I know Auburn didn't have the banner year in 2011 that it had in 2010, but anyone who thought they were going to was out of touch with reality. You can't lose more than 30 players, many of them veteran leaders, off of a team and expect to compete for conference championships. That Auburn went 4-4 in conference and 7-5 overall despite that harrowing attrition and the nation's toughest schedule (according to FEI) is at least a neutral sign to me, if not a slightly positive one.
Nevertheless, I saw this lament from Kevin Scarbinsky of the Birmingham News about how bad a year it's been for Auburn. It's basically the pessimist's view of the team in 2011, with Michael Dyer's bowl suspension being the coup de grâce for an awful year. About the only thing he left out is that Auburn's opponents outscored the Tigers by 61 points on the season (291 for, 352 allowed). He concludes by asking whether 7-5 is going to become the rule for AU under Gene Chizik.
I don't dispute that it's been a tough year on the Plains, with the Newton scandal overshadowing last year's championship afterglow, off field arrests, and a five-game regression in record. Again though, I would point out that this was a young, inexperienced, and thin team in extraordinary circumstances attrition-wise facing the nation's toughest schedule. Auburn's four conference losses all came to teams in the top 16 of the F/+ rankings and the fifth loss came to the ACC champion.
The Tigers beat two of the best three teams in the East in South Carolina and Florida. If Auburn had played Georgia's schedule, only still having to face UGA instead of playing itself, the Tigers could easily have gone 7-1 in the league. Quarterback has been an issue this year, but it might not be next year if Kiehl Frazier grows into his recruiting rankings. Auburn should have been able to do better than Ted Roof as defensive coordinator, and after 2010's national championship, it probably will this time around. Gus Malzahn possibly leaving to take the Arkansas State job is a concern, but given how Auburn stepped up to reward him monetarily this year, Chizik should be able to find a suitable replacement.
Auburn taking a couple steps back this year was going to happen anyway. A lot of people focus on the big leap that teams sometimes take in the second year of a coaching regime, and Chizik certainly had one of those last year. What they often fail to notice is that those same teams often fall back down to earth some in either Year 3 or 4, generally having three or more losses. It's a common side effect of time-delayed coaching transition issues.
Ohio State went 14-0 in Jim Tressel's second year and 8-4 in his fourth. Florida went from 13-1 in Urban Meyer's second year to 9-4 in his third. Alabama carried its second year bump under Nick Saban into the third year when the team went 14-0, but it fell to 10-3 the next year. None of these are perfect analogies for 2011 Auburn, but none are perfect analogies for each other either. A team is always going to fall down from a peak, and circumstances will dictate how far. Auburn was dealt a particularly bad hand for this year.
Chizik and his staff have brought in very highly rated recruiting classes the past couple of years. He's got another one lined up for this February. If Auburn has another 7-5 year in 2012, it might be time to start asking some questions. It might also be a side effect of (potentially) replacing both coordinators. We'll have to see.
However, it's far too early to declare Chizik a 7-5 coach in perpetuity. If that was true, then there would a case for firing him right now as Auburn can and should do better than settle for 7-5 every year. Let's give him a bit more time before we get that far.