HOOVER — What kind of football season will Auburn have?
The viewpoint depends on which crowd second-year coach Gene Chizik visits.
“There’s a sense of excitement, an extreme sense of excitement,” Chizik said about his speaking engagements to various Auburn clubs this season.
The SEC Media Days crowd? Not so much.
Media picked Auburn to finish third in the SEC West this season, behind Alabama and Arkansas. Ten of the record 177 voters picked Auburn to win the West, and seven picked them to win the SEC title.
But third in the West?
Well, the Auburn faithful have a different view.
“It’s the same passion and energy at every place (I speak),” Chizik said during his podium call Friday at the Wynfrey Hotel. “That’s really cool for me, because that was one of the things I wanted to do, as well, is really pull the Auburn family back together.
“I feel it and sense it when I go talk to people. It’s a really neat thing.”
The media’s pick might not match fans’ opinions about the coming season, but it’s not so awful. When matched against Auburn’s 8-5, 3-5 finish in 2009, a third-place finish would mark progress.
It would mean a two-spot improvement for Auburn, which finished tied with Arkansas in 2009 but lost on the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Razorbacks.
The West’s third-place team, Ole Miss, went 9-4 overall — 4-4 in the SEC — and won the Cotton Bowl.
Back to the present, it’s also notable that Auburn has been picked ahead of perennial contender LSU, as well as Mississippi State — which many see as a sleeper under second-year coach Dan Mullen.
But Chizik said he senses that Auburn fans are thinking higher, and it’s not hard to see why.
Auburn’s 2009 showing far exceeded dire preseason predictions, giving fans a sense that the Tigers’ 3-8 finish in 2008 was anomalous.
Auburn fans no doubt remain breathless after a dramatic victory against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
Then Chizik landed a top-five recruiting class. All but one of his signees qualified academically, and many will be on the field this season.
“I met with all of the freshmen (Thursday), and, basically, the message was that we recruited them, and we expect them to play,” Chizik said.
Throw in the addition of former Florida quarterback Cameron Newton, the nation’s top junior-college prospect a year ago.
Add that veteran defensive backs Zac Etheridge, Aairon Savage and Michael McNeil are back from injuries, filling what became a dangerously thin area in 2002.
Factor in the Auburn trustees’ recent vote to build a full-sized, indoor practice facility, and Auburn fans are once again all positive.
Suddenly, a coach who had to talk Auburn fans off ledges a year ago now must talk with a hint of caution about expectations.
“We feel extremely, extremely excited on the fact that we feel like we have the football team — based on last year — going in the right direction,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’ve arrived, and we know that.”
Even adding 30 newcomers — five in December and 25 in February — the Tigers have yet to hit the NCAA’s 85-scholarship limit. The defensive depth has not fully recovered, and Auburn will have several first-year players on the field.
With that in mind, progress can be tricky to measure. The Tigers could have a better record and end up in the same bowl tier.
The Outback Bowl skipped teams in the 2009 standings to take Auburn, largely because Auburn’s fan base was excited about its better-than-expected season.
Still, Auburn had chances in games it lost in 2009, most notably the rivalry games against Georgia and Alabama. The Tigers were driving for the tying touchdown late against Georgia and led Alabama until nearly a minute to play.
Penalties, untimely turnovers and a gassed defense stood between Auburn and more wins.
“We’ve got to finish,” linebacker Josh Bynes said. “That’s what our coaches are preaching.”
And Chizik is preaching to a highly energized choir this offseason.