He won 85 games at Auburn, with an undefeated season and Auburn’s first SEC title in a decade, but he crashed when then-No. 1-ranked Alabama snapped a six-year losing streak against the Tigers with a definitive 36-0 victory.
The ugly loss at Tuscaloosa in 2008 ended Auburn’s worst season under Tuberville, a 5-7 malaise that saw the Tigers win only one of their final seven games.
Tuberville took a $5.1 million buyout from a contract extension he’d gotten one year prior and resigned, officially, ending an otherwise strong 10-year run.
Tuberville’s 2008 meltdown partly owes to a dropoff in recruiting, but most point to his disastrous turn to a spread offense and hiring of spread peddler Tony Franklin as his offensive coordinator.
By midseason, Tuberville had fired Franklin, and Auburn fans wrung their hands with the what-if question — what if Auburn had never switched to the trendy spread?
Nearly two years have passed, and Auburn fans reached a much different place with the spread. Current Auburn coach Gene Chizik and coordinator Gus Malzahn carried a spread-like offense to big numbers and a surprising 8-5 season in 2009.
Malzahn balks at his offense being called a spread, insisting it’s a two-back, run-first approach. Auburn’s 2009 statistics seem to bear that out.
Then again, his system hardly runs like the straight I-formation power game that Auburn fans considered the program’s hallmark for decades.
Year three of Auburn’s new era on offense starts Saturday when the Tigers play host to Arkansas State. As ex-Florida quarterback Cam Newton does his dual-threat best to showcase Malzahn’s system, many Auburn fans might just ask that what-if question again.
What if Auburn had never bought into college football’s offense of the day?
For starters, Tuberville might have stayed at Auburn for at least one more year.
Tuberville’s decision to hire Franklin and adopt Franklin’s spread blew up in 2008, and there was no fixing the damage before season’s end.
In all likelihood, Tuberville would have fared well enough to maintain his job, had he gone another year with Borges and the old approach.
It wasn’t so much the system that became Tuberville’s albatross. It was quarterback Chris Todd’s lingering shoulder problems plus the strained mix of Franklin and an entrenched staff of offensive assistants.
Tuberville had taken care of his stalwart, front-line assistants. It was always the coordinators who either moved on to better things or took the fall when things went south.
Bobby Petrino, Gene Chizik, Will Muschamp and David Gibbs moved onward and upward. Al Borges, Noel Mazzone and John Lovett just moved on under mutual-agreement circumstances.
The core assistants stayed, including Hugh Nall, Steve Ensminger, Eddie Gran and Greg Knox on the offensive side. All but Ensmigner had been with Tuberville for 14 years, and Ensminger had worked with Tuberville previously at Texas A&M.
Nall had an unsuccessful turn as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2003, and Ensminger had been a coordinator at other stops. All of those assistants had coached in conservative offensive schemes under Tuberville.
Into that mix, Auburn hired the blunt Franklin, who had literally made the spread his business. He had written a book on the offense and installed it in high schools around the country as a consultant.
With an assist from Gran, Tuberville hired Franklin away from Troy after parting ways with Borges in December of 2007.
By all accounts, Franklin and the established staff didn’t mix. The veteran assistants were slow to buy in, and they carried more sway with Tuberville.
It didn’t help that Todd, the quarterback Franklin brought with him, struggled mightily in his first year at Auburn. Shoulder problems that carried over from junior college severely limited Todd’s effectiveness and that of the offense.
But Auburn fans saw a failing quarterback.
They also saw a failing system that was so foreign to them, nothing like offenses they had come to love under Pat Dye. The Tigers finished 11th in the Southeastern Conference and 110th of 119 teams in scoring offense.
Fans ultimately saw Auburn failing, and pressure mounted. Established assistants wanted to retreat to what worked previously, and Franklin dug in.
Ultimately, Tuberville fired Franklin midseason.
To get an idea of why the spread didn’t work in 2008, one need only hear senior offensive tackle Lee Ziemba’s take on why a similar offense worked so much better in 2009.
“Everybody’s on the same page now,” he said. “It’s a much better situation.”
A popular cliché holds that, if it looks and walks like a duck, it’s a duck.
Malzahn swears his offense is no duck, no matter how it looks from the stands. His players follow his lead.
“This isn’t a spread offense,” Ziemba said. “It’s a two-back offense, and we run and then play-action pass. That’s what we are.
“A lot of people like to call us spread because we’re no-huddle, but, if you look at last year, I think we were about 55-45 run to pass.”
Indeed, Auburn’s offense was balanced in 2009. The Tigers averaged 212 rushing yards and 220 passing yards per game.
Auburn finished third in the SEC in scoring offense (33.3 points a game), fourth in rushing offense, fifth in passing offense and second in total offense (431.8 yards a game).
Running back Ben Tate finished third in the league at 104.8 yards a game, and Todd set an Auburn record with 22 touchdown passes.
Malzahn took many of the same players and made duck soup out of duck … well, one gets the picture.
The moons and stars aligned for Malzahn and Chizik in ways they never did for Franklin and Tuberville. For starters, Malzahn and Chizik inherited a healthy Todd, who had offseason surgery and entered 2009 in much better form.
Malzahn and Chizik were also part of an all-new staff, and they inherited players eager to buy in after an agonizing 2008. They found a coordinator just as eager to teach.
“He’s a perfectionist,” senior running back Mario Fannin said. “He’s a guy that’s going to be out there with you and make sure that you’re doing everything right.
“Coach Franklin, he’s a great coach. He taught us, but it was more like he expected us to know what we’re supposed to do, which is understandable. We’re college athletes, but Coach Malzahn breaks it down a little bit more for us and allows us to be successful.”
The moons and stars continue to align for Malzahn, who didn’t use all of his playbook in 2009. The plays that maximize a mobile quarterback will come on line with Newton this season.
Teammates say the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Newton wins sprints in practice. He used his speed and size to lead Blinn Junior College to a national championship in 2009, rushing for 655 yards and 16 touchdowns.
He also threw for 2,833 yards and 22 touchdowns, but his dual-threat talents are what make him so intriguing. They had him first in line behind Tim Tebow at Florida before a theft arrest prompted Newton to transfer.
Newton calls his mobility “a big deal” in Malzahn’s offense.
“It gives defenses an added dimension to prepare for,” he said. “It’s just not a person that just sits back there in the pocket and throws to receivers, which I’m capable of doing, but at times I feel like I have the capability to get myself and the offense out of trouble at times.”
Newton is also likely to carry on designed quarterback runs, which were staples in Florida’s spread system when the tall-and-bulky Tebow played there.
“I don’t really know, as far as how many runs that they have planned for me during the game-time situations,” Newton said. “But if my number is called, I’m going to do whatever they have me to do.”
Newton’s presence and the successful turnaround for Auburn in 2009 have Auburn fans enthusiastic about the immediate future. The Tigers enter 2010 ranked 22nd and considered by ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit as a team that could topple national champion Alabama in the SEC West Division.
Long gone among Auburn fans is any hint of discontentment over the direction of the offense. They seem quite happy, whatever the offense is called.
“It’s all spread, but different coaches have different philosophies,” Newton said. “It’s kind of fun to just see what a different coach has or a different coach’s method is.”