StatTiger: Anatomy of a Rebuilding Season

Stuart Carter takes a look at Auburn's 2009 football season.

The word "rebuild" is a transitive verb defined as constructing a building or other structure because it has been damaged or destroyed; to work to restore something that has been weakened, damaged or ruined; to make major alterations or improvements to something.

In the context of rebuilding a football team, rebuilding can refer to building the team back up because it has been damaged with the intent of improving the program, currently in a weakened or ruined state. When Coach Gene Chizik was hired as Auburn's head football coach it was with the intent of rebuilding a program that lost its competitive edge. He was hired because he was able to articulate a plan that would meet the needs of a football program with goals of returning to one of the top teams within the Southeastern Conference.

There was very little positive fanfare when the announcement was made that Gene Chizik had been hired. It wasn't until he began to hire his coaching staff that the Auburn fan base began to warm up to the concept of Chizik walking the Auburn sideline again, this time as head coach. Upon their arrival at Auburn, Chizik and his staff hit the ground running to salvage the 2009 recruiting class, never losing sight of their short term as well as their long-term goals.

Expectations…

The problem with a rebuilding process is the reaction of any fan base. Because fans are not directly involved in the actual rebuilding process, they want some form of immediate results. Normally when a new coaching staff arrives on campus, it's because the previous staff failed to accomplish the job. There is a preexisting sentiment from the struggles and failures of the previous staff and the fans are longing for some sign of success and hope for the future. I always thought Bob Stoops' immediate success at Oklahoma was a precursor for outrageous expectations of not only the fan base, but also the athletic directors and boosters around the country. If Stoops and Oklahoma Sooners won it all in two years, why can't we?

Ben Tate has sparked the Auburn offense this season 1,209 rushing yards.

I believe the Auburn fan base was realistic in its expectations before the season started, but the five-game winning streak changed everything. Auburn supporters were excited about winning again and with that came a desire for more. Lost in all the excitement of an offense averaging over 500 yards per game was a depleted defense that gave up 344 yards and 24 points per game during a five-game stretch that consisted of one opponent with a winning record at the time.

Once Auburn moved into the heart of its conference schedule, the three-game losing streak happened and suddenly we were asking, "Who is responsible?" After all, Auburn had just cracked the Top 25 and was back in the game. What we failed to notice, or blindly avoided, was that Auburn had benefited from an affable early schedule.

Reality of it all…

Of the 27 players who signed a letter of intent to play at Auburn in 2009, 12 have seen extensive action this season. Anyone who follows major college football should know the utilization of that many young players is a strong indicator of talent and depth issues.

For the most part, the offense under Gus Malzahn has exceeded expectations. Even if Auburn fails to gain a single yard against Alabama, the Tigers would still finish the regular season averaging over 400 yards in total offense. Chris Todd is third in the conference with 19 touchdown passes. Ben Tate is the third leading rusher in the conference based on yards per game and Darvin Adams leads the conference with nine touchdown receptions.

It's the defense and special teams that have received so much scrutiny this season. Talent and depth issues on the defense have carried over to special teams with the fear of playing starters on kick coverage. Though Chizik and his staff conducted a very physical spring practice, a decision was made not to push the team in the fall for fear of additional injuries. The lack of contact drills showed up early in the season in the form of missed tackles during ball games. With true freshmen and walk-ons covering punts and kickoffs there were problems in lane containment along with poor angles of pursuit and missed tackles.

Final product…

Auburn now finds itself at 7-4 heading into the Iron Bowl against an undefeated Alabama team. Chances are, Auburn will drop its last regular season game to the Crimson Tide with a better opportunity of securing its eighth victory of the season in the postseason game. A possible 8-5 record isn't close to the dreams of winning nine or ten regular season games, but it's certainly a better start than the 5-6 teams Pat Dye and Tommy Tuberville fielded in their inaugural seasons. For everyone associated with the Auburn football program, wanting the best should be the primary goal, but within the confines of reasonable expectations.

There is no such thing as the perfect game plan or guaranteed adjustments. During the course of 11 regular season games we have indeed witnessed mistakes made by this coaching staff. On the flipside, we have also witnessed a team that plays to the final whistle. We have seen a coaching staff that demands hard work from the players and the players have responded with respect and admiration for their coaches. Only time will tell just how sincere Coach Chizik truly is when he speaks of the honor it is to wear the Auburn uniform. Regardless of his sincerity, the players apparently have bought into the word being preached by the current coaching staff. Zac Etheridge's recent comment of being an Auburn man after his season-ending injury made me swell up with pride. Mr. Etheridge coveted the faith of being an Auburn man as if it were a comfort blanket that all would be okay even if he never played another down of football.

Eleven games into his tenure is certainly too early to call Chizik a success, but no more accurate than casting a cloud over his ability to lead the football program in the right direction because this team didn't challenge for the SEC championship. In all fairness to Coach Chizik and his assistants, they should be judged or compared to past rebuilding projects and not to the finished product we all hope to eventually see.


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