Auburn Sets the Stage One More Time // SEC 2012: The New SEC

AUBURN AL - SEPTEMBER 18: Head coach Gene Chizik of the Auburn Tigers leads his team onto the field to face the Clemson Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on September 18 2010 in Auburn Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Gene Chizik surprised a lot of people when he picked Gus Malzahn to be his offensive coordinator in 2009. Defensive head coaches not named "Stoops" have a long history of preferring their offensive coordinators to run bland, NFL-style attacks. They generally want their offense to, above all else, run some clock to give the defense rest and not put the defense in bad situations. Malzahn's preferred hyperspeed offense would seem to be the exact opposite of that kind of offense.

It paid immediate dividends in the first year when the offense improved drastically over Tommy Tuberville's final season. Malzahn's system was the warm ocean water that spawned Hurricane Cam in 2010, a storm that left a trail of devastation in its wake. In 2011 however, things on offense didn't really go Malzahn's way. Part of it was circumstance and some probably was executive meddling, but it was time for a change. Gus took a head coaching job finally and Chizik hired Scot Loeffler as a replacement.

Loeffler is a lot more in line with what many expected Chizik to hire in an offensive coordinator the first time around. Loeffler has learned some spread option from Urban Meyer and Steve Addazio, but his background is far more steeped in the pro-set. He will incorporate some concepts from new school offenses, but it's probably going to be more traditional than anything. That's certainly not necessarily a bad thing; "traditional with some new school concepts" aptly describes the offenses of the in-state rival teams whose championships sandwich Auburn's.

It is a good thing for the arc of Chizik's career that the seemingly inevitable big offensive transition is happening in 2012. One of the primary criticisms of Tuberville's final years on the Plains was regarding a perceived dropoff in recruiting. It's true that several key playmakers on the 2010 title team were new; Nick Fairley was a JUCO transfer in 2009, and Cam Newton and Michael Dyer entered the program in 2010. However, that team relied on a number of veteran players, particularly on the offensive line.

Once all those veterans left, we saw that Auburn was a very young team in 2011. It's not quite as green in 2012 as Chizik is billing it to be, but the roster rebuilding project is not complete just yet. This is going to be another year of largely muted expectations, with all of the divisional pressure once again on Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU. There couldn't be a better time to make a big switch on one side of the ball.

The one nagging issue however is that this the third of Chizik's four years where expectations are largely muted. Any kind of progress in Year 1 was going to be gravy (he was Mr. 5-19 to a lot of people back then, remember). Last year was a rebuilding year after heavy losses from the national title team. This fall is another year of getting things worked out. At some point, Chizik won't benefit from being picked to finish fourth in the division. Fourth in the division will become a liability, and soon.

We can talk about offensive transitions all day, but let's not forget that Chizik's side of the ball hasn't impressed much. Even in 2010, only the rushing defense was terrific. Passing efficiency defense in conference play has declined each year under Chizik despite conference passing attacks being pretty anemic last year, and third down defense was abysmal in allowing conversions in nearly half of all situations in 2011.

This year is Chizik's last one of flying under the radar unless he earns the right to do so once again. Letting the bullseye be on others' backs is only acceptable for so long in the SEC.

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