Auburn not deterred by dramatic slide
Even as it was happening, Auburn’s run to the national championship last season had the feel of a lightning-in-the-bottle situation.
The presence of a quarterback having one of the best seasons in college football history helped Auburn continually come from behind in the fourth quarter, and the Tigers finished off their season with a last-play win over Oregon in the national championship game.
With Heisman winner Cam Newton off to the NFL, a fall from title contention was anticipated this season. But not everyone projected the drop to be this steep.
If Auburn (7-5) falls to Virginia (8-4) in Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Bowl in the Georgia Dome, the Tigers would become the first team to lose six games a year after winning the BCS championship. In the meantime, SEC West Division rivals Alabama and LSU are about to face off for the national title.
Plus, with neither coordinator on coach Gene Chizik’s staff coming back next season, there’s reason to wonder how far away Auburn is from competing for BCS bids again.
But don’t expect to hear any doubts from the players.
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“We’re heading in the right direction,” sophomore defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “You have a group of guys who are all concentrating on one thing, and that’s getting better every single day. We’re headed in the right direction.”
To be fair, Auburn wasn’t the typical defending champion that heads into its title defense with a preseason top-10 ranking. If fact, SEC media predicted Auburn would finish fifth in the six-team SEC West. By that logic, Auburn actually exceeded expectations by placing fourth – ahead of Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
Auburn returned only two players on offense and three on defense who made at least seven starts in 2010. While the offense adjusted to life without Newton, the defense had to replace star tackle Nick Fairley, who was a first-round pick by Detroit.
The gravity of the situation became apparent in the season opener, when Auburn eked out a 42-38 victory over Utah State only after scoring two touchdowns in the final 2:07. Auburn continued to show its knack for winning close games the following week in a 41-34 triumph over Mississippi State.
But the Tigers’ aura began to fade in a 38-24 loss at Clemson that ended a 17-game winning streak. Auburn followed up that loss with back-to-back victories over Florida Atlantic and South Carolina, but the Tigers then dropped four of their last seven regular-season games. Those four losses came by an average of 31.3 points.
The late-season slump hasn’t altered the Tigers’ work ethic.
Nor has it lowered their confidence.
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“We didn’t exactly have the season we wanted,” sophomore linebacker Jake Holland said. “Championships are always the goal. But at the same time, we keep working every day, and we’re going to win our eighth game.”
While a 7-5 record shouldn’t be a major disappointment for a team that relied on so many underclassmen, the turbulence of the past month offers more cause for concern.
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Starting tailback Michael Dyer, who has provided the bulk of the team’s rushing offense, was suspended for the Chick-fil-A Bowl because of a violation of a team rule. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for the same position at UCF, which means Chizik will serve as his own defensive coordinator in the bowl. T.J. Yeldon, a five-star running back prospect from Daphne, Ala., switched his recruiting commitment from Auburn to archrival Alabama. Perhaps the biggest shocker came in mid-December, when offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left for the Arkansas State coaching job. A year ago, Malzahn had turned down a multi-million dollar offer to coach at Vanderbilt. He is taking a pay cut to move to Arkansas State.
“From a coaching standpoint, we look at it a little different than the media or fans do,” said Malzahn, who will remain at Auburn through the bowl game. “A certain job may look really good to certain people. We’ve got to ask ourselves, ‘Is this a place you can recruit and that you’re familiar with?’ Arkansas State is that to me [Malzahn was a long-time high school coach in the state]. Is it a program on the rise? Arkansas State is certainly on the rise. They won 10 games and have a chance to win 11. The foundation is set.
“I’m a dreamer, and I’m into building things. Think about when I came here. Offensively, we were needing improvement, and I really wanted to dream big and we were able to do some things offensively. The same thing is set up [at Arkansas State]. I really think we can do something special at Arkansas State.”
Malzahn’s replacement will have to fix Auburn’s quarterback situation. The Tigers never settled on a clear-cut successor to Newton. Junior Barrett Trotter started the first seven games before giving way to sophomore Clint Moseley. True freshman Kiehl Frazier has been sharing first-team reps with Moseley during bowl practices. The quarterback situation obviously has had a detrimental effect on the offense as a whole; after finishing seventh in the nation in scoring (41.2 points per game) last season, Auburn ranks 82nd in that category (24.3) this season.
Chizik’s biggest challenge is finding a coordinator to upgrade Auburn’s defense. Even during its championship season, Auburn ranked 60th nationally in total defense (368.4) and 53rd in scoring defense (24.1). Auburn is 78th in total defense (405.8) and 80th in scoring defense (29.3) this season.
“We have great confidence in Coach Chizik, that he will give us the best coordinators in the nation, great leaders,” Holland said. “We don’t have any concern as far as that goes.”
If Chizik finds the right guys, Auburn could bounce back as soon as next season. Auburn’s starting offense for its 42-14 loss to Alabama in the regular-season finale had four juniors, two sophomores, two seniors, two true freshmen and one redshirt freshman. The starting defense featured six sophomores, two juniors, two seniors and one true freshman.
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With so many starters returning next season, Auburn has reason for optimism. The Tigers might not be ready to contend for an SEC title, but they also shouldn’t head into their bowl with five losses.
This season has given them plenty of experience. And it also has given them plenty of motivation.
“It’s huge,” Eguae said. “We lost our rivalry game. Anytime you lose your rivalry game at Auburn, it means something not just to the coaches and not just the players but everyone in the Auburn family.
“We have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
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