When tens of thousands of Auburn fans made the cross-country trek to Arizona in January 2011, they could have sworn they saw the Tigers win their first national championship in more than half a century. They are sure they watched coach Gene Chizik lift the crystal football trophy signifying Auburn's status as the BCS champion and let out an enthusiastic cry of "War Eagle." They are certain they have fond memories of happily declaring in unison that "it is great to be an Auburn Tiger" as they departed University of Phoenix Stadium.
Now, a mere 21 months later, that moment seems like nothing more than a mirage. Did it even really happen? Is it possible that in slightly more than one full season, a team could freefall from its lofty championship perch into whatever messy abyss the Auburn football program is currently sinking into?
The poisoned Toomer's Oaks are not the only thing looking bleak and barren at Auburn these days. The football program that was the best in the nation in 2010 is now battling Kentucky for the dishonor of being the worst team in the SEC. Auburn took a large stumble toward the bottom of the conference last Saturday by losing 24-7 at home -- coming off a bye week, no less -- to a dysfunctional Arkansas team that had been blown out in its previous two SEC games by a combined margin of 110-10. The loss dropped Auburn to 1-4 on the season, with its only victory coming in overtime against Louisiana-Monroe.
Even if the Tigers beat New Mexico State and Alabama A&M later this season -- and right now nothing is guaranteed with this team -- they would still need to win three of their remaining five games to avoid finishing with a losing record. That task begins over the next two weeks with back-to-back road games against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, league foes that Auburn can usually handle.
This year, however, Ole Miss is a six-point favorite over the Tigers. Vandy is coming off a road victory against Missouri. If the Tigers are unable to sweep those two games, they'll need to come up with two wins against their three other SEC opponents to avoid finishing below .500. And the schedule is certainly daunting: The Tigers play Texas A&M and Georgia at home and top-ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
No matter how you analyze it, there appears to be a very good chance that Auburn is headed toward becoming the first program in 20 years to win the national championship and then finish with a losing record two seasons later. Georgia Tech shared the national title with Colorado in 1990 (Tech went 11-0-1 and won the UPI Coaches' Poll) before going 5-6 in 1992.
But at least those Yellow Jackets had some sort of excuse, as head coach Bobby Ross left to take over the San Diego Chargers after the 1991 season. And even with the coaching change, Tech started 4-1 in 1992 before losing five of its final six games to teams that finished the regular season with a combined record of 45-15. Tech basically slipped off a chair over those two years. Auburn is amid a full-blown tumble down a flight of stairs.
The program's decline seems even worse given the performance of some of the Tigers' familiar foes. The team Auburn defeated in the 2010 title game, Oregon, remains a championship contender and is currently ranked No. 2 in the nation. The team Auburn battles every year for recruits and in-state bragging rights, Alabama, is the defending BCS champ and the consensus favorite to capture a third title in four years. Meanwhile, the Tigers have thrown away all the momentum they gained from winning the national championship. In terms of the program's appeal to recruits and the satisfaction of the fan base, it's almost as if 2010 never happened.
It's somewhat amazing for a coach who brought Auburn its first national title in 53 years, but Chizik's job is in serious jeopardy. Chizik has been a head coach for approximately five and half seasons, two at Iowa State and the past three-plus at Auburn. His record during that time when he has had someone other than Cam Newton at quarterback: 22-33.
That seems to be the primary case against Chizik these days. Critics claim he is a one-hit wonder who managed to corral an amazing talent in Newton and ride him to a 14-0 campaign. Even with Newton, Auburn flirted with disaster for much of 2010, winning five games -- including the championship over Oregon -- by three points or fewer, and two others by eight points or fewer. And the difference in most of those games turned out to be Newton, who single-handedly made plays to win, most notably in the case of his serpentine touchdown run against LSU.
Now that Newton is gone, Chizik is back to being perceived as the same coach who went 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State before -- inexplicably to some -- he was hired at Auburn. That decision led many members of the normally staid Auburn fan base to howl in protest, led by a lone fan who greeted AD Jay Jacobs at the airport after Jacobs met with Chizik by yelling, "We want a leader not a loser; 5-19 is not what we need. No Chizik. No."
Chizik silenced those critics by winning the national championship just two years later. It seemed he had bought himself years of goodwill with the Auburn fan base, which had watched in dismay as Alabama won eight national titles since the Tigers' 1957 championship. Now, however, Newton gets all the credit for the 2010 season. Chizik is seen as the lucky guy who latched onto Superman's cape.
After Saturday's embarrassing loss to Arkansas, Chizik said he isn't worried about his future at the school. "I'm never concerned about my job security," he said. "I'm very comfortable with myself working really hard, and I plan on being at Auburn next year."
That may be, but Auburn fans planned to capitalize on a long-term national presence following the 2010 championship. Now they're worried about spending another half-century wandering through the college football desert. Chizik needs to turns things around quickly or his tenure -- much like the '10 title -- might soon seem like a hazy mirage.