Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Popularity contests can be a funny thing when hiring football coaches.
Take Auburn’s Gene Chizik for example.
Had they been taking a straw poll in Auburn, Knoxville and Starkville last December when the three new coaches were announced in the SEC, Chizik would have finished a distant third to Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Tennessee’s Lane Kiffin in terms of approval rating.
Plus, Mullen had the connection to Urban Meyer, and Lane Kiffin had his legendary father, Monte Kiffin, joining him as defensive coordinator.
Chizik had a 5-19 record he was dragging around as the head coach at Iowa State the previous two years.
Even for some of the most loyal Auburn supporters, Chizik’s hiring came out of left field.
But now that we’re out of the court of public opinion and on the (football) field of tangible results, it’s clear that Chizik has made a more profound impact than any of his first-year cohorts.
The Tigers (5-0) are unbeaten and ranked 17th nationally this week. They own one of the most balanced offenses in the country, and they’ve already beaten Mississippi State and Tennessee head-to-head.
Kiffin’s Vols have burned it up on the recruiting trail here recently, but the Tigers haven’t been too far behind. In the latest ESPN rankings, Auburn was 12th nationally and sixth in the SEC behind Florida at No. 1, Georgia at No. 3, Alabama at No. 4, Tennessee at No. 5 and LSU at No. 6.
We can sit here all day and debate which of the three new head coaches faced the greatest challenge this first year in terms of personnel and talent.
The reality is that all three faced major rebuilding jobs and had to overcome a lack of depth and experience in key spots.
To this point, Chizik and his staff have been able to provide more answers.
It’s not like there weren’t question marks, either, when Chizik arrived on the Plains.
The quarterback situation back in the spring was as unsettled as it was anywhere in the league. Senior Chris Todd was coming off shoulder surgery and really a long shot at that point to win the job. But he’s healthy now and playing the best football of his career. He’s ranked eighth nationally in passing efficiency with 12 touchdown passes and only one interception.
There wasn’t much depth on the offensive line or at linebacker, and the leading returning receiver, Montez Billings, was initially suspended for four games and has since left the team. That meant the Tigers started this season with no true wide receiver on the team who caught more than eight passes last season. And the guy who caught eight passes a year ago, Tim Hawthorne, injured himself in the preseason and has played sparingly.
Remember, too, that two of the Tigers’ most experienced defensive backs, Mike McNeil and Aairon Savage, have also not played this season because of injuries. Savage was lost for the season with an Achilles injury. Both were starters throughout much of their careers.
The Tigers were short in numbers, period, to start the season. They had about 75 scholarship players and have since put some walk-ons on scholarship.
Chizik said 27 players who had never played in a college football road game made the trip to Tennessee last weekend.
Suffice it to say that it’s been an impressive start to this season for Chizik and his entire staff. He wasn’t a guy who created much of a buzz in the offseason, but he’s creating one now … when it counts.
“Coach Chizik has brought so much energy to the team, and he brought in a coaching staff that we all can relate to,” Auburn senior running back Ben Tate said. “People forget that this is basically the same team from last season, the one everybody picked to go to the SEC championship.
“We lost a few guys here and there. But other than that, it’s pretty much the same team, and now we have a great coaching staff behind us. We’re not surprised at all. This is what we were expecting. We were expecting to win this year.”