Less than 10 years ago, in 2001, Gene Chizik was the defensive coordinator/secondary coach at UCF. Now, he's the coach of an Auburn program that looms as a dark horse in the SEC West race.
Clemson visits Saturday in one of the biggest games of the weekend. Auburn opened this season with victories over Arkansas State and Mississippi State, but Clemson will be the biggest test yet.
A reason some people like Auburn's chances to be a dark horse is its schedule. Arkansas, LSU and Georgia all visit the Plains, meaning the Iron Bowl on Nov. 26 could be a de facto SEC West title game.
For Chizik, 48, it's all about taking the next step after he debuted with an 8-5 record last season, capped by a wild Outback Bowl victory over Northwestern.
Chizik was hired at Auburn despite posting a two-year mark of 5-19 at Iowa State, including a 2-14 Big 12 record. But that didn't deter Auburn officials, who were impressed by Chizik's work as the Tigers' defensive coordinator from 2002-04 under Tommy Tuberville. Chizik also earned plaudits for his work as defensive coordinator at Texas from 2005-06, helping the Longhorns win the BCS championship in 2005.
Rivals.com spoke to Chizik as he prepared for the Clemson game.
What do you like about your team?
"We have a high number of seniors. We have 22 seniors who have been through a lot together -- some good, some bad. But they have been around and have played a lot of football, so obviously their experience level, especially in this league, is something that there really is no substitute for. So simply from an experience point of view, that was encouraging. We have had some guys, leadership-wise, step up to the plate and be serious about winning. Their attitude has been great. They had a great offseason. All of those things together have given us some encouraging thoughts about this year. But we are still a work in progress, there is no question. But we have some guys we believe in to get us there."
What areas of the team need the most work?
"On offense, I don't think that there is any question that we have to run the football better, and I am talking about at our tailback position. Being able to run the ball with our tailbacks and put together some consistent drives and get some first downs, eat the clock, that's big.
"Defensively, we have got to really step it up when it comes to explosive plays. There were some things we weren't consistent on defensively last year and at times we haven't been consistent enough on this year. Our special teams also can get better. On Thursday night [in a 17-14 win at Mississippi State], we got a field goal blocked and had an onsides kick on us, things that we have to do better on."
"There isn't a whole lot that I have not liked, and I'm not saying that he has arrived as a quarterback and that there aren't a lot of things that he can improve on.
His attitude has been very genuine and his heart has been right. He really is trying to be a really good football player. And that has been very impressive. I really appreciate his wanting to be great. That is a great thing.
"For the most part, he's protecting the football really well, which has been big. We are continuously harping on him about protecting the ball. And he has made some plays out of nothing, when there wasn't anything there. When you have the athletic ability that he has, he can escape things and make some big things happen.
"Look, he has a lot of work to do, but we are happy because he's willing to put in the time and the effort to become a better player."
Auburn's was the only staff in the SEC that returned intact from last season. Why do you think that was the case?
"I told them that I want this to be the best job that they ever had. And I want them to be here as long as they want to be here. Hopefully this being the best job that they ever had to this point is true. Some of them had opportunities to go other places, but it was important to me to maintain the continuity as much as I can. We were able to do that, which was great."
Is the program where you thought it would be at this stage of your tenure?
"I think we are close. I don't think we are where we need to be. We are close to where we thought we would be a year and two games into it. We will continue the recruiting process and all of the things that it will take for us to get better. But we have a lot of improvement to do over the next few weeks and over the next few months to continue this thing going in the right direction."
How tough is the SEC West?
"It is brutal. It's exactly what you think it is, week in and week out, who you are playing. It's just a tough league. You can't turn in a direction and find an easy game. There are no easy games. It's really tough. And on the East side, it doesn't get any easier. It's just the way the league is."
What do you think of Clemson?
"It will be a great challenge for us. They are a very physical team and are very sound in what they do and how they coach it. That is very evident. It's going to be a great test for us. It's an out-of-conference game with a great team. It will be a great challenge and fun for our guys. "ESPN GameDay" will be here. It's going to be exciting for our fans. I think it will be a great challenge for us and it will give us a really good idea of where we are heading into the rest of the year."
"We go to meetings and things like that together, and he's very professional. It's a very professional relationship."
What's it like to have to bang heads with Alabama within the state?
"I have 11 teams in this league that I bang heads with. I don't really look at that. I look at where we are at every day and where we have to go. It's not about everybody else. That's kind of how we attack every day."
What do you think of conference expansion and realignment?
"I really don't. I don't have time to speculate on those issues. We have an awesome commissioner [Mike Slive] who will do what he thinks is best for the league."