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2009 Auburn Preview

The holiday sure messed up my schedule, so I am posting the Auburn Preview from Pete Fiutak at  While I do not agree with everything he said, Pete does tell us it how it is.  Sorry folks, I will try my best not miss a post again.

Did you hear the one about Auburn hiring a guy who went 5-19 at Iowa State?

Tommy Tuberville was four seasons removed from a 13-0 campaign, had won nine games or more in five of the previous seven seasons, and had an experienced team returning for this year. None of it was enough to save his job thanks to the problems last year on offense, with the soap opera with offensive coordinator Tony Franklin the tipping point. But firing Tuberville wasn't about a 5-7 season; it was about a 12-0 season. Alabama's 12-0 season.

Michigan vs. Ohio State is the biggest rivalry in college football (yes, it is), but Auburn vs. Alabama goes deeper and is a whole lot nastier. Losing once in the series isn't the end of the world, actually it is in Alabama, but this year there was more attached to one single defeat.

After owning the series for six years, Auburn got walloped by the Tide 36-0 to officially signal the changing of the guard while sending up panic flares that something drastic had to be done. Alabama had Nick Saban and a host of superstar young players brought in from top-five recruiting classes, and Auburn had an offense that averaged just over 11 points per game in SEC play. Alabama was 12-0 and going off to the SEC title game, while Auburn had lost six of its final seven games with the one win coming against UT Martin. Alabama was the hot program that only appeared to be going up, while Auburn appeared to be treading water and looking for an identity.

Fine, it might not seem fair, but a case could be made that firing Tuberville, with all his success, was more than justified after just one down year. A shakeup had to happen to try to counteract the burgeoning juggernaut that Saban had put together, and even if Tuberville had stayed, some rebuilding and retooling had to be done. So did Auburn go after a hot head man with big-time upside? No, it went after Gene Chizik.

Auburn has taken enough of a beating over the hire, but here's more. 

While Chizik has ties to the Auburn program, serving as the defensive coordinator from 2002 to 2004, he showed nothing, nothing at Iowa State to suggest he's ready to take on Alabama. If he couldn't succeed in the Big 12 North, how is he going to do much of anything in the SEC West? The five wins under Chizik's tenure in Ames came against a mediocre Iowa team in 2007, Kansas State, Colorado, South Dakota State, and Kent State. That's it. Iowa State lost to eight losing teams over the last two years, and that doesn't include the loss to Northern Iowa from the FCS. There wasn't a win over an FBS team that finished with a winning record, and remember, as bad as last year's 5-7 season was at Auburn, Chizik won five games in two seasons.

So now Auburn is in a strange and tough situation that it put itself in. The team isn't good enough to challenge for the SEC title this year, and it might need at least two years to be ready to battle LSU, Bama, and Ole Miss for the West. So if the Tigers stink it up this year, is it because the program has to rebuild, which it does, or is it because Chizik can't coach, or is it both? On the flip side, if Auburn is solid and can pull off a few big wins, the pressure is off. No one's expecting Chizik to do much right away, so any success will be considered a major stepping-stone. And if Auburn pulls off a win over Alabama, then it's game on for the Chizik era and everyone would come to the same conclusion at the same time: maybe Auburn knows something that everyone else doesn't.

What to watch for on offense: The quarterback battle ... again. This was the concern going into last year for the Tony Franklin attack, which best suited the running option, Kodi Burns. However, he didn't get the starting nod until midway through the year and he struggled throwing the ball. Now, under offensive coordinator Guz Malzahn, Burns is listed on top of the depth chart, but it's Neil Caudle who likely has the inside track. That could all quickly change with the addition of star recruit Tyrik Rollison and with the job wide open going into the fall. Malzahn isn't going to rotate quarterbacks, preferring to find his guy and then work through the rough patches.

What to watch for on defense: More takeaways. Minnesota's defense turned out to stink, but it hit like a ton of bricks and forced big play after big play, at least over the first half of last year. New Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who led the Gopher D, will bring that same intensity to this year's athletic Tiger defense that forced just 19 turnovers last year. Now there will be a greater emphasis on going for the big shot and to gamble a wee bit to get the ball.
The team will be far better if … it gets healthy. Key safety Mike McNeil broke his leg. corner Aairon Savage is coming off a knee injury, rising quarterback prospect Barrett Trotter tore his ACL, last year's starting quarterback Chris Todd has a bad shoulder, top offensive tackle Lee Ziemba has a bum knee, and it goes on and on and on. Chizik ran a very physical, very rough offseason, and while all the injuries can't be blamed on players being too physical in the spring sessions, they didn't help. If and when it's healthy, this is a good enough Tiger team to hang around with anyone in the SEC. If it takes a while to heal up, primarily in the secondary, pack it in and look forward to 2010.

The Schedule: Watch out. The last thing the Gene Chizik era needs is to start out with a clunker of a home loss, but that could be a problem with a tough game against a strong Louisiana Tech team to start out. After a date with Mississippi State to open up the SEC season on September 12th, the conference slate gets tough with three road games in four weeks going to Tennessee, Arkansas and LSU. While there's a week off before playing Alabama, the second half of the schedule could be a nightmare playing at LSU, Ole Miss, at Georgia and Alabama, with a week off and a layup against Furman thrown in the mix.

Best Offensive Player: Junior WR Mario Fannin. He'll be a running back, a receiver, the top kick and punt returner, and an H-Back. Fannin is a do-it-all playmaker with home run hitting potential, even though he has only done enough to be slightly above average in all phases so far. For a team that desperately needs to find stars to work around, and players to make defensive coordinators worry, Fannin has to become the weapon who makes things happen.

Best Defensive Player: Senior DE Antonio Coleman. He has the size, the quickness, and the ability to be in the NFL right now, but he'll spend this year in a salary drive as the star of the front four. He'll need help from Michael Goggans on the other side and from tackles Jake Ricks and Mike Blanc on the inside, or else everyone will be able to double and triple team him. That's fine. As long as he's the lightning rod for everyone's blocking scheme, he'll be doing his job. When he gets his chances, he'll be in the backfield getting to the quarterback.

Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Neil Caudle. Kodi Burns and Caudle are neck-and-neck for the starting job, but Caudle is the better of the two options for Malzahn's offense. At least for now. For an offense that was 106th in the nation in passing efficiency and 99th in passing, the Tigers need a steady quarterback to keep the chains moving and to put points on the board. Caudle has the accurate arm to do it.

The season will be a success if ... the Tigers win seven games. That might seem like a modest goal for Auburn, Auburn, the program that went into last year with hopes of winning the SEC title, but the schedule is a bear and there's a ton of work to be done to get the offense up to speed. It'll take a few upsets to get to seven wins and a bowl game, but considering that this year's team is better than the 2008 version, another losing season won't do.

Key game: Nov. 27 vs. Alabama. For the most part, Tiger fans will understand if it takes one year for the program to rebuild. After all, the new coaching staff's strength is supposed to be in living rooms on the recruiting front. A bad record would be acceptable as long as the cliché becomes true and the one big win comes against Alabama. A win over the Tide in the regular season finale