HOOVER, Ala. - An Auburn fan told his girlfriend he’d marry her if the Tigers ever won the national championship.
“Were you together when the kick went through?” Auburn coach Gene Chizik asked him, referring to Wes Byrum’s game-winning field goal as time expired to beat Oregon 22-19.
The fan said yes.
“What did she say?” Chizik asked.
“She said, ?Better ante up now, big boy,’” the fan replied.
Despite a season’s worth of controversy and distractions, the 2010 BCS national championship trophy belongs to Auburn.
Now, however, the honeymoon may be over.
Gone is Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton, the man who scored 51 of the Tigers’ 75 touchdowns last season.
“I don’t think there’s ever going to be another Cameron Newton in college football,” junior tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen said. “He did things that were freakish, honestly.”
Gone is All-America defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who devoured opposing quarterbacks like they were a Saturday afternoon snack. Gone is fourth-fifths of Auburn’s starting offensive line.
Gone, even, is Byrum and his history-making right foot.
Six starters return at Auburn. No other SEC team brings back fewer than 12 (including kickers).
It would be overstating things to say that Auburn is starting over despite all that it’s lost. But the Tigers (14-0, 8-0 Southeastern Conference) are as close to being back to square one as any reigning national champion in recent memory.
“I think probably what said it best is, one day in spring practice I asked our guys to raise their hand if they’ve started or played in more than five games at Auburn,” Chizik said Thursday during his turn at SEC Football Media Days.
“Wasn’t very many that went up.”
That doesn’t mean Auburn’s players are putting both hands in the air in a sign of surrender. Just the opposite, the Tigers are welcoming the forecasts of doom and a low tide of expectations.
“It’s like last year when people underestimated us,” Lutzenkirchen said. “It’s the way we like it.”
“I think a lot of people in the media get it misconstrued that being young is a lack of talent,” defensive end Nosa Equae said. “That’s not the case at Auburn. We have a lot of talent, and come Sept. 3, we’re looking to show off that talent on a stage.”
There are definitely still assets at Auburn. Hardly anyone noticed that sophomore running back Michael Dyer, offensive MVP of the BCS title game, set an Auburn freshman rushing record with 1,093 yards last season (Newton led the SEC with 1,473 yards rushing). Lutzenkirchen is on the watch list for the Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end.
The quarterback position remains unsettled, though. Junior Barrett Trotter has a slim edge over sophomore Clint Moseley coming out of spring practice, though there is speculation that freshman Kiehl Frazier could come in during August preseason camp and claim the job.
Then, there’s the matter of the continued NCAA investigation into Newton’s recruitment, an investigation Chizik confirmed is still ongoing thanks to what was reportedly a heated exchange with NCAA vice president of enforcement Julie Roe Lach during last month’s SEC Spring Meetings.
“You’ll know when we’re finished,” the New York Times said Lach told Chizik, “and we’re not finished.”
One of the paper’s sources was LSU men’s basketball coach Trent Johnson, who was at the meeting.
Even self-described sports analyst and Mobile, Ala., native Danny Sheridan was at media days Thursday telling reporters he believes the NCAA is about to name someone who paid Newton to play for Auburn.
Chizik, as he did for much of last season, tries to remain above the fray.
“I don’t operate on rumors and innuendos, anything of that nature,” he said.
“I sleep really good every night that my head hits the pillow. That’s what I can control. I know every day we’re doing things the right way.”
Chizik has other concerns, such as who will replace Fairley at defensive tackle. The likely candidate is sophomore Ken Carter, who played in just half of Auburn’s 14 games last season and recorded just six tackles.
At least, Chizik said, his young players have an orange and blueprint for how things should be done the winning way.
“Our football team this time last year didn’t know what ?great’ looked like,” Chizik said. They also know, Chizik said, that right now their team is a far cry from that.