of replacing Tommy Tuberville, one of the more successful coaches in Auburn history, but he opted to take on the coaching heavyweights who inhabit the SEC West — Nick Saban, of course, but also Les Miles, Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino. To be fair, his hiring was a bit puzzling: Chizik had compiled an uninspired 5-19 mark over two seasons at Iowa State. Even more troubling was the manner in which he departed. Amid rumors of his lack of dedication to the program, Iowa State remained surprisingly calm after Chizik made his decision to leave for Auburn, leading me to believe Chizik’s feeling of disregard for the I.S.U. program was returned in full. So what attracted Auburn to the former I.S.U. coach? His superb resume as a defensive coordinator, for starters, but also his ties to the university, where he spent the 2002-4 seasons as its coordinator. The Tigers compiled a 30-9 record over this span, culminating in the team’s 13-0 finish in 2004. Chizik left for Texas in 2005, and helped lead the Longhorns to the national championship; at one point, Chizik-coached teams had won 29 straight games, beginning at Auburn and continuing at Texas. He was hired at Iowa State in 2007, and tied the 1996-7 Cyclones for the most losses over a two-year span in the program’s decidedly poor history. Nevertheless, it would be rash to judge Chizik’s potential with the Tigers merely on his history at Iowa State; there may not be a tougher place to win in the F.B.S., though Chizik did fail spectacularly. A year later, and with a successful season in the books, Chizik can breathe a little easier. His future at Auburn remains undetermined, but last fall marked an auspicious debut.
Players to watch
The only question mark on the offensive line is at right tackle: the rest of the line remains intact, with senior left tackle Lee Ziemba bringing a team-best 38 career starts into his final season. Ziemba is the unquestioned leader of this group, an all-conference caliber blind side protector who has developed nicely in this new, more fast-paced Auburn offense. He is one of four senior starters up front, joining center Ryan Pugh and guards Mike Berry and Byron Isom. Now, as for that open right tackle spot. The likely starter will be one of two JUCO additions, Brandon Mosley and Roszell Gayden.
Both were recruited for this task; unfortunately, neither did much during the spring to grab the starting role. In the long run, look for one of the pair to start on the strong side — Mosley, in fact, currently stands atop the depth chart. Keep an eye on sophomore John Sullen, another option at right tackle.
Do-everything senior Mario Fannin seems to have found a home at running back after spending his first three seasons contributing in nearly every way possible on the offensive side of the ball. He spent last season mainly as a receiving option out of the backfield and in the slot, with his 42 receptions good for second on the team. When asked to run the ball, however, Fannin delivered: 285 yards rushing, third on the team, on an average of 8.4 yards per carry. With his shiftiness and speed, Fannin is a good fit for the Gus Malzahn-led offense — especially when taking into account his hands — though it will be tough to duplicate his predecessor’s rushing output: Ben Tate rushed for 1,362 yards and 10 touchdowns last fall.
Of course, Fannin must fend off Michael Dyer. The incoming freshman will certainly land every opportunity to earn significant carries in his debut season. Also in the mix is Onterio McCalebb, who finished second on the team with 565 yards rushing last fall. Fannin will be the lead guy, but look for both Dyer and McCalebb — particularly Dyer — to factor heavily into the mix.
Auburn has a solid one-two pair at receiver in Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery: Adams led all receivers with 60 receptions for 997 yards and 10 scores last fall, while Zachery proved himself to be one of the more dangerous players — both as a receiver and ball-carrier — in the SEC in Malzahn’s offense. A senior, Zachery made 26 receptions for 477 yards — 18.3 yards per catch — while rushing for 214 yards on only nine carries; that’s about 24 yards per carry.
The receiver corps will be deeper this fall than it was a season ago, thanks to the development of several young targets and the additions found in Auburn’s recent recruiting class. Speaking of the latter, incoming freshmen Trovon Reed and Shawn Kitchens have turned heads since arriving on campus, with the latter big enough to double as a blocking and receiving option out of the backfield. Keep an eye on converted quarterback Kodi Burns, who will move full-time to receiver as a senior, and sophomore Emory Blake.
Finally, Cameron Newton. The high-profile JUCO transfer will replace quarterback Chris Todd, who fared well in his lone season in this new offense. Is Newton an upgrade? Oh, without question. He’s an athletic specimen, one fully able to run Malzahn’s offense at full tilt. The former Florida quarterback may need to develop as a passer: he impressed on the junior college ranks, but has yet to illustrate his newfound passing acumen on the SEC level. Regardless, it’s hard not to be excited about his potential in this offense, under a coordinator who will know how to use him, with a handful of talented skill players to help carry the load.
The defense must take a step forward. It will begin with solid play from the line, which must replace tackle Jake Ricks and all-SEC end Antonio Coleman; the latter paced the conference in tackles for loss (16.5) and sacks (10) last fall. Who will replace Coleman as Auburn’s lead pass rusher? The task will fall to senior Antoine Carter, who made 30 tackles (4.5 for loss) and 1.5 sacks a season ago. A far drop, yes, Still, Carter has the physical ability to challenge for a 10-sack season; it’s all a matter of putting his complete game together.
As things currently stand, Carter will be one of four experienced hands up front. Michael Goggans (24 tackles, 1 sack) is penciled in on the opposite side, with a handful of unproven underclassmen battling for a secondary role: this group includes Nosa Equae, JUCO transfer Joel Bonomolo, Dee Ford and Corey Lemonier, among others. Mike Blanc and Nick Fairley will start on the inside, with Zach Clayton a leading reserve. Clayton, however, must overcome his injury-filled past and remain healthy for the entire season. As at end, Auburn will need a few first- and second-year players to step up.
The linebacker corps will be led by a pair of returning starters in seniors Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens, with this pair finishing one-two on the team in tackles a season ago. Bynes paced the team with 104 stops (6 for loss) while adding a single sack and an interception, with Stevens only slightly behind with 95 tackles (8 for loss) to go with 2.5 sacks. This is a strong, experienced tandem upon which to build the second level. The third linebacker position, a hybrid spot, could feature sophomore Daren Bates. Throw into the fire last fall at safety due to injuries, Bates responded with 70 tackles, fourth on the team, with an interception. He’s currently riding second on the depth chart at this spot, trailing junior Eltoro Freeman, but both should see the field.
Position battles to watch
Secondary More so at safety than cornerback, seeing that each of Auburn’s three potential starters at the back end of the defense are recovering from an injury-hampered 2009. Zac Etheridge, the best of this trio, was only medically cleared for action in late July after suffering a troubling neck injury in last season’s win over Mississippi State. Aairon Savage missed 2008 with a knee injury, 2009 with an Achilles tear, and needed an N.C.A.A. hardship waiver to land a sixth season of eligibility. Mike McNeil sat out all of last fall with a broken leg. Are we caught up? From all accounts, these three seniors are ready to contribute; however, due to their injuries, each might need time to work themselves back into the mix — as well as game shape. The key, as noted, is Etheridge: Auburn really needs him to solidify the back end of the secondary. Auburn looks to be in fine shape at cornerback, where junior Neiko Thorpe and senior Demon Washington will land starting roles. Thorpe was somewhat up-and-down last fall, his first year as a starter, but will be better with experience. Washington, a former JUCO transfer, will benefit from a full season at cornerback; he was moved to safety midway through last season due to Auburn’s lack of depth at each position.
Game(s) to watch
Where to begin… I suppose the Iron Bowl is a good start. Auburn gave Alabama a scare last fall, though that game came at home. It will be a test to upend the Crimson Tide on the road. With Alabama the consensus top team in the West division — if not the country — games against Arkansas and L.S.U. will dictate which team finishes second in the division, which team fourth. Obviously, this is one of the strongest divisions in college football.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell How good can Auburn be? Ten wins good, in my opinion, though I hesitate to make such a claim heading into this season. This is partly due to the continued development of this defense, which while improved — in terms of depth and familiarity with Chizik’s philosophy — needs to prove itself on the field. Another reason for concern: this deep, deadly SEC West. There’s Alabama, of course, but also Arkansas and L.S.U. — and Mississippi, and Mississippi State. There are no breathers here, even if the Tigers draw the Razorbacks and L.S.U. at home in successive weeks. The schedule, even with that pair, Georgia and South Carolina at home, will prevent Auburn from making a B.C.S. run. Yet there’s significant reason to believe these Tigers capable of finishing second in the West and as high as third overall in the SEC. Now, as you can tell by this ranking, I don’t believe that’s going to occur. However, if the defense can progress, joining a talented offense, there’s no reason Auburn cannot beat every team on its schedule — minus the Crimson Tide. The state belongs to Alabama in 2010, for at least one more year, though with the way Chizik has recruited, Auburn is certainly capable of upending the Tide in the very near future. For now, in Chizik’s second season, I think this is a fair spot for Auburn: around the bottom fifth of the Top 25, fluttering in and out of national ranking depending on how it fares against conference opposition. This won’t be the norm, in my opinion; with the way the wind is blowing at Auburn, I expect this program to find itself back in conference title contention under Chizik. He’s surpassed my expectations.
Dream season A season-ending upset over Alabama does two things: one, dump Alabama from the national championship conversation; and two, land Auburn its first SEC West title since 2004. Which one means more?
Nightmare season The Tigers take a significant step back, going from eight wins to a disappointing 5-7, 2-6 in conference play.
In case you were wondering
Where do Auburn fans congregate? Begin with the two recruiting sites, Auburn Sports and AUTigers.com. For independent Web sites, check out AUNation.net, AuburnFootball.com and Wayne and Hobbes’ Auburn Message Board. I’m not done yet: for a blog’s take, visit Track ‘Em Tigers and War Blog Eagle. The latter, formerly known as The Joe Cribbs Car Wash, has been dynamite in its summer coverage of the Tigers.
Who is No. 25? Our next university’s motto is a quotation from one of the leading figures of the Lutheran Reformation.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: Auburn, Gene Chizik
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