AUBURN, Ala. — How far Auburn’s offense has fallen in two short years in between trips to Tuscaloosa.
One of the contributing factors, Heisman winner Cam Newton heading to the NFL, was uncontrollable. But Tigers head coach Gene Chizik made the conscious decision to usher in a pro-style attack, leaving behind the spread offense which won Auburn the 2010 BCS National Championship.
“There’s no regrets,” Chizik said Sunday. “We’ll go back and evaluate everything very thoroughly and see how we need to move forward.”
Chizik wasn’t apologizing for the change, and backed his first-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, who oversees the nation’s 115th-rated offense.
“He’s a smart, young coach and he’s enduring what’s been a disappointing season for all of us,” Chizik said. “We’re all going through it. That’s part of my job — to keep these guys going in the right direction. He’s fine. He’s doing OK.”
Auburn (3-8, 0-7 SEC) has one game left this year, and it’s a big one – the Iron Bowl against No. 2 Alabama (10-1, 6-1) in one of college football’s most heated rivalries.
“The intensity and passion of the rivalry, it’s second to none – and I have been in a lot of different great rivalries,” Chizik said. “That’s what makes college football great. This one is very unique. Obviously it’s in-state and there is a lot of passion that goes behind this one, more so than any of the other ones I have been in.”
The defending champions lost its top ranking two weeks ago to Texas A&M, but after Saturday night’s carnage to Kansas State and Oregon, Alabama finds itself once again controlling its own destiny to the national title game in South Florida.
“When you deeply study them, (they’re) very similar to last year. Very physical, very talented in a lot of areas, and they don’t make a lot of mistakes, on both sides of the football,” Chizik said. “Very efficient on offense. When it comes to turning the ball over and doing the things that keep you from winning, that’s not what they do. Defensively, very sound. They’re in the right spots. (They’re) talented. So it’s very similar to the Alabama teams that we’ve seen for the last three times we’ve played them.”
Alabama opens as a 34-point favorite, according to VegasInsider.com. That’s the highest recorded point spread in the series’ history, topping last year’s 21.5-point line. But Chizik won’t change his approach in getting the Tigers to believe they belong on the field Saturday.
“I feel like our guys know and feel like in every game that we go into we’ve got a chance,” Chizik said. “I don’t know how much they pay attention to all that. I’m sure they hear it. We’re going to do our best to make sure that’s not how we feel when we go into a game, I can tell you that.”
Auburn will feature true freshman Jonathan Wallace at quarterback, whose production in three starts has been mildly predictable – an efficient game manager in blowouts of New Mexico State and Alabama A&M but overmatched against mighty Georgia. But the Central-Phenix City product continues to impress the coaching staff with his poise and precocious learning curve.
“I think it’s probably been a little bit of a surprise. He’s just come light years since he got here, throwing the football,” Chizik said. “He’s gotten rid of the ball quicker than I expected him to. He’s made decisions quicker than I expected him to. He’s gotten himself out of harm’s way sometimes because of that. He just makes a decision and he goes with it. It’s not always perfect throw, but he’s made quick decisions and the element of toughness that he’s had when he runs the football and protecting the football.”
Running the football effectively will be critical to the Tigers. Lead tailbacks Tre Mason and Onterio McCalebb, in four non-conference games, have rushed for 956 yards (8.2 per carry) and nine touchdowns, but those figures in seven SEC games drop to 537 yards (4.3 per carry) and five scores.
Chizik hasn’t seen the execution change – just the quality of opponent. Alabama’s run defense ranks third in the nation, at 75.6 yards allowed per game, and opponents garner just 2.3 yards per attempt.
“You know when we play in this league, it’s a whole different animal,” Chizik said. “So when we play in these conference games we have to execute better. I think that’s just the bottom line.”
Chizik had a chance to reminisce on the last time Auburn visited Tuscaloosa – Nov. 26, 2010, when Newton and the Tigers erased a 24-0 lead and stormed back to a 28-27 victory to preserve their title journey.
“It was a great day. It was a very fun day. It was obviously a memory that will last forever for everybody,” Chizik said. “It was very unique and hadn’t probably happened very much over the test of time with anybody that has gone into that stadium. It was great for our fans. It was great for our coaches and players. Obviously, the rest of the season was history. That was a great day.”