Monday, November 23, 2009
A year later, Auburn looks to strike back
By ESPN.com staff ESPN.com
This time a year ago, the bottom was about to fall out for Tommy Tuberville and the Auburn football program.
After so many highs under Tuberville, the Tigers experienced the lowest of lows in a humiliating 36-0 loss at Alabama -- the most lopsided Iron Bowl in 46 years -- to cap the first losing season on the Plains since Tuberville’s first season in 1999.
Just like that, the Tigers’ six-game winning streak in this bitter rivalry was gone.
And four days later, so was Tuberville.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik knows the importance of the annual matchup with Alabama.
Where has Auburn’s program gone since that turbulent end to the Tuberville era and an even more turbulent coach search that ultimately produced Gene Chizik?
We should find out a few answers on Friday afternoon when the Tigers get a chance to turn the Crimson Tide’s world upside-down at what’s sure to be an emotional Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Alabama is playing to stay in the national championship race. Auburn is playing to regain a little pride.
The Tigers (7-4, 3-4) have had a week off to get ready for this game. They needed it, too, after playing 11 straight weeks and enduring through a thin roster and a processional of injuries that started back in the offseason.
When you consider the lack of depth on this team and how strapped the Tigers were in certain areas, it’s obvious that Chizik has done a nice job of maximizing what he has.
It’s not surprising that Auburn has lost four of its last five SEC games. That’s what happens when you play so many games in a row in this league and do so shorthanded.
There’s also the issue of defense, which hasn’t been particularly good this season on the Plains, and at times, has been pretty awful.
Auburn heads into the Alabama game last in the SEC in scoring defense and 10th in total defense. The Tigers have given up 36 touchdowns on defense, which is the most in the league.
If Chizik is going to make it and get Auburn back to elite status in the SEC (the two go hand-in-hand), it’s going to begin and end on defense. He knows that as well as anyone. He’s a defensive guy and saw firsthand what a swarming, fast defense can do in this league when he was heading up Auburn’s stellar defensive unit on the 2004 SEC championship team.
Simply, the Tigers don’t have the talent or the depth on defense to be a championship contender in this league, which is where the coaching staff Chizik hired comes in.
This is an excellent recruiting staff, and the Tigers are already seeing some of the benefits. Several of their commitments will be on campus Friday, including highly rated running back Michael Dyer of Little Rock, Ark. Dyer is the country’s No. 7-rated prospect by ESPN’s Scouts Inc.
Locking up those kind of prospects on the defensive side will be crucial as the Tigers finish up their 2010 class and start working on their 2011 class.
All in all, seven wins isn’t a bad way to start the Chizik era. Eight would be a lot better, especially if the Tigers could knock off the Crimson Tide.
Either way, it’s been a solid debut season for Chizik, who was anything but a popular hire when Jay Jacobs introduced him last December.
His players bought in early to his approach. He’s surrounded himself with a quality staff, and the offense seems to be well on its way under coordinator Gus Malzahn.
But they measure you in the state of Alabama on how you do in the Iron Bowl, a game that divides families and is played 365 days a year … somewhere.
Chizik knows the stakes well and also knows that he needs to be winning his share against the Crimson Tide -- on the field and on the recruiting trail -- sooner rather than later.