AUBURN — The news out of Knoxville on Sunday morning traveled across the SEC with little surprise. Volunteers football coach Derek Dooley was fired after a 41-18 thumping by in-state foe Vanderbilt on Saturday dropped Tennessee to 4-7 and 0-7 in the conference.
The move had been rumored for some time and is a bad omen for Auburn coach Gene Chizik. The SEC now has three coaching vacancies (Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee) come the end of the season, and like Auburn (3-8, 0-7 SEC), the Wildcats and Volunteers are both winless in conference, though one will get a win in this week’s head-to-head meeting, and also lost to Vanderbilt.
Chizik, who is 38-37 as a head coach, including 33-18 at Auburn, has been the subject of scrutiny and speculation for most of a historically poor season for the Tigers. Auburn is experiencing its worst season in 60 years and a loss to rival Alabama in this week’s Iron Bowl would end the first winless SEC season on the Plains since 1980 (0-6).
As he has all season, Chizik avoided questions regarding his job security.
“You’ve asked me that pretty much every week, and as I’ve said before, it’s very simple for me,” Chizik said. “We have a game against Alabama, and it’s the Iron Bowl, and that’s my No. 1 focus. I’m not focused on anything else but that.”
Chizik is under contract through 2015 but has a buyout in his contract which will depreciate to $7.5 million on Dec. 1.
The Tigers opened as 34-point underdogs to No. 2 Alabama (10-1, 6-1) in this weekend’s Iron Bowl — the largest point spread ever recorded in the rivalry, according to one Las Vegas sports betting expert.
The perception of just about everyone outside the Tigers’ locker room is Auburn stands no chance against Alabama on Saturday. Chizik wasn’t sure how his players will handle going into a game where nobody on the outside world believes they can win, but knows they won’t feel that way. “I don’t really know. I really, I feel like our guys know and feel like in every game that we go into we’ve got a chance,” he said. “I don’t know how much they pay attention to all that. I’m sure they hear it. We’re going to do our best to make sure that’s not how we feel when we go into a game, I can tell you that.”
Saturday’s 51-7 rout of Alabama A&M should not get Auburn too excited. The opponent this week is on a whole other level, and the Tigers have not fared well when facing SEC opponents.
“The challenge next week is going to be huge. Just the meaning of the game and what it means to the fan bases on both sides is huge,” Chizik said. “We have an enormous challenge in front of us, but we’re going to embrace it and have a lot of fun going over there and playing.
“It’s just the intensity and passion of the rivalry. It’s second to none, and I have been in a lot of different ones and great rivalries. “
That’s what makes college football great. This one is very unique. Obviously it’s in-state and there is a lot of passion that goes behind this one, more so than any of the other ones I’ve been in. It’s different in that regard.”
Still, crazy things do happen in rivalry games and an upset, no matter how unlikely, would do wonders for correcting a horrific season on the Plains and set a positive tone heading into next season — no matter who may be coaching the team.
“I think that anytime you get a win in the Iron Bowl, it really sets the tone for pretty much whatever’s happened previously in that year and I think it sets the tone for the next year, too,” Chizik said. “A win in the Iron Bowl for anybody is huge.”