Seven wins was the bar for Auburn head football coach Gene Chizik. Anything less would have been unacceptable. With two games left in the regular season, Chizik has reached that goal. Can his Tigers exceed it against Georgia and Alabama? Is Chizik really an improvement over former head coach Tommy Tuberville?
The bar was set at seven prior to the season. (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/247707-setting-the-bar-for-success-chiziks-magic-number-is-seven ). Chizik got there in 10 games and by some estimations has already exceeded expectations.
Chizik has earned a passing grade overall by meeting all the basic criteria set forth in the preview.
Auburn defeated the four teams against which the Tigers should have had superior talent: Furman, Misssissippi State, Ball State, and Louisiana Tech.
Chizik's Tigers split the bill against four teams perceived to have relatively equal talent, defeating Tennessee and West Virginia while losing to Kentucky and Arkansas.
Auburn picked up one win against one of the four teams on the schedule considered to have greater talent when the Tigers clocked Ole Miss. Two of the four remain on the slate: Georgia and Alabama. The fourth, LSU, punished Auburn on the road.
Finally, the Tigers earned one victory on the road, smoking Tennessee in Knoxville.
A seven-win season was the bar, the bare minimum for competency. Chizik's Tigers have three opportunities to exceed expectations at Athens, at home against Alabama, and then in an anticipated bowl game.
In a league filled with championship-level coaches, Chizik has yet to prove he belongs in the conversation. The next three games will go a long way in determining whether or not Chizik and the Tigers can get to that level.
Of the three losses, only one is truly distressing in retrospect.
You could understand the loss to Arkansas. Second consecutive game on the road, sunshine from a top 25 ranking and five straight wins filling player's heads, and a coaching staff so determined to prove something that it outcoached itself all contributed. Really should have seen that one coming.
No excuse for the way in which it played out, but the end result was predictable.
Same with the loss to LSU. Dropping a night game to the Bengals is not a sin. Again, the totality of the beatdown on the bayou was distressing because Chizik's Tigers weren't even competitive, but the loss itself was easily forgiven under the circumstances.
The loss to Kentucky, however, remains galling. The Mildcats were without their starting quarterback and best defensive player. They lay prostrate on the field for three quarters like an armadillo on the highway, fully expecting to be run over and squashed.
Auburn did not take advantage.
To date, the only SEC win on the books for Kentucky came against Auburn. The Bluegrass Kitties were pounded by Mississippi State.
Great coaches do occasionally have mystifying losses. Nick Saban lost to UAB at Baton Rouge, at night early in his career at LSU. His Alabama team lost to Louisiana Monroe in his inaugural season at the Capstone. Pete Carroll's USC teams have lost to Stanford and UCLA, even more confounding when you consider that his Trojans are annually propped up as a national title contender and have much more at stake.
That's not to say that Chizik is in Saban or Carroll's league, only that you can't make sweeping judgements from one utterly poor showing.
Is Auburn any better off under Chizik than it was his predecessor Tommy Tuberville?
In some ways, yes. In others, maybe not.
It's true that Auburn's schedule is already two games better than the 5-7 mark of 2008.
What's the difference?
A year ago, Auburn flatlined in the second half against West Virginia at Morgantown. In 2009, the Tigers battled back in the second half against the Mountaineers at home.
A year ago, Auburn could not muster any offense against Ole Miss in Oxford and fell, 17-7. In 2009, the Tigers throttled the Rebels in Auburn.
Much has been made of the improvement in offensive numbers from 2008 to 2009, but during the three-game losing streak, the Tiger offense was almost a carbon copy of the plodding mess that crashed and burned last season.
After 10 games last season, Auburn sat at 5-5, needing a win to earn bowl eligibility.
The Tigers had lost to Arkansas, LSU, and Vanderbilt. That's the equivalent of Arkansas, LSU, and Kentucky in 2009.
The difference? Tuberville's Tigers were competitive against the Razorbacks and Bengals. The fact that Auburn barely registered a pulse at LSU and was taken to the woodshed at Arkansas should be of some concern.
With the season on the verge of unraveling after the lackluster performance at LSU, Chizik was able to refocus his team's energy and turn out an impressive win over an Ole Miss team that had seemingly found its groove.
Chizik has the luxury of knowing that each week isn't a referendum on his job security. Tuberville, particularly over the last four years of his tenure, did not have that. Part of the reason his teams played more and more conservatively was that fear that any loss might be the one that put the final nail in his coffin. The frigid relationship with Auburn administration created that atmosphere.
Chizik has no such fears. With full support from the administration that hired him, Chizik has the freedom to build the program even if it means taking the occasional lump.
There's no question Chizik has brought a different energy to the Tigers. While it's far too early to say that Auburn is better off in the long run, the short-term results show promise.
If you could just combine the offensive energy that Chizik, through new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, has infused with the defensive tenacity for which Tuberville's teams were known, you'd have a powerful mix.
For Chizik to succeed at Auburn in the long term and succeed at the level to which Tiger fans grew accustomed under Tuberville, he will have to address the defensive issues.
Chizik has also brought a fresh perspective to recruiting. His Tigers have garnered the attention of a number of high profile prospects. Attention is one thing, signing them is another.
The recent committment of Arkansas prep running back Michael Dyer, considered one of the best backs in the country, is a definite step in the right direction.
Dyer could help Auburn build one of its best recruiting classes in years, an important part of helping Auburn catch the SEC's front runners.
Through 10 games, Chizik is exactly where he should be. He's met the basic goals for 2009.
His Tigers now have three opportunities to build greater expectations for 2010 and beyond.