Trading questions this week with Ryan Black who covers Auburn for the Colmbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer:
PA: Looking back in time with Auburn just a bit, how did things unravel so quickly after a national championship for Gene Chizik?
RB: I only wish wish I could answer this question by citing first-hand experience. Alas, I didn’t cover the team during Chizik’s tenure, so I can’t speak to that. After discussing the topic with those around Auburn, the consensus seemed to be that he simply lost control of the team after capturing the 2010 national title. Following that magical season, it seems that he changed for the worse. In 2011, he apparently started to dabble in offensive game planning, even though he had little experience in that area. Why would he do this? Many said it was fueled by jealousy, with Chizik believing he was given short-shrift when credit for the national title was bandied about, as Cam Newton and then-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn received a majority of the headlines. Once Malzahn departed to assume the reins at Arkansas State, Chizik hired Scot Loeffler to run the offense. His pro-style scheme was a disaster, as you might have heard. Then, of course, the news surfaced last season that he had hired a private security firm to enforce curfews, the most prominent example Chizik was no longer on the same page as his players. Here’s the bottom line: He was never as good a coach as the 14-0 campaign implies. On the flip side, Chizik didn’t forget everything he knew about football just because he went 3-9 last year. In summation, he’s somewhere in the middle, along the lines of the 8-5 records he posted in 2009 and 2011. All in all, I believe Chizik is a decent coach, albeit one better served as a coordinator than in control of an entire program. (Look at his distinguished career as an assistant at Auburn and Texas and the team’s corresponding records and defensive rankings while he was at those schools. The stats speak for themselves.)
PA: How many key offensive players on the roster now were recruited to run the Gus Malzahn system, and how have they benefited from his return?
RB: Nearly every skill player on offense was originally recruited by Malzahn when he was at Auburn as offensive coordinator. That includes running backs Tre Mason and Corey Grant as well as receivers Sammie Coates, Quan Bray, Trovon Reed and C.J. Uzomah. Every player expressed a mixture of relief and excitement when Malzahn was hired to replace Chizik. Not that it should come as a surprise. They were originally recruited to play in an up-tempo, spread-type offense, and the system Loeffler used last year was nearly the complete opposite. Needless to say, it has allowed the Tigers to play more free and easy, and it doesn’t hurt they were already fairly familiar with Malzahn’s formations and signals, which made the coaching transition much easier. (And of course, this isn’t even taking into account the true freshman and junior college transfers Malzahn was able to sign in his first recruiting class last February.
PA: What made Nick Marshall the best choice at quarterback, and what have you seen in his development through four games?
RB: Marshall was the perfect quarterback for Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle scheme. He had every attribute the coaching staff was looking for. He can run the ball effectively. He can keep plays alive with his feet. And he has incredible arm strength. (The best I’ve ever seen in-person, I might add.) But that has also worked to his detriment thus far. Despite decent passing numbers through four games — 60-for-103, 809 yards, four touchdowns and a 58.3 completion percentage — they could be far better. Multiple times every contest, Marshall has overthrown open receivers. Worse, many of these came on passes that would have been near-certain touchdowns given how much space were between his pass-catcher and the nearest defender. So while the coaching staff has continued to praise his progress, Marshall is a long way from reaching his potential.
PA: How would you assess Auburn defensively?
RB: In a word, inconsistent. Auburn is allowing 439.5 yards of total offense per game, which ranks 13th (ahead of only Texas A&M) in the SEC. The Tigers also rank 13th in pass defense (267.5), and are just a tick better versus the run, giving up 172 yards per game, which is 12th-most in the league. Auburn’s biggest problem has been what defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson dubs “trash plays.” This happens when the defense makes a mental error that allows an opponent to pick up big chunks of yardage. To wit: LSU had seven plays of 20 yards or more against Auburn, which accounted for a mind-boggling 255 yards. Those seven plays comprised 55.8 percent of the LSU’s’ total (457) for the contest. The Tigers have shown they bow their necks once foes get inside the 20-yard line, though, ranking third in the SEC in red zone defense at 70.6 percent. But that number has been an afterthought when opponents trot into the end zone on scoring plays of 20-plus yards.
PA: How competitive was Auburn at LSU? Watching just some of the game on TV it looked like LSU had an easy time early on and just coasted after that? Is that a fair assessment, or did Auburn put a scare into LSU in the second half?
RB: I’ll say both parts of your assessment are true. But I’ll add this addendum: I don’t think we’ll ever really know how competitive the game could have been, honestly. If Auburn hadn’t shot itself in the foot on its first two possessions, it might have been a different story. Auburn moved the ball well on the initial drive of the contest, but mishandled an exchange on fourth-and-one at LSU’s 41-yard line. LSU scored a touchdown less than a minute later. The visitors were forced to punt on the next drive, but then senior punter Steven Clark couldn’t the snap. On the next play, LSU scored to take a 14-0 lead with 9:56to play in the first quarter. Auburn’s offense finally began to settle down some after that, but its defense did it no favors, as it couldn’t find a solution to stop the explosive plays LSU produced on the ground and through the air. I’m not saying Auburn would have won if it didn’t have miscues on its first two drives. I still think LSU would have come out on top; Auburn just would have made Les Miles’ squad work a little harder.