Wiedmer: Auburn's progress fast under Malzahn

Wiedmer: Auburn's progress fast under Malzahn

November 10th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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Tennessee defensive back LaDarrell McNeil (33) latches onto Auburn's Tre Mason (21).

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Dressed head to toe in Tennessee orange, the woman climbed aboard a Neyland Stadium elevator near the close of her favorite football team's 55-23 loss to Auburn on Saturday afternoon.

"We didn't get bad overnight," she said with a wan smile. "And we're not going to get good again overnight."

No, that coaching miracle is apparently reserved for first-year Tigers boss Gus Malzahn, who now has the most beloved residents of the Loveliest Village on the Plains standing 9-1 overall and 5-1 in the Southeastern Conference following a 3-9 overall record in 2012.

But just to refresh your memory ...

Upon finishing 0-8 within the SEC, Auburn fired Gene Chizik after four seasons and one national championship, replacing him with Malzahn, who just happened to be Chizik's offensive coordinator on that BCS title team.

In a somewhat parallel universe, the Tennessee football team about to finish 5-7 overall and 1-7 within the SEC last autumn, UT athletic director Dave Hart fired Derek Dooley after three seasons, replacing him with then-Cincinnati coach Butch Jones.

This is not to say that Jones wasn't a fine hire or that Malzahn would have been a better one for the Volunteers. Talent always comes to play in these matters, and anyone watching the Vols futilely chase the Tigers around Neyland's perfectly manicured grass should have been able to tell that this humiliation went far beyond a possible gap in coaching expertise.

Or as Jones colorfully pointed out afterward, there was a "vivid, vivid speed difference" between the two teams.

Yet even there, if one peers inside the Rivals.com recruiting rankings of the past four years, there is reason to pause for both programs.

Yes, Auburn has an edge. Over the past four years, going backward starting with last February's haul, the Tigers have finished eighth, 10th, seventh and fourth (2010) in the Rivals recruiting standings. But the Vols haven't exactly been grabbing kids off fraternity row. UT's last four classes were ranked 21st (2013), 17th, 13th and ninth (Dooley's first class in 2010).

Such a disparity might explain a 35-24 loss on home soil. But 55-23? Could it be that if the Texas Longhorns are determined to get rid of Mack Brown at the end of the year they might be looking at the wrong ball coach from the state of Alabama to boost the burnt orange? Could Malzahn not only be a far cheaper solution than Nick Saban, but also a better hire?

"Right now it feels like we've got the best coaching staff in the world," said Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy, who was in on 10 tackles Saturday. "We believe in each other and we've got a chip on our shoulder not to let what happened last year ever happen again."

The Vols have made similar acclamations this season, seemingly with much justification following their narrow overtime loss to Georgia and last-second victory over South Carolina. But the last three games against Top 10 foes Alabama, Missouri and Auburn have ended with the other guys on top by a combined score of 131-36, each loss arguably more dispiriting than the one before it.

Perhaps that's why Jones made this observation before the Auburn loss: "When you play well against Georgia and you beat South Carolina, you're not sneaking up on anybody."

And maybe that's what's happened to the Vols. The element of surprise is gone. Opponents have put more thought into breaking down UT's strengths and weaknesses and rightly have realized the weaknesses far outweigh the strengths.

But it was Auburn, not UT, that was winless last season in SEC play. And both Auburn and Tennessee were picked to finish fifth among seven teams in their respective divisions this year. Less than five months later, Auburn is ranked seventh nationally and the Vols are 4-6, which is exactly where they were at this point a season ago, though with admittedly far less talent than Dooley's final squad.

There is still time for Tennessee to salvage this season. The Vols have a week off before hosting Vanderbilt on Nov. 23, though the Commodores have an unofficial off week by hosting catatonic Kentucky. Then UT travels to the Bluegrass for the regular-season finale. Win out and a bowl awaits. Split and this year will look exactly like last year's 5-7 mark, which was exactly like UT's 2011 record.

As for Auburn, the Tigers are now home for their final two games against ancient and bitter rivals Georgia and Alabama. And should Auburn win out, it would reach the SEC title game, not Bama.

All of which brought a reporter to ask Tigers wide receiver C.J. Uzomah how much of this turnaround could be credited to Malzahn.

"One hundred percent," he said. "It's been a complete 180."

From reversals such as those and a vivid, vivid speed difference has at least one SEC team gotten really good again overnight.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com