AUBURN, Ala. — Two years ago, Cam Newton and the Auburn Tigers were unstoppable.
Newton and fellow star Nick Fairley have long since headed to the NFL after spearheading the 2010 national title run – and the Tigers’ fall has been as dramatic as that sudden rise.
Now, after one of the program’s worst starts in six decades, even a bowl game seems out of reach and Gene Chizik’s job security has become a hot topic around the state.
Even former Auburn coach Pat Dye, who has been a big Chizik supporter, said on a syndicated radio show that he doesn’t think the Tigers will win a Southeastern Conference game. Dye said the offensive problems, starting at quarterback, are unsolvable.
The Tigers play at favored Vanderbilt on Saturday.
Chizik said he wasn’t aware of those comments and insists he’s tuning out the criticism and urging his players to do the same, just like he wanted them to ignore the praise during that title run.
“My day when I walk through the door consists of my coaches and my players and the direction that we’re headed,” Chizik said.
The Tigers (1-5, 0-4 SEC) are off to their worst start since 1998 when coach Terry Bowden leapt off a sinking ship in midseason after starting with the same record. They haven’t opened 1-6 since Ralph “Shug” Jordan’s second team won only twice in 1952.
No team has fallen so far so fast from a national title since the BCS era began in 1998.
It doesn’t appear there’s a quick fix at Auburn, especially on offense.
A quarterback change from Kiehl Frazier to Clint Moseley didn’t really jumpstart the Tigers, who rank 116th nationally in total offense and only one spot better in scoring.
The Tigers’ fall to 8-5 last season came after losing most of the starters from the team that went 14-0, including the Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Newton and fellow first-rounder Fairley.
This season was projected to be a similar rebuilding year despite three consecutive top 10 recruiting classes. Auburn, with new coordinators, implemented new offensive and defensive schemes. The Tigers also had lost star tailback Mike Dyer after he was released from his scholarship after an indefinite suspension for violating team rules. Onetime starting quarterback Barrett Trotter decided not to return for his fifth season.
Still, there weren’t clear indications things would get this bad, though.
Auburn opened the season losing just 26-19 to No. 14 Clemson – and a few weeks later dropped a 12-10 game to No. 6 LSU.
Then came a 17-point loss to an Arkansas team that seemed in a similar boat, and a three-touchdown defeat at Mississippi. Now, the Tigers are touchdown underdogs at Vandy. Chizik said climbing out of this hole will require “an unbending mentality,” starting with him.
“Our focus every day is to improve and win,” he said. “We’ve got challenges on our team in every phase. I think that’s obvious if you watch us play.”
Freshman wide receiver Sammie Coates took the veterans to task a week ago for a lack of leadership.
Tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen said the Tigers haven’t given up, but Ole Miss and Arkansas have outscored them 31-0 in the fourth quarter the past two games.
He also defended Chizik, who was defensive coordinator on unbeaten teams at Auburn and Texas.
“It’s just part of the job,” Lutzenkirchen said. “He’s still a great coach. He’s been a part of three undefeated seasons in the past decade, so there’s no doubt about it that he’s a good coach. We’re in a hole and I think what he does from here on is going to continue to define him as a coach. He’s going to continue to fight and lead this team.”