What difference can a coaching chance make? How's this: Against Mississippi State, it was worth 39 more offensive points, 15 more first downs, 274 more total yards, and a whole bunch of Auburn fans and players feeling a whole lot better about life in general.
Even given that it's only two games into the 2009 season, and those two games were against a WAC team (if a good one) and the SEC West's likely cellar dweller, the difference between this year and the annus horibilis of 2008 are already stark.
Pretty much all the same batch of players (give or take Onterrio McCalebb and Chris Todd's shoulder, which are not inconsiderable factors) who labored through gloom, despair and agony to shuffle off the field seven times last year are now a vibrant, confident and increasingly capable team.
After two weeks of blasting past the 550-yard mark in total offense, it might just be time to reconsider a lot of prior assessments regarding this team and its coaches. It's likely appropriate for those who derided Gus Malzhan as running a "high school offense" (including, er, me) to rethink that analysis, and it's definitely time to put to bed the much-repeated claim (again, including by myself) that AU lacks playmakers on offense. With the one-two punch of Ben Tate and McCalebb gouging out huge tracts of land and Todd guiding a precise air attack, Malzhan's troops look absolutely nothing like the stuck-in-stop offense of the Franklin/Nallsminger II debacle. The offensive line has been revitalized to the point where even their opponents can't stop talking about them.
You think going from three to 49 was impressive? Try going from 104th to fourth--that's the difference in Auburn's national ranking in total offense from last November to today: one hundred teams worth of better. If there's a similar magnitude turnaround in recent history, I'm not aware of it.
For all the success Tommy Tuberville had during his decade in Auburn, one of the most accurate criticisms of his coaching was that he lacked a killer instinct. I can only recall off-hand two games in which Tuberville let his offensive coordinator keep the pedal to the metal for the duration (ironically, both were against Mississippi State, or more accurately, against Jackie Sherrill, in 2002 and 2003). As noted Sunday by Kevin Scarbinsky in an unusually tough-on-Tubs column, much more common sight was Auburn getting a lead and then going into the much-derided "Tubershell" for the duration.
Tuberville's habit of playing not to lose grated on many, not least including one G. Chizik; according to many reports, the former defensive coordinator was not remotely happy to see his offensive counterparts ordered to shut things down in the second half, most notably against Georgia in 2002 and in the 2005 Sugar Bowl. For good or for ill, those days appear to be over in Auburn. In both of the first two games, the Tigers have gone full-bore two minute drill at the end of the second quarter (scoring both times), and continued to pour on the offense in the second half.
Not everything is perfect, of course, and It's still far too early to declare Auburn as returned to elite status, much less to proclaim that the Gene Chizik Era is a new Tiger golden age. The defense is still way too thin, and minus that nifty fake punt, the kicking game was nothing short of lousy against State (and let's give some credit where it's due: MSU has outstanding special teams, to say nothing of two great players in Anthony Dixon and Leon Berry; they just don't have much else).
But you can't so much as glance at this team and not see how much better it is compared to a year ago, and I'm not just talking about how they're playing between the sidelines. I'm talking about how they're acting and how they're clearly feeling.
Confidence is more contagious than the swine flu, and right now Gene Chizik has an epidemic on his hands.