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Gene Chizik's doubters at Auburn return after hiatus; more Mailbag

Of all the columns I've penned for SI.com, no headline came back to haunt me more obviously than: "Chizik Has Zero Chance to Succeed." The first gloating e-mails from Auburn fans started trickling in about halfway through the 2010 season, picked up steadily once the Tigers won the SEC Championship and kept on coming for months after the BCS title game.

Obviously, I was wrong. Gene Chizik succeeded at Auburn. He won a national championship. However, the gist of that column was not an indictment of the man's coaching ability. (In fact, I wrote "Having observed him first-hand ... I believe Chizik is a pretty good football coach.) My point was, given how universally unpopular the hire was -- forever encapsulated by that heckler at the airport -- Auburn fans would never fully embrace him. "Every little misstep he incurs -- the first bad loss, the first questionable decision -- is only going to fuel the skeptics that much more," I wrote.

Most of those skeptics went into hiding for a year or two. But boy are they back now.

Is there anyone who actually still thinks Gene Chizik is a competent head coach? Aside from striking gold with Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, his records at Iowa State and Auburn are mediocre or worse. And looking at this year's schedule, it's hard to envision the Tigers not finishing with at least five losses again (probably more like six or seven). Does the national championship buy him extra years or would Auburn dump him if he has a losing season?-- Keary, Lawrenceville, Ga.

When Gene Chizik was hired you questioned the hire, then he wins the national title, now the team looks bad. I know this is Year Four, but take away the Cam year and Auburn has been very mediocre. How soon will Chizik be on the hot seat and how much credit should Cam Newton and Tommy Tuberville (who recruited most of the other players) get for winning the title?-- Forest Worgum, Montesano, Wash.

It's pretty amazing, really. Rarely does a coach get so little credit and gain such little mileage from winning a national championship. Before the season, the Sporting News ranked all 124 FBS coaches; Chizik, one of just six active coaches with a BCS championship ring, came in 36th. Even Larry Coker enjoyed a longer honeymoon at Miami before the Butch Davis NFL pipeline ran dry and angry fans started flying banners over the Orange Bowl. Chizik's skeptics have never let him live down that 5-19 run at Iowa State. They were hesitant to give him credit even during the Tigers 14-0 in campaign in 2010, often citing offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn as the real brains behind the operation. And of course, there is a segment of the public that will always believe Auburn "bought" that championship, proof be damned.

To answer Forest's question, Chizik certainly deserves credit for the 2010 run. He hired Malzahn. He recruited Newton. And though it seemed like it at times, Newton and Fairley did not win those 14 games by themselves. You could tell that team had incredible chemistry, and that starts with the head coach. But take away that one magical season and Chizik is 16-12 at Auburn, 7-10 in the SEC. Last year's slide back to 8-5 wasn't all that surprising given Auburn lost two-thirds of its starters from the year before and suffered mass attrition from the 2008 and '09 recruiting classes. But Tigers fans expected to see improvement this season. So far, all they've seen is two losses, most notably a horrific showing at Mississippi State last week.

Plenty of teams have dug themselves out of 0-2 holes and have gone on to have nice seasons. Remember, just two weeks ago the Tigers took a top-15 Clemson team to the wire. It may be that Mississippi State is just a lot better than we thought. However, just as I lauded Chizik for hiring Malzahn, I've previously questioned his puzzling choice of Scot Loeffler as his new offensive coordinator, and the first two games have not assuaged my concerns. Quarterback Kiehl Frazier looks completely miscast for Auburn's offense. He's completing 49 percent of his passes, has four interceptions and has not been a factor in the running game. That's a major problem.

Even if this season does turn into a full-on disaster, it's unrealistic to think Auburn would dump Chizik just two years after winning the national title. I think. Then again, this is the same school that ousted Terry Bowden halfway through a season after winning 10 games the year before, secretly interviewed Bobby Petrino while Tuberville was gainfully employed and eventually paid $5 million to buy out Tuberville following his first losing season in nine years. I guess we'll find out soon enough how many folks on The Plains are still All In.

That Auburn vs. Louisiana-Monroe game this week just got a bit more interesting.-- Ben, Fort Collins, Colo.

Indeed. Maybe Kolton Browning can play all-time quarterback.

With the announcement that Notre Dame is joining the ACC and will be required to play five ACC teams in football every year, don't you think this will hurt recruiting? This move could eliminate traditionally annual games with Michigan, Purdue, Michigan State and take away from Notre Dame's Midwest presence, where most of its recruits are from to begin with. Even though they are well known across the country, they still hit the Midwest recruiting trail pretty hard.-- Shawn, Lima, Ohio

What a treat we have for you this week. A bonus question I scrambled to add after the Mailbag had already been published!

I suppose that's a risk, but look at this way: It's not like the current approach was working wonders. While Notre Dame's move was based primarily on other factors -- concerns about future scheduling, access to the ACC's bowl lineup and the deterioration of Big East basketball -- there's the possibility this could actually help in recruiting. It's a tall task trying to beat Ohio State and Michigan head-to-head for Midwest kids. Just last year, four-star offensive lineman Taylor Decker flipped from Notre Dame to Ohio State upon Urban Meyer's hire. However, Notre Dame's allure remains as strong, if not stronger, on the East Coast, where there's fewer competing powerhouses. Theoretically, the Irish will now play in that area more often. Even better, the Irish will now play regular games in the Southeast, by far the most important recruiting region in the country. While Notre Dame isn't likely to beat LSU or Alabama for a kid in those schools' backyards, it could attract interest from prospects open to leaving the region.

Keep in mind, the ACC only became a realistic option for Notre Dame within the past 12 months. Previously the league was adamant about insisting on full membership. For years, we'd always assumed if the school ever joined a new conference, it would be the Big Ten, but both parties seemed to sour on that notion during the recent realignment wave. Then the Big 12 made a push, but that never seemed a logical fit. This move makes more sense because Notre Dame has a lot more in common with schools like Boston College, Virginia and Duke than it does with Texas and Oklahoma or Ohio State and Michigan. It's always been a virtual East Coast school that happens to be in Indiana. And if and when Notre Dame finally decides take the conference plunge in football, it has a much better chance of competing for championships in the ACC than it would in those other leagues.

I think I woke up with a hangover... I'm a bit disoriented from watching the Big Ten yesterday. What is going on with the conference?-- Eric, Hoboken, N.J.

Simple answer: A bunch of teams took on challenging nonconference opponents, all on the same day -- and almost all of them lost. Kudos to Northwestern for bucking the trend against Vanderbilt, but that was the highlight of a day in which the Big Ten managed to collectively go 6-6. The entire conference just received a bid to the Little Caesars Bowl.

Nearly all the teams that went belly up had seemingly evident concerns entering the season, but we either chose to ignore or downplay them. Wisconsin lost six assistant coaches and an opening-day NFL starting quarterback in Russell Wilson. Danny O'Brien may be a fellow ACC transfer, but he looked like the farthest thing from Wilson against Oregon State. And Bielema's new staff was apparently enough of a problem to merit firing offensive line coach Mike Markuson two games into the season. Meanwhile, Nebraska's defense regressed significantly last season and lost its coordinator (Carl Pelini) and three best players (Lavonte David, Jared Crick and Alfonzo Dennard). We assumed Bo Pelini would fix it. We assumed wrong. And Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz lost the only offensive coordinator he's ever had and about 27 running backs; the Hawkeyes have scored 24 points in two games. The list goes on.

Many of these teams will rebound, but so far they've done nothing but validate my preseason belief that Michigan State is the class of the conference. The Spartans have their own unanswered concern (their passing game) and their own nonconference test this week (Notre Dame), but they may well be the conference's lone hope of producing an elite team this season. Now I know what you're going to say. What about 2-0 Indiana? Unfortunately, the Hoosiers lost starting quarterback Tre Roberson for the season against UMass. The Big Ten can't even seem to win without losing.

Stewart, RichRod and Todd Graham are finding early success in the desert with their version of the spread, yet both had limited success in their "rust belt" stops at Michigan and Pitt. Do you think certain programs are too ingrained in a certain style/culture to ever fully embrace an offense like that and are they selling themselves short by being so closed-minded?-- James Smith, Pittsburgh

While it's an interesting coincidence between the two, it's time to bury once and for all any notion that geography or culture should dictate the type of offense a team runs. Wide-open offenses are now being run in every pocket of the country, at every level of football. RichRod had ample success with the spread just down I-79 from Pitt while at West Virginia, and his defense, not the offense, was his ultimate undoing at Michigan. Urban Meyer is now running the spread at another former bastion of old-school Midwest football, and Braxton Miller will keep running for 100-plus yards whether it's 80 degrees or 20.

In the cases of both coaches, it's about the personnel they inherited. Rodriguez didn't have a functional quarterback his first year in Ann Arbor, and his offense, in turn, was a mess. Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson showed up the next year, the returning players had a season in the system and things quickly improved. At Arizona, Rodriguez has had the luxury of skipping through some of the growing pains since Mike Stoops already ran a fairly wide-open offense, and since senior quarterback Matt Scott is an ideal fit for the system. Similarly, Graham took over an Arizona State program that had been running much the same hurry-up scheme he hoped to employ, whereas at Pittsburgh he had the misfortune of succeeding a coach, Dave Wannstedt, who couldn't be more philosophically opposite in his approach. Thus Wannstedt left the Panthers with a roster built for power running.

In fact, after sitting through Pittsburgh's nightmarish performance last week against Cincinnati, one in which quarterback Tino Sunseri's offensive line seemed hell-bent on getting him decapitated in between interceptions, I have newfound respect for Graham's coaching. He managed to win six games there last year.

So I'm assuming the Arkansas faithful have filled up your inbox with apologies after chiding your preseason "flop" prognostication?-- Josh Lehman, Columbus, Ohio

Nope, not one.

30-27? UGA routed Mizzou you dumba**.-- Mike, Atlanta

Plenty of those, though.

I remember a time when it was a seemingly huge story whenever a I-AA school took down a I-A team. But ever since Appalachian State defeated Michigan in 2007, it seems to have become more common and has happened to BCS-conference teams in consecutive weeks to open the 2012 season (Youngstown State over Pitt and Sacramento State over Colorado). Is the gap between the FBS and FCS just narrower, or is it that coverage of games is just that much broader?-- Brian S., Snellville, Ga.

The answer is pretty simple: There's a lot more of these games than there were five or six years ago. The permanent addition of a 12th regular season game along with the NCAA watering down bowl eligibility rules (prior to 2006, a team could only count a win over a I-AA team once every four years) prompted a lot more major-conference schools to start adding these games, both to fill home dates and to benefit from FCS' opponents' relatively cheap paychecks (usually $300,000-$400,000, compared with the $1 million range for low-level FBS foes). The number of FBS vs. FCS games nearly doubled from 2005 (54) to 2012 (106). So it's not entirely surprising that a couple of upsets would occur among those 106 meetings.

Also, there's a big difference between Appalachian State beating Michigan and Sacramento State beating Colorado. The first involved the defending FCS champion beating a preseason top-five team led by future pros Chad Henne, Jake Long, Mike Hart and Mario Manningham. The latter involved a 4-7 FCS team from a year ago beating a 3-10 FBS team from a year ago. There's no question the gap between the top tier of FCS and the bottom rung of the major conferences has shrunk. But high-level upsets, like Appalachian State over Michigan and James Madison over Virginia Tech, are still truly shocking.

So, Stewart -- In Syracuse's two losses, the Orange have averaged more than 400 yards on offense (a huge improvement from what we've seen the last several seasons). They've also given up 42 points in each game, mostly due to mental miscues (as far as I can tell, they've otherwise played well on defense). I've heard people say they may very well be the best 0-2 team in the country right now. So how optimistic (or pessimistic) should I be about my Orange this season?-- Ray Kim, Troy, N.Y.

I'd definitely be optimistic. Your Orange outgained the No. 2 team in the country in a football game (455 yards to 445). Quarterback Ryan Nassib is completing 70 percent of his passes and averaging 402 yards per game. Senior receiver Marcus Sales, suspended all of last season, has picked up where he left off from his monster game in the 2010 Pinstripe Bowl; he and junior Jarod West comprise an explosive receiving tandem. And while I doubt mental miscues were solely responsible for Northwestern marching 75 yards for a game-winning drive or Matt Barkley throwing for six touchdowns last week, it's true the defense isn't as bad as the scores would indicate. One glaring problem, though: Punt coverage. Northwestern's Venric Mark had 82- and 52-yard returns in the opener, and USC's Robert Woods broke one 31 yards last week. Syracuse ranks dead last nationally in that department.

Louisville remains the Big East's team to beat, as the Cardinals have more high-level athletes across the board than any other school in the league. But Syracuse has a chance to put together a nice run going forward, keeping in mind it still has to play nonconference games at Minnesota and Missouri.

You said MetLife Stadium was half empty for the USC-Syracuse game. Can the ACC finally admit that Syracuse does not bring in the New York market? If they can't fill the stadium for the No. 2 team in the country, they are not going to do it for an ACC game.-- John Jessup, Clermont, Fla.

It's entirely possible the last time John Swofford hailed a New York cab, he took the ad on top too literally.

Hey Stewart, I was wondering your thoughts on Colorado. They are 0-2 with two bad losses and don't appear to be heading in the right direction. Can Jon Embree and crew turn it around? And do you think they can ever return to their glory years of the late '80s and early '90s?-- Carson Thomas, Frisco, Texas

I tweeted after the Sacramento State loss that Colorado is the closest thing you'll ever see to a post-Death Penalty program that never received the Death Penalty. The Buffs have never recovered from the sex scandal that rocked that program in the mid-2000s. Though no NCAA violations were committed, the stigma and rigid self-imposed restrictions regarding prospects' visits hamstrung then-coach Gary Barnett's recruiting efforts. Barnett's successor, Boise State's Dan Hawkins, proved unfit to recruit at the highest level, and, due in part to the athletic department's financial woes, AD Mike Bohn stuck with Hawkins at least a year longer than he should have. Then when Bohn did make a change, he went the cheap route again, entrusting a daunting major-conference rebuilding job to a first-time head coach.

It's too soon to write off Embree, who seems a nice enough guy and is certainly a better recruiter than Hawkins. But he sure seems in over his head. At $725,000 a year -- the lowest salary in the Pac-12 by far -- you get what you pay for. There's also a bit of bad timing here. Less than a year after Embree's hire, Larry Scott made everybody filthy rich with the conference's new TV deals, allowing a school like Washington State to afford a coach like Mike Leach ($2 million). The Pac-12 is a great fit for Colorado, and eventually it, too, will be able to take advantage of those resources. With the right coach, it could return to its former perch. But right now it's even farther from that level than it was during Hawkins' tenure.

Stewart, I see you still hate Georgia!! I guess you are jumping on hating Georgia and the entire SEC because you guys are tired of the SEC winning all the time! You might have went 9-1 last week, but with picks like Missouri over Georgia, I BET YOU HAVE A BAD WEEK!! When Georgia gets through running the ball DOWN THEIR THROATS, maybe, just maybe you will finally catch on!! Georgia WINS THIS GOING AWAY, 34-20, WRITE IT DOWN!! SEC HATER!!-- Lamar Westbrook, Dallas, Ga.

Whoa. You were absolutely right about me having a bad week (4-6), you came within a Georgia touchdown of nailing the score exactly AND you became the first reader to ever accuse me of SEC hatred for picking one SEC team to beat another.

Well done, sir.

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