No one knows at this point exactly how Auburn’s 2009 season will play out, but here are five things that could spell doom for Gene Chizik’s crew this season.
5. Stiff division competition – It’s never a good time to go through a complete coaching overhaul in the SEC West, but never has there been a worse time than now. Alabama’s coming off a 12 win season, LSU is two years removed from a national championship, Arkansas finally has a quarterback Bob Petrino can work with and Ole Miss looks like a team ready to make their first SEC title game appearance. Mississippi State is the only other team in rebuilding mode, but that’s nothing new for the Bulldogs as of late. With all the issues the Tigers with them this season – new coach, two new systems, new quarterback (probably) – there is virtually no shot of them competing for the West crown against this competition this season.
4. A fan base (still) skeptical of the spread – Although no two “spreads” are the same, many an Auburn fans’ psyche has been irrevocably defiled by the disastrous Tony Franklin experiment from last year. When you think Auburn football, you think of Running Back U. Names like Tucker Frederickson, Joe Cribbs, Lionel James, Tommie Agee, Bo Jackson, Stephen Davis and Carnell Williams – that’s the Tigers’ legacy. Moving from a run-first mentality to a pass-first mentality isn’t something that many fans are ready to do, no matter how excited they may be about the scoring potential of the Gus Malzahn offense. Couple that with the personnel issues Auburn has right now and fans could get mighty impatient if this version of the spread doesn’t pan out by the end of the season.
3. Depth issues on the offensive line – Speaking of personnel issues, none are more pressing than offensive line depth. After Ryan Pugh and Lee Ziemba, can you name a star lineman on the Tigers’ roster? What’s worse is that signing day didn’t yield much in the way of new talent, as Auburn picked up only a couple of three-star kids. Alabama, which had better depth coming into the season than Auburn, pulled a four star and a five star out of this state alone. An offense that predominantly works out of the shotgun is an advantage, but remember Ziemba and Pugh (as well as the rest of the line currently enrolled in school) were recruited primarily to run-block, not pass block.
2. Another rash of injuries – Last year it was Aairon Savage and Phillip Pierre-Louis, this year it’s Mike McNeil, Zac Etheridge and Barrett Trotter. The absolute last thing the Tigers needed going into this season was another unfortunate barrage of injuries. As it stands right now the front end of the depth chart is above average across the board. But any more injuries involving the line of scrimmage, or God forbid, Neil Caudle (again), and the 2009 season will go down the tubes quicker than it did in 2008.
1. An unproven head coach – “We want a leader, not a loser!” was not only the funniest local YouTube moment of the year, it foreshadowed the challenge that lies ahead of Gene Chizik to convince the Tiger faithful that 5-19 was more Iowa State’s fault than his own. Sure he was once a defensive coordinator in high demand, but so were Mike DuBose and Ron Zook. No one needs a refresher course on how their SEC coaching careers played out. It does serve to highlight one distressing aspect of his Iowa State tenure: his team’s repeated defensive breakdowns. In 2007, teams scored 28 or more points in seven of 12 games. In 2008, ISU gave up 28 or more points in each of their last nine games, all losses. How does a former defensive coordinator live with those numbers?
We could go on and on about Chizik’s disastrous two seasons in Ames – two conference wins in two years, losses to Kent State and Northern Iowa at home, etc. – understanding that Iowa State most certainly does not have a winning football tradition. But until he proves his worth on the field in Auburn, there will always be questions surrounding his hiring. And if he struggles, how much patience will the fan base have with him – or Jay Jacobs, for that matter?