In terms of the future of a football program, coming close to success can mean a glimpse into the near future to see success on the horizon. This could be case with the 2009 Auburn Tigers as they were a few plays from winning 10-11 games.
Depth issues and injuries were key factors in Auburn failing to finish some games as well as the Tigers wanted. They posted a 2-3 record in games decided by seven points or less.
From 1990-2008, Auburn compiled a record of 43-1-0 when the Tigers scored 14 points in the first period. The lone defeat came against the Georgia Bulldogs in a 1996 overtime contest. During the 2009 season, Auburn was 3-2 in games it scored 14 or more points in the first period. It was Auburn's inability to finish off their opponents that resulted in an 8-5 finish rather than an 11-2 finish.
During the 2009 season the defense allowed 27.3 yards per possession. This was 3.8 yards more per possession than the 23.5 yards allowed by the SEC champion 2004 Auburn defense. It would not appear that four yards per possession would make such a difference between a great defense and one that struggled, but it did.
The 2009 team defended an average of 13.7 possessions per game, finishing 68th nationally in total defense. Shave off the four yards per possession and Auburn would have been 25th in total defense. This basically came down to a difference of .48 of a yard per play, which was close but no cigar. Being close in 2009 did not mean enough for the 2009 Auburn Tigers, but it could mean a world of difference in 2010.
The 2002 Auburn defense with Gene Chizik as coordinator finished the season as the No. 26 defense nationally, allowing 328.2 yards per game. Shaving the opponent's average possessions by four yards would have put Auburn at 321.9 yards per game in 2009, resulting in a Top 25 finish. Chizik's first defense at Auburn allowed opponents to score on 18.3 percent of their possessions starting at their own 20 or worse. Last season Auburn allowed opponents to score on 19.6 percent of such possessions, not far from the percentage of the 2002 defense. The difference between 2002 and 2009 was that the 2002 defense was in that situation 50 percent of the time and the 2009 defense was less fortunate at 28.7 percent.
Of the 164 possessions defended by the 2002 defense, 82 started at the opponents' 20-yard line or worse. During the 2009 season, only 51 of 178 possessions started at the opponent's 20-yard line or further away.
During his senior year quarterback Chris Todd netted minus 116 yards rushing. Had he just broke even the Auburn offense would have been No.12 nationally rather than No.16. Had Todd netted 100 yards rushing for the season, Auburn would have been No. 10 nationally.
Bottom line, had Todd averaged a mere eight yards rushing per game the Auburn offense would have been in the nation's Top 10. A slight improvement can make all the difference in the world. Cameron Newton, who is known as a good runner, could win the starting quarterback position in 2010. If he can average approximately 23 yards rushing per game and all else remains the same on offense, Auburn could be a Top 5 offense this season.
Since the 1992 season 37.4 percent of Auburn's games have been decided by seven points or less. Auburn has won 62.2 percent of those close games, but there is no doubt Auburn's ability or inability to win the "close" games made a difference between a memorable season and a disappointing year.
From 2003-2006 Auburn compiled a record of 11-2 in contests decided by seven points or less. The 13 "close" games accounted for 1/4 of Auburn's games played and was a primary reason the Tigers had the nation's eighth highest winning percentage during the same time period.
During the past three seasons 47 percent of Auburn's games have been decided by seven points or less with an 8-10 record in those games. The higher percentage of close games and the poor record in those contests is a strong indication of a lack of talent compared to the opponents, poor preparation or inadequate coaching. In the case of Chizik and the 2009 Auburn Tigers, talent and depth were the apparent issues, but only time will tell.
The influx of two Top 20 recruiting classes should give Auburn an added boost of talent and depth making those close calls into potential victories. Auburn came close to a special season in 2009, but in the end the team won eight of 13 contests. The lessons learned from the 2009 season should make the Tigers wiser and stronger in 2010 and the shortcomings they struggled with in 2009 are ever so close to becoming a path for victory.
Chizik's coaching staff laid the foundation in year No. 1 for future teams to start from. The 2010 team no longer needs to start from the beginning with a higher probability for success and fewer moral victories.
Auburn's football history would indicate an improvement in year two of a new head coach's tenure. Shug Jordan, Doug Barfield, Pat Dye and Tommy Tuberville fielded better teams during their second year on the job. One could argue that even Terry Bowden's 1994 team was as good as his unbeaten 1993 team, but those Tigers faced a tougher schedule in year two.