A year after Cam Newton and Auburn’s slightly lesser beings descended on Atlanta and destroyed South Carolina for the SEC championship (to be followed by a BCS title), the Tigers returned to the Georgia Dome to finish a season with blemishes Saturday night.
Auburn didn’t go undefeated. It didn’t win a conference championship or go to a BCS bowl.
This time, Auburn showed up with a lame-duck offensive coordinator, no defensive coordinator, a backup running back (because the starter was suspended), and a team whose last three SEC losses came to LSU, Georgia and Alabama by a composite score of 132-28.
It’s hard to say exactly what the Tigers projected with their performance Saturday for next season in the SEC. But at the very least, they showed they’re not coming apart. They rushed for 273 yards without the suspended Michael Dyer. They blocked two points, recovered an onside kick and basically took apart Virginia 43-24 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
So all is well again. For now. Auburn will be back in the Dome to start next season against Clemson in nine months.
“Our future is extremely bright,” coach Gene Chizik said. “Any time you can win your last game it’s big. It give you momentum going into the offseason and going into next year. It gives you an idea the direction that you are going. I’m just happy for our players, with all that they’ve had to endure this year. We had a lot of highs and we had some lows. The highs were high and the lows were low.”
Very low, lately. There was reason to wonder about the stability of the Auburn program. Gus Malzahn, Auburn’s touted offensive coordinator, announced he was leaving Chizik’s staff for a head coaching job in the Sun Belt Conference (Arkansas State). Defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for the same position with a team (Central Florida) in Conference USA. (Malzahn coached in the bowl game, Roof didn’t.)
As a general rule, SEC coordinators from the defending BCS championship team’s coaching staff don’t bolt for jobs in the Sun Belt and Conference USA.
So some have wondered: What’s going on in Gene Chizik’s kingdom?
He’ll tell you nothing.
Chizik also says little about why running back Michael Dyer was suspended for the Chick-fil-A Bowl (though suspensions this time of year generally are academically related). When asked about Dyer’s future, Chizik’s words seemed to leave the door open to the running back’s career at Auburn being over. Quoting: “If he does the things we’ve asked him to do, you’ll see him back in a uniform. If he doesn’t, you won’t.”
Add to this that SEC West Division schools Alabama and LSU will be playing each for the BCS championship, and it’s easy to see why the afterglow of the Tigers’ national title has long since faded.
Fortunately for Auburn, its opponent Saturday night was Virginia. So the chances of Auburn becoming the first defending BCS champion to lose six games the following season were … well, again, the opponent was Virginia.
The Cavaliers showed up looking like a Sherwin Williams plant had exploded on their uniforms. Orange jerseys and bright orange helmets, possibly visible from Neptune, with blue pants made it clear Virginia just didn’t know how to dress for a bowl game. But then, postseason appearances don’t come naturally to the Cavs.
After taking an early 7-0 lead, Virginia imploded. It had a punt blocked (leading to a two-play, 15-yard Auburn touchdown drive). It fumbled on its own 32 (Auburn couldn’t drive and missed a field goal). Early in the second quarter, Auburn drove to a touchdown to tie the score at 14-14, then surprised Virginia with an onside kick and recovered. That led to another Tigers touchdown.
Later in the quarter, on fourth-and-6 from the Auburn 15, Virginia had one of the worst fake field goals in history: a slow developing running back by a slow runner. It failed — and then Auburn drove 88 yards in 3:32 to another touchdown. From the time Virginia led 14-7, Auburn went on a 28-3 tear to take a 35-17 lead. Malzahn looked like he wanted to sample something from every part of the playbook before he left town.
Dyer’s replacement, Onterio McCalebb: He ran for a touchdown and 96 yards (including a 60-yarder) in the first half alone.
Auburn hadn’t looked this good since, well, Auburn was good. It didn’t even matter that the Tigers lost starting quarterback Clint Moseley in the first quarter to an ankle injury. Remember, this is a team that in the last five weeks of the season got body-slammed by LSU (45-10), Georgia (45-7) and Alabama (42-14). The Tigers’ only wins in that stretch came over Mississippi and Samford, who don’t really count.
If Auburn is coming apart, it didn’t show Saturday.
By Jeff Schultz