From 2008-12, the Auburn Tigers experienced their two worst seasons of the new millennium. It is easy to say that every program experiences its own ups and downs, but the heights and depths that the Tigers have traveled are far greater.
For a team to finish so spectacularly bad a good number of things have to contribute (e.g. poor coaching, lack of discipline, academic issues, poor recruiting and internal strife amongst all involved). Both the 2008 and 2012 squads suffered a few or all of these issues leading up to their disastrous seasons. However, despite not-so- glorious ends, Auburn has found a way to rise back to the top. We are going to take a look at the events leading up to the failures, how the Tigers responded and whether or not such a rise is in store for Auburn's newest head coach, Gus Malzahn.
FRAME OF REFERENCE
- The following are notes that we took under consideration before writing this in order to build a frame of reference, whether or not they had any bearing on the two seasons we will discuss:
- Since the formation of the Southeastern Conference, only two coaches have led to the Tigers to winning seasons in their inaugural campaigns as head coach: Terry Bowden and Gene Chizik.
- In the 20 years of divisional play in the SEC, the Tigers have finished last in the West division twice: 1998 and 2012.
- In the ten years that Tommy Tuberville was head coach, his Tigers finished in first twice, second six times and fifth twice, in regards to divisional standings.
- From 2002-13, Auburn has had seven recruiting classes in the top 10, according to Rivals.com. The Tigers worst recruiting class? 2004, which was ranked No. 37 by Rivals. Auburn's best recruiting class? 2010, which was ranked No. 4 by Rivals. Classes following the Tigers best seasons (2004, '06, '10) were Nos. 13, 7 and 7, respectively. Auburn's recruiting classes following a coaching changes were No. 19 in 2009 and No. 8 in 2013, per Rivals. These rankings, of course, only take into consideration players who signed with Auburn, regardless if they played a single down for the Tigers (i.e. did not academically qualify, were injured or transferred). By this set of recruiting rankings, Tuberville's classes averaged a ranking or No. 14 and Chizik's averaged No. 10 in the nation.
- Since 1951, Shug Jordan is the only head coach to retire under his own volition. Dye was forced to retire as a result of the Eric Ramsey scandal. Barfield, Bowden, Tuberville and Chizik were all fired for on-field results.
THE ROAD TO 2008
To say Auburn's 2007 season was crazy would be an understatement. It was a season chock-full of come-from-behind-triumphs. Six times the Tigers mounted late fourth-quarter drives, and four of those were enough to seal victories. They include moments we never want to forget and moments we've done everything to forget.
It was a season in which Auburn tacked on its sixth straight victory over Alabama, but at the same time, the Tigers watched their all-time lead over Georgia being to slowly chip away. This was an Auburn team that showed so much promise and found ways to come up short.
The 2007 season came to a close with a win in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Clemson. Before heading into that game, Tuberville released fan-favorite offensive coordinator Al Borges and brought in spread-no-huddle-air-raid guru Tony Franklin from Troy. While only installing the foundation of the scheme, it was enough for Auburn to produce its highest offensive performance for the season. Also leaving the team was Auburn's other fan-favorite coach, defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, whose departure was reportedly due to a disagreement with assistant athletic director, Tim Jackson. Muschamp was replaced by Paul Rhoads, then-defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Panthers.
2008, THE YEAR OF DEATH
After Auburn's performance in the Chick Fil-A Bowl, a lot of Tiger fans were feeling confident with the arrival of Franklin's system. Surely, an offense that had worked quite well for mid-major programs would be extraordinary utilizing top SEC talent. But before the 2008 season even began, there were already problems on the horizon.
The first was Auburn's poor 2008 recruiting class. While the 2006 and 2007 recruiting classes both were in the top 10, according to Rivals, the 2008 class came in at No. 20. While the class featured notable players like Darvin Adams, T'Sharvan Bell, Onterio McCalebb, Chris Todd and Barrett Trotter, three of its other top signees, Raven Gray, DeRon Furr and Cameron Henderson, never played a down.
Then came the quarterback controversy. After three years of an immobile and perceived inconsistent quarterback, Auburn was in desperate need of a spark at the position. Kodi Burns was a dual-threat quarterback who had a good set of legs, a strong arm in need of some refinement, had scored the winning touchdown against Clemson and was quite popular amongst Auburn fans. Franklin, instead, convinced Tuberville to bring in Todd -- from the JUCO ranks -- who had familiarity with Franklin's offense back in high school in the state of Kentucky. Todd wasn't exactly 100 percent, though, as he had been suffering shoulder problems on his throwing arm. Whether it was under pressure to play both or because there was no better option, whatever the reason, both Todd and Burns wound up splitting playing time.
There were also rumors of distrust among the coaching staff and administrators, as well as speculation that Tuberville's offensive staff was not buying into Franklin's system. One issue in particular was having the offensive line drop weight as a means to keep up with the intended pace of his offense. Things were changing, and we know how resistant to change Auburn can be.
The first half of the 2008 season, which would could be described as lackluster at best, still showed a bit of promise. It was plainly obvious going into the game against Vanderbilt that the Tigers weren't going to meet the lofty preseason expectations, but a respectable season could still be salvaged. All the Tigers needed to do going into the game was to do something they hadn't done all season: keep the ball. Of course, even the ‘Dores, who had the worst defense in the SEC going into that game, found a way to stop Auburn. The Wednesday following the loss to Vandy saw Tony Franklin fired as offensive coordinator. At that point, the wheels hadn't just fallen off, they were launched into four directions, quartering the vehicle they belonged to.
The season continued to grow worse as tight ends coach Steve Ensminger and offensive line coach Hugh Nall split play-calling duty for the remainder of the year. The offense they ran was an amalgamation of some spread variant formations brought in by Franklin and old plays they were running back in 2003. Even with fast starts against Arkansas, West Virginia and Georgia, the inconsistent play by Burns and the inability to hold onto the football was too much to overcome to keep the Tigers in each of their games. Then came the shutout loss to Alabama in the Iron Bowl and it was all over. Four days later, Tommy Tuberville was no longer Auburn's head football coach.
12 days after Tuberville's departure and a whirlwind of a coaching search, Auburn had chosen its new head coach; then-Iowa State head coach and former Auburn and Texas defensive coordinator, Gene Chizik.
THE ROAD TO 2012
As noted earlier, Chizik is one of two Auburn head coaches who experienced a winning season in his first year as head coach. He had assembled a staff of coaches that were known more as recruiting masters than their actual coaching ability. Despite the failure of one spread system, Chizik hired offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, whose variation of the spread was turning heads, away from Tulsa. While Auburn's offense was finally turning it around and scoring points again, the defense began to falter. We didn't worry too much because much like most Auburn fans were thinking, "this is the same Coach Chizik that coached those awesome 2003-04 defenses; they'll come around." The addition of a top-five recruiting class followed by two top-ten recruiting classes helped that notion persist.
However, even from the beginning, there seemed to be problems in Chizik's camp, particularly in regards to discipline. We know about Michael Dyer. We know about the armed robbery. We know about Zeke Pike and Eric Smith. We know, and I'm not going to spend a lot of time discussing this other than stating it was an issue that plagued Chizik's entire tenure as head coach, all on top of that other scandal.
The 2011 season pretty much mirrored that of 2007 season. There were a couple of nail-biters and a couple of solid wins, but this time the defeats were a lot more devastating as far as the scoreboard is concerned. Both seasons saw the Auburn offenses fall through the floor. However, Auburn would again finish its season with a trip to Atlanta to play Virginia in the Chick Fil-A bowl. 2011 would also be similar to 2007 in that both of coordinators left; Malzahn took the head coaching position at Arkansas State, and Ted Roof took the defensive coordinator position at UCF before then taking the same position at Penn State. While the loss of Malzahn was disheartening and the loss of Roof was more than welcome, expectations going into 2012 were fair.
2012, THE YEAR OF DEATH PART TWO: THE DEATHENING
The key similarity between the 2008 and 2012 seasons were both teams transitioning into offensive systems they were not recruited to run. Whereas 2008 saw the introduction of spread principles, 2012 was Auburn's return to a pro-style power-run offense. Auburn also returned nearly the same number of starters -- 16 in 2008 and 18 in 2012.
Key differences were that 2012 was the third straight year Chizik assembled a top-ten recruiting class. There was little quarterback controversy, as Kiehl Frazier was pretty much the guy when Trotter decided not to return for his senior season. There also didn't seem to be the feeling of distrust between the coaches and the administration or that the coaching staff's jobs were in peril. They had just won a national title and had an off year; that's happened to plenty of teams before.
Unfortunately, there was one thing the 2008 Auburn team had that the 2012 Tigers did not: defense. Tuberville's last defensive unit was still good enough to rank 29th nationally in total defense and 14th in scoring defense. Chizik's last defense was nowhere close to that, coming in 81st in total defense and 65th in scoring.
2012 also did not have the promising first half of the season that 2008 did. Sure, Tubs' 4-2 2008 start was ugly, but Chizik's 1-5 2012 start was hideous beyond reproach. The one win came against Louisiana-Monroe, and Auburn had to take it to overtime to defeat the Warhawks. The Tigers were also once again haunted by inconsistent quarterback play and the eventual embarrassing game of musical chairs at the position. The season ended with Auburn's all-time lead over Georgia breaking even and another shutout in the Iron Bowl.
Whereas Tuberville was still coach four days after the Iron Bowl, Chizik was fired the very next day. Gus Malzahn was hired as Auburn's new head coach nine days later.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST: 2013 vs 2008 and 2012
What future waits for Malzahn in his inaugural season as Auburn's new head coach? Will he be able to alleviate Auburn's offensive and defensive woes? Will he lead Auburn to a successful season or should Auburn fans dig in? Let's compare and contrast.
Coaches and recruiting -- Much like his predecessor, Malzahn went out and hired what looks to be a pretty stellar staff. Also similar is that several of the new coaches are regarded as recruiting masters. A big difference, though, would be with his assistants' experience in the SEC, whether as players or coaches. Finally, Malzahn's first recruiting class was ranked eighth by Rivals, while Chizik's first class was No. 19.
Quarterback and offense -- What is starting to feel like old hat, Auburn is having issues at quarterback again. While it had seemed before the beginning of the 2012 the situation had been resolved, it turned out to be quite the opposite. As of right now, this problem persists, at least until fall camp and the insertion of other quarterback prospects into the competition. We touched on it earlier; 2008 and 2012 saw bad offenses changing systems they weren't familiar with and performing terribly. Yes, there is another offense transition taking place right now, but the major difference will be that several players on the team have played under the new offense before.
Defense -- Whereas Chizik entered his first year as Auburn's head coach with a defense that was quite good, Malzahn inherits a defense in shambles. Like 2008 and 2012, 2013 is transitioning into a new system.
Perceived expectations -- When Chizik came in, he was the coach who had gone 5-19 at Iowa State. When Malzahn came aboard, he was the offensive mad genius whose style helped the Tigers win a national title. This will probably be the hardest thing for even the most cynical Auburn fans to overlook. Here's a fun fact: Since become a college coach, Gus Malzahn has never experienced a losing season.
The parallels are there, as well as the differences. There appear to be good things on the horizon for Auburn, but as the saying goes, "it is darkest before the dawn." We can look at the numbers, facts and odds, but there have also been plenty of instances in Auburn football history where our Tigers have defied all of those. What Chizik faced going into 2009 was far from easy. What Malzahn will face in 2013 could be even harder.