Auburn poised to rebound in brutal SEC West

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Gene Chizik says last year's tough road helped his guys 'grow up.' (AP)  
Gene Chizik says last year's tough road helped his guys 'grow up.' (AP)  

Hoover, Ala. -- We in the media have something in common with fans: We all try to make college football a lot more complicated than it really is. Let's take the Auburn team of 2011. In 2010 Auburn won all of its games and beat Oregon (22-19) with a field goal at the buzzer to capture the BCS national championship.

Auburn went 14-0 because it had a veteran offensive line, a Heisman Trophy winner (Cam Newton) at quarterback, and a supreme difference maker (Nick Fairley) at the nose tackle. Auburn also had a manageable schedule with South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia all coming to Jordan-Hare Stadium.

In 2011 Auburn went 8-5 (4-4 in the SEC) and suddenly fans and media alike wanted to know: What's wrong at Auburn?

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Actually, nothing was wrong at Auburn 2011. There were simply two realities the Tigers could not overcome.

1. All the aforementioned talent was gone and replaced by people who weren't old enough to shave.

2. In 2011 Auburn navigated one of the toughest road schedules any SEC team has played in the BCS era. Do you doubt it? Okay, here are Auburn's five true road games last season:

 Clemson, the eventual ACC champion, which had some of the best skill people in all of college football. Auburn lost at Death Valley 38-24.

 South Carolina, which won 11 games for the first time in school history. Auburn won 16-13 at Williams-Brice.

 Arkansas, which won 11 games, was ranked as high as No. 3, and whose only losses were to No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 LSU. Auburn lost 38-14.

 LSU, which was ranked No. 1 most of the season, won 13 games and the SEC championship. Auburn lost 45-10.

 Georgia, the SEC East champions, dominated Auburn 45-7 at Sanford Stadium.

Bottom line: Auburn was 1-4 in those road games and was outscored 179-71.

"The one good thing I can say about that road schedule is that it made our young guys grow up," said Auburn coach Gene Chizik. "We knew we were going to be a young team and that we could struggle. But we also knew that it would pay off for us down the road."

Chizik, whose 14-0 season of 2011 is sandwiched between a couple of 8-5 campaigns, hopes that "down the road" means now. There is always a sense of urgency for the fans at Auburn. But that sense of urgency grows exponentially when Alabama, the hated state rival, has won two out of the last three national championships.

When the voting here at SEC media days is released on Thursday, Auburn is likely to be picked to finish fourth in the SEC West behind LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas. That is simply not going to be good enough for the Auburn fan base, especially after watching Alabama hold up the crystal football last January in New Orleans.

"We know what the expectations are and for us the goal never changes," said Chizik. "We have won a national championship so we know what a great team looks like. We want to win another one. We are building towards that goal and have made progress."

There are several reasons for Chizik to be optimistic.

This season, Auburn is a year older. Last season 21 of the 31 players on the depth chart were freshman or sophomores. Brian VanGorder left the Atlanta Falcons to become Auburn's defensive coordinator. VanGorder will bring an edge to that unit.

"I'm an old defensive coordinator [Chizik was the DC on the Texas national championship team of 2005] and the great thing about Brian is that we are on the same page on everything when it comes to defense," said Chizik. "He is going to make a difference and our guys are excited about playing for him."

Former OC Gus Malzahn has taken his spread offense to Arkansas State as the new head coach. Chizik used the opportunity to go back to basics. This season Auburn will be returning to the blue collar football of the Pat Dye and Tommy Tuberville era. There is a lot of talent at running back with Florida transfer Mike Blakely, Alabama transfer Corey Grant, and senior speed rusher Onterio McCalebb. Chizik hired Scot Loeffler, the Lloyd Carr protégé from Michigan, to help Auburn make the transition.

And then there is the schedule. This time it is really front loaded with Clemson in Atlanta, a trip to Mississippi State and two home games with LSU and Arkansas in the first five weeks of the season.

"One thing is for sure," said Chizik. "When September is over we'll know where we stand as a football team."

But the road schedule, which was so brutal a year ago, is much more manageable with trips to Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Alabama.

Now is Auburn ready to wrestle the SEC West away from Alabama, LSU, or Arkansas? I don't think so. But Auburn will close the gap with the top of the division in 2012 and could be ready to make some noise in 2013.

"The reality is that we have 16 starters back but we have a lot of guys pushing them for playing time," said Chizik. "After being thin last season at some positions we are finally building our depth. When we came here we said we were going to build a foundation that would last. This is our fourth recruiting class and we are finally starting to see it. We feel very good about where we are as a football program."

The Tony Barnhart Show begins on Aug. 28 on the CBS Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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