Still, things quickly went disastrously wrong on the Plains.
The Tigers had discipline problems on the field, serious issues between the lines and a collapse that led to Chizik’s dismissal Sunday after four seasons that brought glory and embarrassment alike.
Athletic director Jay Jacobs decided it was time to stop the rollercoaster ride.
“It was just last year our inability to compete oftentimes and this year the losses, I began to get concerned,” Jacobs said on Sunday.
He had reason to be concerned.
Many things led to the unprecedented two-year free-fall by an Associated Press national champ.
Many of the highly touted prospects haven’t panned out yet, attrition and off-the-field problems have taken their toll and the quarterback play has been shaky since Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton’s one season of domination.
The result was a 3-9 season when Auburn couldn’t win a Southeastern Conference game or muster much of a fight in its last three league games against top-tier league opponents Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama.
The Tigers were outscored 150-21 in their last three games.
It seems sudden. But it wasn’t.
The warning signs began to crept up last season when Auburn wasn’t competitive against LSU, Georgia or Alabama — teams the Tigers had beaten the previous season with Newton often lifting the team from deficits. But those were top 10 teams. Auburn couldn’t beat anyone in the SEC this year. And how they were losing became a major issue.
“The Mississippi State game, five turnovers, OK,” Jacobs said. “But after the Arkansas game I became very concerned in our fundamental approach to the game.”
The Tigers were beaten 24-7 by a struggling Razorbacks team and then things got even worse.
“It was like the dam just broke,” said JC Shurburtt, national recruiting director for 247Sports.
Still, Jacobs believes there will be no shortage of quality candidates interested in the coaching vacancy.
“I think we’re going to have the best pool we’ve possibly ever had to hire a head coach,” Jacobs said. “Competing in the SEC and in particular the SEC West, people that want to win championships and people that have the personality we need to have to win championships, those are the people that will be coming to the front of the line. For those that are faint-hearted, they need to get in line.”
Shurburtt said Auburn underachieved this year. The Tigers brought in three straight top 10 recruiting classes, but it didn’t translate on the field.
“I don’t think it was a 3-9 collection of talent,” Shurburtt said. “I think that team quit with three or four games to go.”
Lack of accountability might have had something to do with that.
Former Auburn offensive lineman Cole Cubelic said there wasn’t much repercussion for poor play — or poor behavior. The Tigers ranked 115th nationally in total offense and 82nd in total defense.
“The fact that you have kids that are playing very poor football and are never taken out of the game or never lose their positions, to me, is inexcusable,” said Cubelic, who hosts a Huntsville radio show. “When I played, if you had a bad series or even a bad play or two, you were taken out. Just to prove a point. These guys never even tried to prove a point with any of these kids.”
Cubelic feels that probably contributed to problems off the field.
Auburn had a series of incidents that included two arrests for public intoxication over the summer.
“I do believe discipline was a big problem,” he said. “I don’t know how and when that started necessarily. It’s a huge issue.”
One that possibly began with what Shurburtt calls “derecruiting.”
That’s the process where the coaches go from the courting players during the recruiting process to the reality of hard work that translates talent to production.
“Certainly a lot of these kids are not living up to their potential,” Shurburtt said. “I think that’s pretty obvious.”
The Tigers have another top 10 recruiting class lined next season.
Whether Auburn can hold onto the players — or can win with them — likely will depend on who the Tigers bring in as their next coach and how quickly.