Even as Auburn was en route to the BCS title, there was something unreal about the journey. Not that the 2010 Tigers weren’t the nation’s best team. But you wondered how they got that way.
This is a reference to Cam Newton, but not in the way you’d think. Nearly two years after it was reported that Newton’s dad had sought $180,000 to send his son to Mississippi State, we await the first bit of evidence that Auburn paid, or even offered, anything beyond a scholarship. The NCAA investigated at length and found nothing untoward. So far as can be discerned, Auburn won with Newton fair and square. That said …
Newton blew across the Plains in the time it takes to change, er, planes at Hartsfield-Jackson. (OK, slight exaggeration. But only slight.) He arrived from Blinn Junior College in January 2010, took his team to 14-0 the next January and, Heisman Trophy in tow, was gone. He was an Auburn student-athlete for roughly a year.
Auburn began its championship run ranked 22nd in the Associated Press preseason poll — one spot ahead of Georgia, six spots behind Georgia Tech. The Tigers were 8-5 in the season before Newton, 8-5 in the season after Newton. Today they’re 1-4, the victory coming in overtime against Louisiana-Monroe. They just lost 24-7 at home to an Arkansas team that was outscored by 100 points in its two previous SEC games. Which brings us to the other part of the disconnect.
The 2010 national championship was won by Gene Chizik’s team. Is Gene Chizik a national championship coach?
Counting two seasons at Iowa State, his career record is 36-33. His record without Cam Newton is 22-33. His record before Cam Newton was 13-24. His record since Cam Newton is 9-9.
A BCS title should buy a coach a long honeymoon, but let’s remember that Chizik works at Auburn. Where Terry Bowden resigned under pressure 11 months after he’d led the Tigers to the SEC championship game. Where school officials were moved to take a clandestine flight to Sellersburg, Ind., to woo Bobby Petrino, then of Louisville, to fill the head-coaching position occupied by Tommy Tuberville. Where Tuberville himself was gone four years after an undefeated season.
Things happen faster in the win-or-else SEC, and Auburn occupies the epicenter of Football Gone Wild. The Georgia-Georgia Tech relationship has been described as clean, old-fashioned hate. There’s nothing clean or old-fashioned about the feelings Auburn and Alabama have toward one another. Theirs is the dirtiest form of loathing, updated daily.
Alabama again reigns over college football. It has won two of the past three BCS titles and is in Position A to claim yet another. For one year, Newton and Chizik and Auburn usurped Nick Saban’s throne, but that year seems now — heck, it seemed so even then — as the one-off to end all one-offs.
So today we ask: Could the coach who claimed a national championship in January 2011 get fired before 2012 is done? Anywhere else, you’d say no. Auburn, however, is not anywhere else, and this is among the worst Auburn teams ever. It ranks 113th among 120 FBS teams in total offense, 117th in scoring, 110th in passing efficiency, 75th in total defense and dead last in turnover margin. This with a new offensive coordinator (the overmatched Scott Loeffler) and a new defensive coordinator (Brian VanGorder, of whom you’ve heard).
According to Rivals.com, Auburn’s signing classes from 2010 through 2012 ranked fourth, seventh and 10th nationally. Continuity, alas, has gone missing. Nick Fairley, who won the 2010 Lombardi Trophy, arrived as a JUCO transfer and left for the NFL after two seasons. Running back Michael Dyer was the offensive MVP of the BCS title game and was kicked off the squad 361 days later. Auburn has begun each of Chizik’s four seasons with a different quarterback; the latest, sophomore Kiehl Frazier, has thrown eight interceptions against two touchdown passes.
The Tigers’ next two games are at Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. (They’re a six-point underdog against the Rebels.) If Auburn loses both, it could well finish 0-8 in SEC play — two years after going 8-0. The SEC has seen all manner of strangeness, but such a plunge would have no precedent. Then again, Auburn’s rise to No. 1 didn’t have many antecedents, either. Yes, Herschel Walker lifted Georgia from 6-5 to an unbeaten national championship in his first collegiate season, but he stuck around a couple of more years and the Bulldogs stayed really good. And nobody wondered if Vince Dooley, who’d won three SEC titles before Herschel, could actually coach.
The former Auburn coach Pat Dye, who seldom makes a lick of sense, recently claimed he wouldn’t trade Chizik “for 10 Sabans.” If Chizik keeps losing, Auburn might soon swap him for one Bobby Petrino.
By Mark Bradley