AUBURN, Ala. -- Gene Chizik didn’t flinch when the masses were howling back in December 2008 about Auburn hiring somebody with a 5-19 career head-coaching record.
He had a plan.
Fresh off Auburn’s first national championship since 1957, Chizik isn’t flinching now, either, when he looks at his 2011 roster and sees 35 names missing -- including those of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and Lombardi Award winner -- from the team that captured the crystal trophy out in the Arizona desert in January.
You see, he still has the same plan.
“My whole thing since I got here was that I wanted to make sure we dig deep and build a foundation so we can do this for a long time,” Chizik said. “That’s been our goal since we got here. We haven’t changed. We haven’t changed course, and we’re not going to.
“We know we have to rebuild some numbers, but our expectation here is to go back out and again compete for championships. Just like I said two years ago, I can’t put a timetable on any of that. I have no idea. But that’s what our goal will be again down the road, and we feel confident we will do that.”
Given what he’s accomplished in a little more than two years on the Plains, who’s doubting him?
The Tigers followed up their national title by reeling in the nation’s No. 3 signing class in February, according to ESPN Recruiting. That’s after pulling in a class that was ranked No. 4 nationally in 2010.
“You ride around here and see, 'Auburn, 2010 national champions.' That’s big,” sophomore defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “It’s something that hasn’t happened around here a lot, but we’re trying to go out there and do it again.
“We want to win championships, not just a championship.”
If the Tigers are going to make another run, they will have to do it with one of the SEC’s most inexperienced teams next season.
Freshmen and sophomores will dominate the two-deep, and it’s going to be critical that the 2010 signing class lives up to its billing.
Guys like defensive end Corey Lemonier, defensive end Craig Sanders, defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker, linebacker Jake Holland, receiver Trovon Reed, offensive guard Ed Christian and running back Mike Dyer need to make this their team.
Several players from the 2010 class showed flashes of brilliance a year ago. In fact, Dyer was the offensive star in the 22-19 win over Oregon in the BCS National Championship Game.
This coming season, it’s imperative that they become the backbone of this team if the Tigers are going to keep their elite status in the SEC.
“It’s our time,” Whitaker said. “Those other guys showed us the way. We got a taste of it and like the way it tastes. We know what everybody is saying about us, that all of our good players are gone. We hear it every day from our coaches. They scream it out on the practice field, pushing us and motivating us.
“The thing is that we did lose a lot of great players, but we still have a lot of great players here. People just haven’t seen them.”
Chizik isn’t downplaying the challenge that awaits the Tigers this coming season.
He’s also not conceding anything.
After all, it’s not as if Auburn was everybody’s choice to win a national championship this time a year ago.
Still, losing a player the caliber of Cam Newton is ominous enough when you look at everything he did for Auburn. But four of the five starters in what was the best offensive line in the league are also gone, not to mention the Tigers’ most productive receiver the last two years -- Darvin Adams.
Defensively, Eguae is the only returning starter up front, while cornerback T’Sharvan Bell and converted safety Neiko Thorpe are the only other two defensive starters from the BCS National Championship Game who are back.
“We’re going to have to have a lot of young guys step to the plate,” Chizik said. “A lot of our young guys are going to have to grow up fast, and that’s just the way that it is, starting with our offensive line all the way back to our secondary. I also think it’s going to be important that they experience some success and understand what it’s like to be successful early, especially with our schedule.”
The Tigers face road trips to Clemson, South Carolina, Arkansas and LSU during the first eight weeks of the season and also have home games against Mississippi State and Florida during that stretch.
Whereas six of the Tigers’ first eight games were at home last season, there won’t be many opportunities to catch their breath in 2011.
“It’s not that we won’t have talent. We just won’t have experience,” said Chizik, who also expects several true freshmen to play key roles next season. “Experience is a huge part of the puzzle. I don’t want to use the word ‘rebuild.’ That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that we’re going to have to have some guys mature, and they’re going to need some success early.”