If not for Tennessee, Auburn would easily be the team with the most turmoil over the past two years.
You know the story. Tommy Tuberville played coordinator roulette one final time and lost with Tony Franklin, leading to a five-win campaign and his eventual ouster in 2008. A rather, um, contentious coaching search followed after which a lot of folks figured the school settled with Gene "Mr. 5-19" Chizik. He brought in speed offense champion Gus Malzahn, turned some heads with some limos during recruiting season, and got the Tigers back to the postseason en route to an 8-5 finish in 2009.
That's the up-and-down macro view, but the 2009 season was a roller coaster, too. Auburn started off strong, winning four consecutive blowouts and beating Tennessee to get to 5-0. A three game losing streak, including a loss to Kentucky, came next. The Tigers then won two, dropped the Georgia game, and came within a couple minutes of winning the Iron Bowl after leading much of the contest. They capped everything off with a wild 38-35 overtime win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
So let's take a breath and see where we are now with this team. Gene Chizik seems 1000% more safe now than he did at this time last year after having guided the Tigers to a bowl and nearly pulled off the upset against Alabama. His recruiting classes have been great, providing a framework for future success. Things are definitely settling down on the Plains, though that's not to say that a repeat 8-5 performance wouldn't throw things back up in the air.
It's not too difficult to see why the team was so up and down in 2009. The Tigers were second and third in total and scoring offense in the SEC last year, but they were 11th and 12th in total and scoring defense too. Those numbers move towards the middle a bit of the pack if you take out non-conference games, but the point still stands. Being completely unbalanced like that is a recipe for high variance in your performances. In that sense, Auburn was kind of like a less-publicized version of 2009's Arkansas team minus the rocket-armed pocket statue.
Speaking of, it seems like Auburn's quarterbacks were consistently declining in arm strength for a lot of the last 6-7 years while going from Jason Campbell to Brandon Cox to Chris Todd. That is no issue with 2010's starter Cameron Newton, who found his way to Auburn from Florida via a JUCO in Texas and a laptop-containing dumpster in Gainesville. He's nothing if not an impressive athlete, with size, a powerful arm, and mobility. If he has improved his accuracy from what it was when he was a scattershot freshman, and all reports from Auburn say he has, then he'll easily be the best signal caller they've had there since Campbell.
The offense as a whole should be better than last year now in the second year of Malzahn's schemes. Newton is an upgrade, the entire line is made up of upperclassmen, all but two of every Tiger that caught a pass last year is back, and some combination of Mario Fannin and Onterrio McCalebb will make up for the loss of Ben Tate. Plus, another year will mean everyone will have better conditioning to keep up with the furious pace Malzahn prefers to go at.
It seems a little odd saying that a Gene Chizik-led Auburn team has to work on its defense, but here we are. It clearly was the weak link, unless you're prepared to pin everything on the punt return unit. Coordinator Ted Roof has had his high points in the past (particularly at Georgia Tech), but now is the time to get things going at Auburn. It won't be easy going without second team All-SEC corner Walter McFadden and last year's top sack man Antonio Coleman, but every other important guy returns, and ten of the guys Phil Steele projects as starters are upperclassmen. The ingredients are there for moving up the conference rankings.
It's still a bit hard for me to project what Auburn is going to be in 2010. We still don't know how good a head coach Chizik really is. The offense should be better as long as Newton doesn't regress when the bright lights shine. The defense appeared to have made a real statement in the Iron Bowl, but then it offered up as much about as much resistance against Northwestern as the atmosphere on the moon generates against projectiles.
If the pieces all come together, it's easy to see this team being the divisional dark horse that everyone wants to make Arkansas into. By the same token, it's not that hard to see a repeat of last year's 8-5 mark against what is roughly the same slate as last year if the defense is no better. I really can't see a significant backsliding unless more smoke and mirrors were involved in last year's 8-5 record than I realize, and I don't know if a repeat of that mark would qualify as "enough" for Auburn fans.
A lot of really good coaches in recent time have made big splashes their second years at schools. Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel, and Urban Meyer won national championships in their second years at their current schools. Pete Carroll at USC, Nick Saban at Alabama (and LSU), and Mark Richt all went from middling inaugural records to greatness in their second years. That's not to say that no one who's good fails to make the second year leap (see: Mack Brown at Texas), but getting one from Chizik would be a very good sign.
If nothing else, it would be a sign that the dust is settling and that stability has returned to a program that desperately needs it. Gaining that while ramping up for the arms race with Alabama isn't a bad thing to get in the deal.