Auburn head coach Gene Chizik has been around the game long enough to know the stakes. He knows that his hiring was not popular among Auburn fans. He understands that the key to Auburn's future success lies in recruiting. He recognizes that in order to quell the fan unease and to help build recruiting momentum, his first Auburn team has to, at the very least, show improvement.
When Chizik announced last week that Chris Todd had earned the role as Auburn's starting quarterback he had to know that the decision would have detractors.
Knowing that and also being aware of the urgency of getting off to a positive start, the decision to start Todd is a bold move.
It defies conventional wisdom and emphasizes the fact that Chizik intends for his team to win, and win now.
Todd followed disgraced offensive coordinator Tony Frankin to Auburn, a circuitous journey that led him from high school in Kentucky to Texas Tech to junior college in Kansas to signing with Troy and then to Auburn at the behest of Franklin, who considered him the perfect fit to run his spread system.
At Auburn, Todd supplanted heir apparent quarterback Kodi Burns.
Once he gained the starting role, however, Todd was inconsistent at best.
Fairly or unfairly, he was one of many scapegoats for a season gone wrong as Auburn spiraled to a 5-7 record and parted ways with long-time head coach Tommy Tuberville.
There's no question Todd struggled. He showed little mobility, appeared slower than Alexander Hamilton's grandmother, was hesitant in the pocket, failed to pull the trigger at critical times, made some shockingly bad decisions and in general often resembled an undersized deer trapped in the headlights of an 18-wheeler.
Auburn was also 4-2 in games he started, beating Mississippi State, Tennessee, Southern Miss and Louisiana Monroe while losing close games to LSU and Vanderbilt.
It was the Vanderbilt loss that turned Todd's season.
He started strong, leading Auburn on two first quarter drives that rekindled optimism the Tiger offense had finally found its rhythm.
The first drive covered ten plays and 53 yards but ended on failed fourth down attempt.
Undaunted, Todd and the Tigers put together a nine-play touchdown drive on the next possession.
An interception and one play later, Todd hit Mario Fanin with a 28-yard touchdown pass.
The PAT failed, but Auburn led 13-0 in the first quarter and appeared on the verge of fulfilling their offensive promise.
Then the wheels fell off.
After gaining 129 total yards in their first three series, the Auburn offense collapsed.
Auburn managed just 29 yards the remainder of the first half.
After a dismal third quarter that saw the Tigers gain a meager 26 total yards, Todd was replaced.
He was 8 of 16 for just 70 yards with an interception and four drive-crushing sacks when he was pulled.
The momentum of the 13-0 start evaporated in a 14-13 defeat, a loss for which Todd shouldered much of the blame.
Todd saw action the following week against Arkansas but was ineffective, hitting just three of ten passes for 18 yards. He was sacked three times. His last pass was intercepted.
Todd did not play again the remainder of the season.
It was revealed in the off season that Todd had suffered a shoulder injury that may have limited his effectiveness and contributed to his hesitancy in the pocket.
He underwent shoulder surgery and by most accounts regained some of the pop his passes clearly lacked last year.
Shoulder surgery, however successful, will not improve Todd's mobility or speed. It won't help him elude rushing defenders.
Given the potential for fan backlash; given that Todd is a senior and as such has just one remaining season; given that Todd so clearly struggled a year ago, the fact that Chizik and staff opted to put their future in the hands of Todd could signal that the talent level at Auburn, at least at the quarterback position, is perhaps more dire than anticipated.
Burns and fellow junior Neil Caudle had the entire off season and a full slate of spring practices to establish themselves and take command of the team. Neither did.
Instead a mannequin mobile, time him with a calendar, benched starter with a reconstructed shoulder managed to unseat them both in just nine practices.
If Todd comes back, plays well and helps Auburn surpass expectations you've got the feel-good story of the SEC and perhaps the nation.
If he returns to the field and shows the same inability to move the team he did a year ago and you could be looking at a trainwreck that would make last season's debacle seem like a Caribbean vacation.
The easy thing for Chizik and offensive coordinator Gus Malzhan to do would be to name Burns, Caudle or freshman signee Tyrick Rollison the starter and start to build for the future.
Few would question any of the three being handed the reins. Most would accept the bumps in the road that come with the changing of the guard.
That the Auburn coaching staff is willing to take the risk of playing Todd sends a clear message.
They are not looking two or three years down the road. Chizik and company intend to win now. They believe Chris Todd gives their Tigers the best chance to accomplish that goal.
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