By Jay Skipworth
There's been a lot of talk amongst the Auburn fan base since Gene Chizik was named the new head coach for the Tigers in mid December.
There are detractors who hoped for another choice. They lobbied, protested, and voiced complaints in various forms. There are the ardent supporters - several former Auburn players in the NFL who were a part of the 2004 undefeated season that helped launch Chizik into a higher profile job at Texas. Many were excited by Chizik's staff which consists of many name assistants from around the country (Gus Malzhan, Trooper Taylor, Tracy Rocker, Curtis Luper to name a few). Finally, there are the supremely cautious - those who are not sure what will become of a program that was a consistent winner over the past few years, 2008 excluded.
Will this Malzhan spread work like the Franklin spread? Chizik and company have been very careful to call what Malzhan runs "spread" after the bitter taste left behind from last year's offense which struggled to produce 17.3 points per game and finished ranked 104 out of 119 teams in total offense. The quarterback race was ended with the tabbing of senior Chris Todd (86/156, 903 yds., 5 TD, 6 INT in 2008) and Kodi Burns move to part-time receiver/part-time single wing QB. Additionally, reports from closed scrimmages have touted some young players who figure to be a big part of the offensive puzzle (RB Onterio McCalebb, WRs DeAngelo Benton and Darvin Adams). Will this Malzhan offense work the way it did the last two years at Tulsa where the Golden Hurricane ranked near the top of the country in scoring for two seasons? This was top among Auburn problems from last year - too many three downs and out which wore out a defense over the slog of an always tough SEC schedule.
After Franklin was dismissed early in the season, the biggest problem was an almost total lack of identity for the Tigers offense as the season progressed. There were few adjustments between quarters or halves of football and by the end of the year it is safe to say no opponent feared Auburn. Part of this was due to staff disunity about the offense and part was due to a team without a clear leader or plan of attack. The difference this year is that the entire staff and system are new and there are reports of more "buy in" from the assistant coaches and players than last year. Will that translate to improved production? It should, but remains to be seen until kickoff. Auburn needs play makers to step up and needs to show potential recruits that this offense is something they want to be a part of in order maintain any level of consistent success in the coming years.
What about the severe lack of depth at key positions on both sides of the ball? Perhaps no position on the team has as bleak an outlook than the linebacker corps. Auburn, a team which has produced numerous NFL-caliber players from this position, enters the season with two experienced starters, one highly-touted (however, currently injured) recruit, and a small group of young guys to play the middle of the field. Defensive Coordinator Ted Roof has talked of playing a lot of nickel and dime (five and six defensive back formation) this season. If this was the Big 12, that wouldn't be a terrible plan considering the amount of time almost every team spends in spread formations. However, in the SEC, every team - even Florida - has a power running game of some sort in its arsenal. Auburn will have to come up with answers if there is hope of improving last season's record. The coaching staff is working to address these needs with three linebackers already committed and others targeted. Holding serve with a lack of talent will say a lot to recruits about the coaching acumen of this staff.
So, what is to expect of the new-look Auburn Tigers as they prepare to open the season at home against Louisiana Tech? I posit that Auburn needs to win big in the opener. What's so special about La. Tech you ask? Well, they aren't world beaters, but they did beat SEC West foe Mississippi State in the opener of 2008 and they return 16 starters from that team for this year. They have a quality running game and they can be opportunistic with turnovers on defense. Those elements mean it won't be easy for Auburn to blow away the Bulldogs in the season opener. The Tigers need a balanced offensive effort coupled with a good showing by a young defense in order to do it. And, yes, Auburn needs to throw the kitchen sink at this team and post a decisive win. In doing so, this new staff can quiet some of the critics, bring more unity to the fan base, and make a statement to potential recruits and opponents that the new era of Auburn football is trending upward.