|Chizik knows Auburn must be physical against the big, strong defenses of LSU and 'Bama. (Getty Images)|
Auburn, Ala. -- Gene Chizik has been the head coach at Auburn for three seasons and the results, by any objective measure, have been pretty good:
• 30 wins and a conference record of 16-9 while playing in the toughest division (SEC West) in the toughest conference in America.
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• One SEC championship (2010), Auburn's first since 2004.
• A 14-0 record and a BCS national championship, Auburn's first since 1957. In case you're keeping score at home, four of the last five BCS titles have come from the SEC West.
• 3-0 in bowl games.
So with things going reasonably well, what did Chizik decide to change this spring?
"We looked at everything in the offseason and decided to make some changes," Chizik said. "And we've made a lot of progress. Our guys have concentrated on everything we've asked them to do."
What are those changes, you ask?
Let's start with the offense. Gus Malzahn, the guru of the spread offense who molded Cam Newton into the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner, left to become the head coach at Arkansas State. Chizik decided to take that opportunity go back to the future in Auburn's approach to offense. The spread is out. Blue-collar football is back.
"The fact is that if you look at it historically, you have to do two things to win in the SEC," Chizik said. "You have to be able to run the football and stop the run. We want to get back to being a very physical football team. We want to put the quarterback under center and run the ball downhill. We did it on Day 1 of spring practice and right now we're in a pretty good place."
Translation: Cam Newton ain't walking back through that door, and unless you have a Newton or a Tebow at quarterback, you're not going to beat the big, fast defenses at Alabama and LSU with the spread. You gotta man up.
Chizik hired Scot Loeffler, who worked two seasons at Florida (2009-10) but learned most of his football from Lloyd Carr at Michigan, as his offensive coordinator. The instructions were pretty simple.
"When it is third and one we want to be able to line up, get the first down and move the chains," said Loeffler, who was coordinator during Temple's 9-4 season in 2011. "Coach Chizik and I are on the same page about what it takes to move the ball against the great defenses in this league."
The pieces look to be in place to make the transition that Chizik seeks. Running back Michael Dyer left for Arkansas State but there are plenty of candidates to fill that role: Tre Mason, Onterrio McCalebb, Florida transfer Mike Blakely and Alabama transfer Corey Grant. Auburn has had a 1,000-yard back in each of Chizik's first three seasons.
This will be the sixth consecutive season Auburn has had a new starting quarterback. No decision was made in the spring but it looks like sophomore Keihl Frazier, the most athletic of the bunch, has an edge. The position is in good hands with Loeffler who, as an assistant or graduate assistant, has tutored Tom Brady, Brian Griese, Chad Henne and Tim Tebow.
Defensively, there was pressure on Chizik to make a change after the Tigers finished No. 81 nationally, giving up 408 yards per game. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof had an opportunity to leave and work for his old boss, George O'Leary at UCF. Whether he was encouraged to leave is a matter of conjecture. He was there only a month when another friend, Bill O'Brien at Penn State, hired him.
With the nation's top two defenses from a year ago (Alabama, LSU) both in his division of the SEC and with the No. 5 defense (Georgia) on his schedule every year, Chizik knew he needed to hit a home run with this hire.
Enter Brian VanGorder. VanGorder was considered a rock star coordinator at Georgia, which won an SEC championship (2002) and played for another (2003) in his four years in Athens. In each of his last three years at Georgia, the Bulldogs finished in the top 10 in scoring defense. He has spent the past four seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. Chizik lured him away from the Falcons with a two-year contract that will pay him $850,000 annually.
"At this time of my life and career it was too good of an opportunity to pass up," VanGorder said.
Chizik was the defensive coordinator on Auburn's undefeated team of 2004. He was also the defensive coordinator on Texas' national championship team of 2005. He knows defense. He wants Auburn's defense to be aggressive and disruptive instead of reading and reacting. Those who know VanGorder will tell you that the man is aggressive even when he's standing still.
"When I had a chance to hire Brian I was excited," Chizik said. "The kids have really bought in. Our expectations are to be light years better on defense."
VanGorder understands that the bar for what constitutes a good defense is set pretty high in the SEC. Last season four of the nation's top five defenses (Alabama, LSU, South Carolina, Georgia) came from the SEC.
"We certainly know what a great defense looks like and we've got a long way to go," VanGorder said. "But we've taken some good first steps. Our guys have a lot to learn."
Auburn followed up its 14-0 national championship season of 2010 with a very predictable 8-5 in 2011. Auburn had lost the Heisman Trophy winner (Newton), the Lombardi Trophy winner (Nick Fairley), four starters on the offensive line, and 23 seniors. Auburn also played five true road games against Clemson (ACC champs), No. 9 South Carolina, No. 5 Arkansas, No. 2 LSU, and Georgia (the SEC East champs).
The gap between Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and the rest of the SEC West was pretty considerable last season. And right now it looks like Auburn will be picked to finish fourth in the SEC West behind those same three schools when SEC Media Days rolls around in July. But Auburn has enough talent and the right kind of schedule (road games at Mississippi State, Mississippi, Vanderbilt, and Alabama) to close that gap and make a run at the division in 2013.
It won't take long to find out about Auburn in 2012. The Tigers open the season against Clemson in Atlanta on Sept. 1. The next Saturday they go on the road to Mississippi State. On Sept. 22 Auburn hosts LSU, which will probably be ranked No. 1.
"We were a young team. We're still a young team," Chizik said. "But we understand that the expectation at Auburn never changes. We expect to win them all. Our goal is to get back to where we've been."