Even after winning national title, cloud still hangs over Auburn
Always the lovable little brother, Auburn finally reached the peak last season
But title run was fraught with controversy and NCAA trouble; it still lingers
Auburn defense is struggling without Nick Fairley and daunting slate remains
Remember when the Auburn Tigers were the Chicago Cubs of college football? Lovable when they lost and tortured when they won.
In 2004 it appeared Auburn might have the nation's best team, finishing 14-0. Yet the Tigers were denied a shot at playing for the BCS title because USC and Oklahoma started the season Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, and neither lost (Auburn started at No. 17). Auburn fans were blue after finishing No. 2, but finally shrugged it off after a good cry, realizing this always happens when you haven't won a title since 1957.
Auburn's tough luck and woe is what made college football's favorite little brother so lovable. Most followers of a school are simply called fans. These folks demand to be called "the Auburn family.''
Then a strange thing happened. The school's luck started to change with juco transfers Cam Newton and Nick Fairley. Some 14 games later, Auburn won the national title and Newton was the runaway winner of the Heisman Trophy. All was right.
Or so we thought.
In the days immediately following Auburn's 22-19 victory over Oregon in the national title game, the jokes began.
Famous sports artist Daniel Moore has been commissioned to do a national championship picture for Auburn. He's doing it on pencil in case it has to be erased.
Many college football fans were still incredulous over the NCAA's investigation into Newton's eligibility, which led to an incendiary ruling on Dec. 1, 2010. The star quarterback's eligibility had been reinstated by the NCAA less than 24 hours after he had been declared ineligible by the school, just days before the SEC Championship Game. The NCAA's decision and nearly inexplicable explanation to support it was widely criticized and reeked of a deal between Auburn, the SEC and the NCAA. However, the NCAA did not have a smoking gun and said there was no evidence that Newton knew his father, Cecil, was talking to someone associated with Mississippi State about a $180,000 payment for Cam to sign with the Bulldogs, and no evidence Auburn had done anything improper.
Which seems more plausible? Cecil Newton saying: "Cam, I want you to go to Auburn because of its academics and because it is closer to our home of Atlanta,'' or "Cam, those ingrates at Mississippi State won't pay your fair market value like other schools, so you're going to Auburn''?
Things took an epic turn in February when authorities charged Harvey Updyke, an Alabama zealot, with poisoning the iconic Toomer's Trees at Auburn. Thus continued what had to be the most forgettable offseason for any reigning college football national champion in recent memory.
Then, in early June Tigers coach Gene Chizik asked what may have been the most ill-timed question of the year. According to The New York Times, Chizik asked Julie Roe Lach, the NCAA's vice president of enforcement, about the infamous Newton investigation and why the NCAA had not publicly announced it was over.
The question was addressed at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla., not in a dark hallway. Chizik -- who lost to South Carolina's Steve Spurrier for SEC Coach of the Year in a ballot by his fellow coaches (despite beating Spurrier once in the regular season and 56-17 in the conference title game) -- asked the question in front of every head football coach, head basketball coach and athletic director in the league. Can you spell arrogance? Or is that stupidity?
According to the Times, Chizik complained Auburn was being hurt on the recruiting trail and he followed up three times.
"You'll know when we're finished," Roe Lach told Chizik. "And we're not finished."
Finally, the season started three weeks ago for Auburn, and it was almost over in three hours. It took two touchdowns and a virtuoso onside kick for Auburn to come from behind in the final 2:07 to beat Utah State 42-38.
The following week, it was Mississippi State that stormed from 14 down, only to be stopped on the one-inch line as time expired, giving Auburn another-heart stopper.
But it all caught up to Auburn last Saturday in Death Valley. The BCS champs jumped up 21-7, only to be outclassed in the game's final three quarters, losing 38-24 to Clemson, ending the nation's longest winningest streak at 17 games.
And to think, the real season hasn't even begun yet. Next week (after a scrimmage Saturday against hapless Florida Atlantic), Auburn travels to South Carolina, followed by a trip to Arkansas. A home game against Florida is followed by a road game against LSU. Later, the Tigers must still travel to Georgia before ending the season against Alabama.
Already, Auburn fans (I mean "family'') are ready to jump ship on defensive coordinator Ted Roof, whose unit currently ranks No. 117 out of 120 nationally in total defense (534 yard per game). And to think Auburn hasn't even played a high-powered offense yet. Serious blame must be placed on the head coach who is considered a defensive wizard. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, considered the brightest nova in coaching (and making $1.3 million), must be wondering where his stock will be when this season ends.
Even the animal kingdom seems jinxed by Auburn's reversal of fortune. Of the many wonderful aspects of going to a game at Jordan-Hare Stadium, perhaps the most amazing is the pregame flight of Spirit, the school's bald eagle. However, that's only when Spirit's flight makes a nonstop landing at midfield. Before the Mississippi State game, Spirit got his GPS out of whack and made a detour into the window of a luxury box before landing. He must have thought an NCAA investigator was hiding behind the glass.
Spirit is off the injured reserve, but predictably PETA is conducting an investigation, although no official notice of allegations has been delivered yet.
Of course, things could be worse. The NCAA could still come down on Auburn, strip the BCS title and Newton's Heisman. Perhaps that wouldn't be the worst thing. At least then Auburn would return to the comfort zone of being college football's lovable little brother, a role it seemingly handles better than being on college football's mountaintop.
Paul Finebaum's radio show is heard weekdays 3-7 p.m. ET on Sirius/XM Channel 91. Follow him on Twitter @finebaum.
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