Perfect? Far from it. Gene Chizik said as much in his opening post-game comments.
Still, beyond the big penalties and costly mistakes, Chizik found encouragement in Auburn’s 37-13 win over Louisiana Tech, and not just in the lopsided outcome.
Overall, the victory served as a reminder that this new season and new coaching regime bring new possibilities for the Tigers.
Not that any of the 81,143 fans exited Jordan-Hare Stadium pondering Auburn’s prospects of a BCS bowl, or even a December trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. But as debuts go, Chizik’s first game as the Auburn head coach has to merit more credence than those of his recent predecessors.
In Pat Dye’s first game in 1981, the Tigers barely beat a dreadful Texas Christian team. Terry Bowden’s first game in 1993, a 16-12 win over a middling Ole Miss team hardly seemed like a precursor to a perfect season. Tommy Tuberville’s first game in 1999 was a 22-15 win over Appalachian State.
So by comparison, Chizik’s debut was indeed impressive. Louisiana Tech won eight games a year ago, including the Independence Bowl. OK, that was against Northern Illinois. Still, Louisiana Tech represented a legitimate worry to a team that won just five games a year ago.
“That was a good football team we played tonight,” said Chizik.
The Bulldogs’ first touchdown was a gift, the result of three careless penalties in a stretch of four plays. From that point, it was clear that Derek Dooley’s team would not be content to come here, collect their fat paycheck, take a whipping and go back to their comfort zone of the Western Athletic Conference.
But as the night wore on, it was also clear that Auburn was superior in every aspect. It was also apparent that, despite whatever talent deficiencies they might have in some places, these Tigers are playing with a newfound bounce in their step.
That is no more apparent than at quarterback. A year ago, the never-ending rotation of Chris Todd and Kodi Burns was not only ineffective but an awkward distraction.
It’s evident that, in one of his first big decisions as a head coach, Chizik made the right call by naming Todd his starter and moving Burns to wide receiver using him in the Wildcat offense. They accounted for Auburn’s first three touchdowns, and in the conventional order. Burns took a direct snap from center and scored from a yard out.
“We told Kodi he was going to help us win football games,” Chizik said. “When he came off the field, I said, ‘See, I told you that you were going to help us win games.’ It was good to see that happen to somebody who is so selfless.”
Todd threw a pair of touchdown passes, including a 93-yarder to Terrell Zachery.
“Chris threw it out there, and ‘T’ ran under it,” Chizik said, “and the rest is history,”
Quite literally. It’s the longest play from scrimmage in Auburn history. Think about that for a moment. That history includes such luminaries as Bo Jackson, Sullivan-to-Beasley and Cadillac Williams.
Auburn had outplayed Louisiana Tech in the first half but had just a three-point lead to show for its efforts five minutes into the third quarter. And Tech was threatening to score.
But Daren Bates intercepted a pass two yards in front of the Auburn end zone. Two plays later, Todd found Zachery open downfield on the right sideline.
With that, it was as if a year of turmoil had been officially laid to rest and an offseason of unfounded optimism had been validated.
The Tigers outscored the Bulldogs 24-3 over the game’s final 25 minutes.
Chizik said he wasn’t nervous. He felt prepared.
“My biggest thing going into the game,” he said, “was trying to figure out who our football team was against a good football team.”
The answer to that question won’t come for some time yet. Up next Mississippi State, followed by West Virginia. Whatever’s Auburn fate is, this much is clear. Last year is history. That offseason hope might not be so unfounded after all.
Guerry Clegg, email@example.com