Auburn family feud: Can Gene Chizik weather a winless SEC season?

Auburn head football coach speaks to the media after the Tigers' 17-13 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012. The loss moved Auburn to 1-6 overall, the worst start for the program in over 60 years. - Steven Godfrey

Two seasons from a national championship, the Auburn Tigers are breaking new ground for post-title slumps in the BCS era. Among the faithful, 1-6 is reason enough to make a change, regardless of crystal balls. SB Nation's Steven Godfrey checks in from their latest loss.

"[Expletive]!"

Every stadium houses a point of no return, where the losing team's departing fan is perilously close to the concourse gate but can still catch one last glimpse of the ongoing game, be it via a Jumbotron or concession stand TV monitor.

"Oh my God... [Expletive]!"

Having just declared they're done with Team X forever, the enraged will mount a dramatic exit, but still pause when presented one last view of the proceedings.

"No, no, no... [expletive] no."

Because even with so much concentrated anger, there is always some stupid, shameful glimmer of hope. But when the inevitable is reinforced, the fan is that much angrier, only this time with a rage turned inward.

And oh, those expletives.


Godfrey: All-access with Vanderbilt || Inside WKU's Alabama preparation || ULM's upset economy

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On the ramp of Vanderbilt Stadium on a sunny Saturday, there is a steady stream of Auburn fans headed back to the streets of West Nashville as early as the start of the fourth quarter. To get that last-chance view of the brand new videoboard, the stream of the disenfranchised momentarily ebbs between a pair of magnolia trees and the Spanish tile of the original Walter O. Parmer Field House, one of the oldest buildings still standing on campus and currently in use as a storage facility.

These orange clumps are equal parts short-term rage - because Auburn is about to move to 1-6 (0-5 SEC) - and long-term disbelief - because keyword nouns "Cam" and "Championship" and "Two years" are, accompanied by those expletives, rejoinders to the unspoken situation at hand. Auburn is at the bottom of the SEC, two years removed from an undefeated season and a national championship.

With 9:55 remaning, Auburn trails, 17-13. Despite having been outscored, 62-3, in the fourth quarter through six games, AU kicked a field goal on their first drive in the fourth quarter, an eight-play, 30-yard effort featuring a sack, only two pass attempts (one completed) and half the total yards coming from a personal foul on the Commodores' Archibald Barnes.

But there is hope yet. Vanderbilt has spent most of the day wobbling through the foreign role of a favored home team in conference play. On a 4th-and-3 at the Auburn 31-yard-line, running back Zac Stacy is sacked trying to throw a pass on a halfback option. Vandy ends up two-of-five on fourth down conversions for the day, and two of those failed conversions set up Auburn's 10 points entering the 4th quarter.

Tigers running back Tre Mason leans right and gains two yards on first down. An offsides penalty gives Auburn 2nd-and-3, but Mason is hit at the line for no gain on the same exact same play. On third down Ontario McCalebb loses two yards. On 4th-and-5, Auburn punts. Vandy's first play from scrimmage is a 27-yard rush from Stacy. There is a sellout crowd of more than 40,000 on hand, and the respectable portion that isn't orange and blue erupts.

With 4:41 remaining, the visiting stands continue to empty.

First among the latest wave of fans are Thomas Bonner, Grant Rodgers and Austin Langford. They are current Auburn students, and with each comment, they become a kind of narrator to this tale of woe, a Greek chorus for the current concerns of the "Auburn Family."

"Scot Loeffler was the worst hire. They hired him coming out of Temple and they’re not like, known for having a good offense."

Loeffler, the coordinator currently overseeing one of the worst offenses in college football. The coach who brought a methodical, pro-style attack to replace departed coordinator Gus Mahlzahn's spread option, using nothing but Mahlzahn's spread option parts. The result is 15.71 points and 276.71 yards a game, worst in the conference and lower than 115th in both categories nationally.

Loeffler's face looked the longest in the post game press conference. As a Temple assistant, you don't turn down a SEC job, but for no reason of his own doing, maybe he should've.

"We can't be off schedule. Staying on schedule is crucial for us." He repeats the phrase "stay on schedule" seven times in the first two minutes of his meeting with reporters. There's little to say.

The "off schedule" he initially references is a fumble on the second half's opening drive that created a 2nd-and-20. Tied at 10, Auburn's offense would punt two plays later, punt again after a three-and-out and then punt one more time after a 20-yard drive (featuring two false starts and a sack) before the successful field goal drive to start the fourth quarter.

"It was Cam. It was all Cam."

Cam Newton, the fabled one-and-done transfer quarterback as mired in controversy as he was unmatched on the football field, back in the year of our Lord, 2010. A name quickly becoming a fable among Auburn fans.

"Once we didn’t score off that drive we decided to leave. I just know they have no confidence in any quarterback they have on the field. They’re only punting so they don’t get embarrassed."

Since Cam, there's been no serviceable quarterback at Auburn. Barrett Trotter started seven games but quit following 2011 after losing his job to Clint Moseley, who started Saturday. He and Kiehl Frazier have traded starts and injuries, and neither has sparked the offense.

"It was Cam, Nick Fairley and Michael Dyer."

Fairley, another junior college flash. Amazing in 2010, then, like Newton, gone. Dyer, the freshman running back who ran for 143 yards in that title game, but who was suspended and then released from Auburn in 2011 and booted from Arkansas State after he followed Mahlzahn to Jonesboro. This would've been Dyer's showcase season at Auburn in the Mahlzahn offense. Both are gone from the title team, as is defensive coordinator Ted Roof.

"He’s got a losing record without Cam. At this point a lot of people want to lose out and have Gene be gone for sure. That what we were talking about back in the stadium."

Head coach Gene Chizik, famously 5-19 as head coach at Iowa State before Auburn AD Jay Jacobs brought him to the Plains, is about to be 17-16 overall (7-14 SEC) at Auburn without Newton and 9-11 since the BCS Championship. No coach's worth may have ever been more scrutinized following a national title win than Chizik, but no one college football player has ever been credited for so much of a team's success as Newton.

Chizik is professional and measured following the game, rebuking trap questions about emotion, "packing it in," system failures, accountability for mistakes, public perception and the various other end-around lines reporters use when trying to elicit a response. When finally pressed about the overall responsibility for the state of a 1-6 program, Chizik finally sort of shows some emotion, albeit an expressionless, dialed-down amount of of frustration:

Where does the responsibility lie?

"Me," he answers, almost cutting the reporter off.

And the answers?

"Keep working on it," he says to end to the press conference.

If the Tigers - now 119th in the country in total offense and allowing over 410 yards a game on defense - lose out to their three remaining conference opponents, all nationally ranked - Texas A&M (Saturday), Georgia (Nov. 10) and Alabama (Nov. 24) - then the history of an 0-8 SEC record dictates that Gene Chizik will almost certainly be fired, national title or not:

  • Since the league expanded to an 8-game schedule in 1992, only 12 teams have finished 0-8 in SEC play. (Auburn's worst finish in that span was 1-7 in 1998, the season they fired Terry Bowden)
  • Of those 12 teams, seven made coaching changes following the season (six fired their coach outright, but Vandy's Bobby Johnson abruptly retired months after an 0-8 2009 season).
  • Three of those 0-8 years came during a head coach's first season at that school (Johnson at Vandy in 2002, Lou Holtz at South Carolina in 2000, Woody Widenhofer at Vandy in 1997)
  • Only twice has a non-debuting SEC coach survived an 0-8 campaign: Bill Curry at Kentucky in 1994 and Jackie Sherrill at Mississippi State in 2002. Curry would coach two more losing seasons before being replaced by Hal Mumme, and Sherrill was pushed into retirement after a 2-10 (1-7 SEC) season the following year.
  • A cautionary tale: After electing to keep a non-first-year coach after an 0-8 campaign, it took Mississippi State five seasons to finish with a winning record, and Kentucky four.

Outside of the former perennial doormat Vandy, programs have recovered from winless SEC campaigns in short order when they made changes. South Carolina went 0-16 over two years in 1998-'99, and won the Outback Bowl in 2000 in Lou Holtz's second year on the job. Ed Orgeron was fired after an 0-8 run at Ole Miss in 2007, and Houston Nutt delivered two Cotton Bowl wins in 2008 and '09. And after Nutt finished winless in the SEC last season, Hugh Freeze has already exceeded Nutt's '11 win total and won a conference game - against Auburn.

Granted, none of the above schools or coaches had a national title to hold in front of the lynch mob, but no national champion has ever fallen this far this fast in the BCS era. And in every conversation about Auburn's long view, the University of Alabama is in some way the elephant in the room (pun intended).

"The worst thing is that Alabama fans have quit making fun of me," said 30-year-old Turner Townsend, who drove with his wife from Enterprise, Ala., for the game. Townsend and his group left at the half, "and I'm not that kind of fan, believe me."

"I'm not one of those Auburn fans - and I think a lot of fans my age feel like this too - that has to compare the two all the time. Maybe we, in the state, have championship fatigue. The state is about to probably win its fourth national title in a row. We are what we are. They are what they are."

And what are they?

"Well ... they think they're about to win their 14th national championship, I think they're about to win their seventh or eighth, but hey, either way it's impressive, right?"

Townsend counts himself among a group of like-minded young alumni that are frustrated with Auburn athletics first, and football coaches second. Citing perennial irrelevance in revenue sports like basketball and baseball, as well as a string of athletic directors that were all internal "family" hires (current AD Jacobs played for Pat Dye), Townsend is quick to endorse Chizik's firing: "January 11, 2011. We should've done it then. That was the most we could get out of him."

He qualifies that as the second-most important head to roll.

"This is a seminal moment. Are we going to grow up and be big boys? Do we hire a professional or an ex-walk-on football player? Are we going to hire somebody to come in and run things or are we going to continue to do what we've been doing? And I don't have much faith. The football situation, at least what we do with our coach, is in my opinion a very small issue. Auburn is still more than a football team to me."

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Back at the point of no return, Stacy has picked up another first down and Vanderbilt is in Auburn territory with just under three minutes to go. Josh Reed is fuming. He graduated from Auburn in December of 2011. His parents donate a scholarship to the university.

"I'm disgusted. This is awful. We lost to Ole Miss, Mississippi State and we're losing to Vanderbilt, and OH, OH I THINK Cam Newton just showed how valuable he was in 2010. Our ENTIRE athletic program needs to be ... they need to be let go."

Following the national title, Auburn lost 19 players, dismissed five others for their role in an armed robbery and had six more leave in the spring. When the 2011 season opened, only seven starters from the previous year returned. An AL.com report in January calculated that 43 percent of Chizik's 2009 and '10 signing classes were no longer on the team. That means that it's no surprise that against Vanderbilt on Saturday, 12 freshmen and sophomores started.

Reed's rant hits a key concern for Auburn fans: recruiting class rankings be damned if the talent can't stay on campus and improve noticeably in a system:

"Auburn should NEVER, NEVER go 1-5 to start a season. With the amount of talent that that guy is bringing, supposed talent, Top 5 and Top 10 recruiting classes three years straight. obviously there's no coaching or development involved here. That's what I'm worried about."

After the game Mason, the sole shining star of this year's offense, offers a response.

"Every week I'm trying to improve. You know, I'm not sure ... I'm trying. You know, I feel like we improve every week, but we just need to figure out a way how to get a W."

The way in this game was clear: No sooner than Stacy sets the all-time rushing record in Vanderbilt history does he fumble the ball away. Auburn has possession on their own 31-yard-line with 2:24 remaining and no timeouts, down by four.

"Doesn't matter!" Reed assures. To his point, Auburn hasn't scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter this season.

Moseley dumps off to Mason for four yards.

Moseley hits C.J. Uzomah near the left sideline for five yards, setting up a crucial 3rd-and-1. An bright orange clump of the dejected has formed at the point of no return. And when Uzomah - helping replace injured senior tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, lost for the year - escapes coverage over the middle and stretches for 18 yards, the dissenters are momentarily silent.

Moseley misses a pass.

Moseley is sacked under pressure.

Receiver Travante Stallworth drops an open pass.

Fourth down.

"COME THE [Expletive] ON!" one member of the crowd screams.

Receiver Sammie Coates breaks wide open down the sideline and Moseley heaves a prayer. He overthrows Coates by a step.

"SEE? We are losing to VANDERBILT," says Reed.

Expletive.

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