HOOVER, Ala. — Auburn’s summer motto, uttered repeatedly by strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall, captures all the elements you want: It’s short, sweet and easily fits on a T-shirt.
The message? “Eight ain’t it.”
“Eight games ain’t going to get it,” linebacker Josh Bynes said, referring to the Tigers’ win total from last year. “We’re trying to get from good to great. Eight games ain’t going to win a championship. Eight is not enough.”
Expectations are sky high for the Tigers, who have trended upward since Gene Chizik took over the program a year and a half ago, building on a modest three-win increase by landing a consensus top-five recruiting class that includes junior college phenom Cam Newton at quarterback.
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“If you just look at the overall state of the program — the facility upgrades, the recruiting classes, where the vision of the program is eventually headed — all of those things, I just think there’s an excitement, and I think it’s rightly so,” Chizik said.
The assembled reporters at SEC Football Media Days sees promise in Auburn, picking the Tigers third in the SEC Western Division poll, behind preseason second-place darling Arkansas (although the Tigers had 10 first-place votes to the Razorbacks’ six).
Auburn got seven votes to be SEC champion, trailing only Alabama (143 votes) and Florida (17), the two teams who have monopolized the title game the past two seasons.
While it might seem premature to have great expectations in Chizik’s’ second season, the window to challenge in the competitive SEC might be upon Auburn quicker than first thought. The Tigers have 20 seniors, twice as many as in the junior class, a group led by a tested offensive line that must be overhauled next year and indefatigable linebackers Bynes and Craig Stevens, whose replacements remain a mystery.
Auburn returns its entire coaching staff, a rarity on the Plains. The Tigers have the same coordinators in back-to-back years for the first time since 2006-07, when Al Borges handled the offense and Will Muschamp the defense. Only five players on the roster have had the same coordinator in consecutive years of their college career.
“It seems like every year that I’ve had a change there’s a definite beginning and a definite end to the year,” senior offensive tackle Lee Ziemba said. “Now, it just feels like one big year that’s gone over two seasons. It’s been good for me.”
“We know the players; the players know us,” Chizik said.
History suggests second-year success isn’t rare in the SEC. Alabama’s Nick Saban, Florida’s Urban Meyer and LSU’s Les Mies each won at least 11 games in their second season. Saban had the biggest jump, going from seven wins to 12.
Chizik, who won only five games in two seasons at Iowa State before getting the Auburn job, doesn’t think there is any extraordinary external pressure on him to make a similar jump.
“When you’re in this profession, your self-imposed pressure is maybe the most pressure that you feel,” he said.
The schedule sets up well. Although the Tigers must travel to Tuscaloosa to face defending champion Alabama, they avoid Florida and have eight games at Jordan-Hare Stadium, including their marquee non-conference matchup against Clemson.
It has Auburn thinking big.
“We actually feel like, ‘Dang, we’re going to win the SEC championship,’ ” Bynes said. “Last year, we were more saying it than feeling it. This year, since the spring, I told coach that I’ve got a feeling this is going to be the year.
“We know what we’re capable of doing. We have the ability, the talent, players at key positions. We just have to execute.”