Auburn, Ala.—It is known as an “Ah-ha!” Moment.
In Life it is when get our first job or buy our first house or experience the birth of our first child. That is when realize that our parents, who we were sure for so long didn’t have a clue, were pretty smart people after all.
In college football it is the moment when players and fans who are justifiably skeptical, start believing that a new coaching staff ACTUALLY knows what it is doing. For players it is a moment when, after wandering in the dark, the light finally comes on.
“I think we had several of those last season,” said Gene Chizik, who on Monday wrapped up his second spring practice as the head coach at Auburn.
The mood here a year ago was decidedly on edge. Chizik, a former defensive coordinator at Auburn and Texas, came here after two years of building at Iowa State yielded a 5-19 record. Chizik pointed out that the record didn’t reflect the progress that had been made. All some Auburn fans could talk about was that number (5-19) and worry that this group of coaches would be in over their heads, given the juggernaut that was building in Tuscaloosa.
“This time last year compared to right now is night and day,” said offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. “This time last year, these kids had been through so much that we had to Dr. Phil a bunch of them. We had to bring them along slowly. Now we can just coach them. It’s a lot different.”
In short, everybody has bought in to what Chizik and the staff are selling because in 2009, they saw evidence that it will work.
The Tigers started 4-0 and in each of the first four games had to come from behind to win. In those four games Auburn rolled up 2,105 yards of total offense (526.5 avg.) with a quarterback (Chris Todd) who couldn’t throw a ball in spring practice because of a bad shoulder.
In the fifth game Auburn went on the road to Tennessee and recorded 459 yards of offense against a Monte Kiffin defense.
“It was the fact that we won but it was also the way we won,” said Chizik. “This team showed some resiliency. They learned to just keep playing.”
Then the tough patch came. There were three straight losses to at Arkansas (44-23), Kentucky (21-14), and at LSU (31-10). There was a very good home win against Ole Miss (33-20) followed by two more gut-wrenching SEC losses at Georgia (31-24) and Alabama (26-21).
“There are good coaches in this league and there came a point where they began to identify some of our weaknesses,” said Malzahn. “We just had to play through it.”
But there were things to build on and reasons to be encouraged. In Athens, Auburn was in position to tie the game late but couldn’t stick it in the end zone to force overtime. Auburn had Alabama on the ropes at Jordan-Hare on the day after Thanksgiving. The Crimson Tide needed a touchdown with 1:24 left to pull out the win.
“We’re not into moral victories or pats on the back,” said Chizik. “But we played well enough to put ourselves in position to win those games. One defensive stop or one more offensive play and we win. Our team learned from those games.”
Auburn also learned from its 38-35 overtime win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. Auburn had the game in hand, leading 35-21, only to see the Wildcats force overtime.
“We had that game won a couple of times but our guys didn’t panic when Northwestern made its run,” Chizik said.
So Auburn finished 8-5, giving Chizik the second-highest number of wins ever for a first-year coach at Auburn (Terry Bowden went 11-0 in 1993). Not bad when a year ago, a lot of people were predicting a disaster.
“For what we wanted to get done our first year, for the foundation we hoped to build, we believe we got a lot accomplished,” said Chizik. “And now we move on.”
So what about year two? Alabama, the state rival, has now won a national championship, which does not go unnoticed here. But there are tangible reasons to expect another good season at Auburn.
The offensive line returns four of five starters and will be again be a strength. Running back Ben Tate, the SEC’s No. 3 rusher (104.7) is gone but that opens the door for senior Mario Fannin (Lovejoy, Ga.) to have a big year.
Most of the real buzz this spring has been about transfer quarterback Cameron Newton. Newton, who began his career at Florida, then transferred and won a national junior college championship, is a splendid athlete at 6-6, 247. Chizik insisted yesterday that the quarterback position is still a four-man race headed into the summer. I believe Newton is the guy and he can do a lot of things in this offense that Auburn fans haven’t seen before.
The defense, which finished 11th in the SEC last season (374.08 ypg), remains a big concern. The Tigers are thin at several positions, especially linebacker. The Auburn defense was on the field for 945 plays last season (35 more than any other team in the SEC) and too many guys played just about all of them.
“My guys gave me everything they had,” said defensive coordinator Ted Roof. “We have to keep working to build our depth.”
This is not complicated. Auburn just doesn’t have enough players right now to compete for the championship and long term there is still a bunch of work to do on that front. There are 23 seniors on this Auburn team. Behind them the junior class is very thin. If you believe the experts, Auburn put together a very good recruiting class last February. Chizik and his staff need at least two more like it to get back into the discussion for the SEC West championship.
“There are always things we felt we could have done better but the first year was a good first step towards where we want to go,” said Chizik. “Now we have to go recruiting and identify some guys who can help us.”
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