Auburn makes strides in Chizik's debut season


Published: Monday, January 4, 2010 at 5:32 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 4, 2010 at 5:32 p.m.

Gene Chizik brought a little more excitement to Auburn's football program.

The Tigers displayed far more offense, managed a few more wins and capped Chizik's debut season as head coach with a couple of dramatic finishes in the final two games. The momentum from a wild 38-35 overtime win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl could carry over into the offseason — aided by a key recruiting victory on the eve of the game.

"I couldn't be more proud of our football team," Chizik said after the game. "It wasn't always pretty and it wasn't always exactly the way we would have liked it, but at the end of the day we got our eighth win. I'm proud to say that I'm head football coach here at Auburn."

Auburn (8-5) won three more games than the previous season, and only Terry Bowden won more for a first-year Tigers coach with his 11-0 team in 1993. The successful start led to a significant turnaround in perception because Chizik's hiring was widely panned by media and fans alike thanks to his struggles at Iowa State.

Auburn nearly pulled out a sizable upset of No. 1 Alabama before giving up a late touchdown in a 26-21 loss.

The season ended with Auburn stuffing a fake field goal attempt in overtime after the Tigers turned in everything from Walt McFadden's 100-yard interception return to a blocked extra point. Chizik figured the game was one more thing to build on.

"It's very big for our future," he said. "It's very big for Auburn."

Another big win came the day before the game when top junior college quarterback Cameron Newton — a onetime Florida player — announced he was bound for Auburn. That might wind up solving the biggest offseason question the Tigers were facing: Who will replace Chris Todd at quarterback?

Newton likely enters as the front-runner in a competition with Neil Caudle and freshman Tyrik Rollison, who was indefinitely suspended a few weeks before the game for violation of unspecified team rules.

Newton is the kind of dual-threat quarterback that would fit into Gus Malzahn's offense. Todd was primarily a dropback passer.

The Tigers also must replace tailback Ben Tate, defensive end Antonio Coleman and McFadden, among others.

But injuries and depth issues meant promising youngsters like defensive backs Daren Bates, Demond Washington and T'Sharvan Bell got some valuable experience. Bell had two interceptions against Northwestern.

"For them to get out there and actually be in the game and learning hands on instead of watching film or at practice, I think it's a very good thing," sophomore cornerback Neiko Thorpe said.

The Tigers are hoping injured DBs Aairon Savage, Mike McNeil and Zac Etheridge will be able to return next season. Savage and McNeil were out all season. The defense battled depth issues all season, with linebackers Josh Bynes and Craig Stephens playing virtually all of the snaps.

Both are set to return for their senior seasons.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof credited the seniors with helping the defense improve down the stretch after consecutive losses to Arkansas, Kentucky and LSU.

"The thing that I'll always take away from those guys is that when we hit that rough stretch in the middle of season, those guys were wanting to know what they could do more and fix it," Roof said.

The offense, meanwhile, set a school record with 5,613 yards and scored 25 touchdowns on drives of less than two minutes.

Sophomore receiver Darvin Adams is the biggest offensive threat returning. He set an Outback Bowl record with 12 receptions for 142 yards. He finished with a school-record 60 catches and was only 3 yards shy of 1,000.

Mario Fannin and Onterio McCalebb are the most experienced contenders to replace Tate, who finished with 1,362 rushing yards.

Malzahn said the offense should be even more uptempo in Year 2.

"It'll get faster, there's no doubt," he said. "We're not happy with our pace right now."

Winning the bowl game was a nice step for Chizik, who is building a class of recruits currently rated among the nation's 10 best by recruiting services.

"When you win games it's not always necessarily that you win, sometimes it's how you win," Chizik said. "As we talk about building a foundation for Auburn as we go, this was another way we build. We were in uncharted waters. We had never been in an overtime. The circumstances were very unusual. But we found a way to win and I'm very proud of them for that."

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