By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
One year after winning the national championship, Gene Chizik is looking at a turning point in his tenure at Auburn.
Chizik’s coaching staff took a hit over the last few weeks, with offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ted Roof departing for other jobs. Malzahn left to be the head coach at Arkansas State, while Roof left to become the defensive coordinator at UCF.
Roof’s defenses never finished higher than 60th in total defense and 53rd in scoring in his three years at Auburn. The 2011 version ranked 11th in the SEC in rushing, total and scoring defense, while the pass defense finished last in the conference. Youth and a lack of proven depth were to blame for much of the issues this season.
Chizik is going to call the plays for the defense in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia, but will hire a coordinator in the offseason. Florida State’s Mark Stoops has been rumored as a possible target by Auburn and other names are sure to emerge.
Malzahn’s departure is clearly a bigger loss for Chizik. The Tigers finished 17th nationally in scoring in 2009 and seventh last season.
Auburn will certainly pay well for its coordinators next season, so Chizik will be able to attract some top talent to rebuilding his coaching staff. However, it won’t be easy to replicate Malzahn’s system. The Tigers have recruited to run Malzahn’s spread offense, so choosing a different scheme could add transition time. Considering the question marks on defense and strength at running back, Auburn may not want to continue its with up-tempo offense.
With quarterback Cam Newton leaving early to the NFL, the offense was never the same this year. The up-tempo scheme never took off, and the Tigers averaged only 20 points in SEC play this year. Quarterback was a question mark all season, as Clint Moseley, Barrett Trotter and Kiehl Frazier all took snaps for Auburn. And neither was able to clearly separate from the others as the No. 1 guy.
Quarterback won’t be the only question mark for Auburn’s offense this offseason. Running back Michael Dyer is suspended for the Chick-fil-A Bowl and isn’t a lock to return to the roster for next season. The sophomore rushed for 1,242 yards and 10 scores this year, which followed up a terrific freshman campaign.
With Dyer sidelined for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason will be forced to shoulder the workload in the backfield. McCalebb rushed for 532 yards this season, while Mason added 97.
If Dyer does not return to the team in 2012, the outlook in the backfield won’t be much better. McCalebb and Mason will return, while Florida transfer Mike Blakely will be eligible next season. While that trio isn’t bad, Auburn – assuming he does not return – will miss Dyer’s ability to be the clear go-to back. And there’s also the issue of who will be Auburn’s quarterback next year?
It’s unfair to say Chizik is on the hot seat one year removed from winning the national title. However, his tenure has reached a critical juncture. Take away last season’s record and Auburn is 15-10 in two years under Chizik. With Malzahn and Roof departing, Chizik has another chance to put his stamp on the program.
There’s no question the Tigers have talent in the program. After all, this team has ranked among the best in college football in recruiting over the last couple of seasons.
Another 7-5 season won’t sit well in Auburn and there will be a lot of turnover and uncertainty facing this team going into 2012.