It was a demanding task, but they forged their way through it and the players bought into future of the program. From the beginning the coaches knew they were not dealt a full deck when it came to talent and depth, but they refused to make any excuses. In the end they fielded a competitive team that managed to win eight of 13 games, including an Outback Bowl victory over Northwestern. It wasn't a perfect start for the Chizik Era, but the foundation was in place for improvement.
Garnering the most attention in 2009 was the offense under coordinator Gus Malzahn. From the day he was hired the excitement level for the Auburn offense multiplied among the fan base. He came to Auburn with two No. 1 offenses nationally on his resume in just three years of coordinating college offenses.
After the Tony Franklin experiment, Auburn's offense was in dire need of development and Chizik hired one the hottest names in college football to accept the challenge.
Malzahn's offense delivered right away, averaging 513 yards and 41 points per game during a five-game winning streak to start the season. Eventually the offense suffered through a few downfalls, but managed to finish as the No. 16 offense nationally, a major enhancement from Auburn's 104th finish in 2008.
Malzahn now prepares for his second spring practice at Auburn, but will do so without the anxiety of starting from scratch. His second spring will be more of a reloading stage than a construction phase. The two major questionable areas on offense in 2010 will be naming a starters at quarterback and running back with the graduation of 2009 seniors Chris Todd and Ben Tate. Though this will be a challenge in itself, it pales in comparison with trying to position all the pieces of the puzzle in place.
Already present are four starting linemen, two starting receivers and the return of the starting H-back from last season's team. There is a reliable stock of talented personnel for Malzahn to evaluate in order to replace his starters departed from 2009.
•The quarterback competition this spring could be the among most exciting in school history. Junior College transfer Cameron Newton is undoubtedly the fan favorite based on his size, speed and athletic ability.
Highly touted Tyrik Rollison was redshirted in 2009 and will receive his second opportunity to challenge for the No. 1 slot in 2010 with a more realistic opportunity of winning it than 2009.
Barrett Trotter was injured last spring, making 2010 his first chance of competing for the starting position with Malzahn in charge.
Veteran Neil Caudle, the No. 2 QB last season, will make his final run at becoming the starting quarterback and freshman Clint Moseley will move from the practice squad to try to prove himself worthy of leading the 2010 offense.
All five quarterbacks are good athletes and whoever is chosen as the starter should be a more effective runner than last year's starter, Chris Todd. As important as this quarterback race will be, the naming of the No. 2 QB could be just as big in terms of the future of the remaining quarterbacks.
•As well as the 2009 offense performed, there were concerns about the ability to sustain long drives. Looking back at previous Auburn offenses, the 2009 group was actually competitive in this regard.
From 1992-2009 Auburn's offense has scored a touchdown 16.5 percent of the time when starting a drive from its own 30-yard line or worse. The 2009 team scored 27.7 percent of the time, third best since 1992. The 1995 Auburn offense was No. 1, scoring a touchdown 28.9 percent of the time from at least 70 yards away.
Last season the Auburn offense netted at least 30 yards during a possession 49.7 percent of the time, greater than the average percentage of previous Auburn offenses since 1992, which netted at least 30 yards 41.5 percent of the time. The 2009 percentage was the fourth best since 1992. Because long sustained drives have come at about 25 percent of the time at best, it places more emphasis on the ability to create impact or big plays.
•Examining Auburn's history of scoring on offense since 1992, I found that reaching the goal of scoring on 33 percent of the offensive possessions was a key statistical goal. Since 1992 Auburn has compiled a record of 100-5-1 when the offense scores on 33 percent of its offensive possessions. They key was simply reaching that goal, which has occurred 49.5 percent of the time in the last 18 seasons.
This was the downfall of the Auburn offense in 2009, as the Tigers reached 33 percent in six of 13 games. Malzahn's offense reached this mark in each of Auburn's first five games of the season, but only once in the remaining eight games. Auburn's offensive droughts of at least four consecutive possessions in the final eight games of the season were a primary reason they lost five of the remaining eight games.
•When you consider that over 30 percent of the nation's top defensive linemen and linebackers coming out of high school are signed by a Southeastern Conference team, it lends credence to the theory that the SEC is king of college football when it comes to playing defense. Over the past 10 seasons, the SEC has made up one quarter of the teams finishing among the nation's Top 10 defenses, the most of any major conference in the country.
Because of the strength of the defenses within the conference, SEC offenses need the ability to create impact and big plays to generate points. Auburn's 120 impact plays or plays of 15 yards or more in 2009 was the most by an Auburn offense since 1992. The 2009 Auburn offense also totaled 29 plays of 30 yards or more or 1 every 31.5 plays. This was sixth best by an Auburn offense over the past 25 years. It was a good ratio, but something in need of improvement for Auburn to compete for a championship in 2010.
Malzahn's offense is designed to create confusion for the opposition, compounding the confusion with a fast tempo pace. Malzahn creates this uncertainty on the part of the defense by utilizing all six of his skill players in various aspects of the running and pass offense.
He motions his personnel to give the false impression of the point of attack with the football actually moving in the opposite direction. This increases the opportunity of the skill players making big plays. Of the personnel involved in Auburn's 29 plays of 30 yards or more, the players responsible for 25 of the plays return in 2010. The personnel involved in 96 of the 120 impact players also returns in 2010.
•Darvin Adams (WR): 29 impact plays, including four of 40 yards or more.
Darvin Adams had a breakout season for the Tigers in 2009.
•Mario Fannin (RB-WR): 17 impact plays, including four of 30 yards or more.
•Terrell Zachery (WR): 14 impact plays, including 10 of 30 yards or more. Zachery is clearly a player who needs more touches in 2010.
•Eric Smith (RB): 10 impact plays, one of 30 yards or more.
•Onterio McCalebb (RB): eight impact plays, two of 30 yards or more.
Added to the mix of playmakers will be Newton, Michael Dyer, Dontae Aycock, Travante Stallworth, Antonio Goodwin, Trovon Reed and possibly Jeremy Richardson. With the high number of impact plays in 2009 Auburn proved to be a dynamic offense, but the addition of more speed at the receiver position could increase the number of big plays, elevating the offense to the explosive echelon.
The starting quarterback in 2010 will likely be a far better runner and more mobile in the pocket than Todd, giving Malzahn another weapon in his arsenal. The first step in the reloading phase on offense begins in the spring, which could be a brief glimpse of an electrifying offense on the horizon.