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He didn't come in to the SEC with as much bravado as Lane Kiffin. He didn't come in to the SEC straight off a National Championship like Dan Mullen. But after one full season in the conference, Auburn head coach Gene Chizik is proving that the gamble Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs took on him was well worth the risk.
Last off-season, Chizik was the butt of all the jokes. The former Iowa State head coach came to Auburn sporting a 5-19 career record in Ames. Not exactly the resume SEC fans are accustomed to see come in to the conference. Critics predicted that his inaugural season on the Plains would end with the Tigers missing out on a bowl game for the second straight season – a depth Auburn hasn't sunk to since Tommy Tuberville's first season in 1999.
Kind of hard to blame them.
The team Chizik was left to work with from the Tuberville regime was barren at best. Coming into fall camp, the Tigers were 10 players short of a full 85-man roster – essentially operating with a roster similar to teams that are on probation. Not exactly ideal circumstances for a coach that wasn't given much of a chance to begin with.
After posting an 8-5 season, setting the all-time Auburn single-season record for total offense, and posting what's likely to be one of the most impressive recruiting classes in Auburn history, the rest of the SEC isn't laughing anymore.
Chizik's first season included a New Years Day bowl win over Northwestern, a dominating win over upstart Ole Miss, a road win over Tennessee in the always tough Neyland Stadium and a near upset over eventual National Champion Alabama. More importantly, Chizik united a team and a fan base that became fractured during the tumultuous 2008 season.
While the recently-departed Kiffin was busy running his mouth in Knoxville, Chizik put his nose to the grindstone, ignored the critics and proved that good ole-fashioned hard work is the recipe for success in the SEC. As a result, Auburn's future looks brighter than anyone imagined one year ago, while Tennessee's looks bleaker than it did when the Vols lost at home to Wyoming in November of 2008.
The success of last season was impressive in its own right, but what Chizik is doing on the recruiting trail has stirred up a quiet confidence on the Plains - and the rest of the SEC is taking notice.
With less than two weeks to go until National Signing Day, the Tigers currently boast the No. 5 recruiting class in the country, according to Scout.com. That class includes commitments from No. 1 JUCO quarterback Cameron Newton, the nation's No. 2-ranked running back Michael Dyer, four-star linebacker LaDarius Owens, the nation's No. 7-ranked offensive tackle Shon Coleman, and Trovon Reed, a five-star wide receiver from Louisiana.
With several more top prospects still undecided, the Tigers are making a major statement in the state and the conference, and they owe it all to Gene Chizik. His persistence has already paid dividends for the Tigers, one year after nobody thought it was possible. Alabama is justifiably getting all the headlines in the state after taking home the crystal football in 2009, while Auburn has quietly gone about its business rebuilding its roster. Something tells me the Tigers aren't going to be quiet much longer.
Following a 38-35 win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl that saw the Tigers celebrate the victory three times before walking out of the stadium, Chizik jokingly said, "I've never gone into a game with seven wins and come out with 10."
Don't be surprised if Chizik gets to boast about 10 wins in a non-joking manner very soon.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/BSallee_CFN
Off-Season Column Archive:
Chizik Doing It The Right Way – January 21, 2010
Georgia's DC Debacle – January 12, 2010
SEC Bloggers: Do Over – January 8, 2010
Trouble In Baton Rouge – January 2, 2010
Meyer Calls A Reverse – December 27, 2009
Urban Meyer's SEC Legacy – December 26, 2009
End Of The Season Accountability – December 26, 2009
Ranking The SEC Bowl Games – December 18, 2009
2009 SEC Superlatives – December 13, 2009
Click here for the 2009 Regular Season Three & Out archive