AUBURN, Ala. --
In white writing, with orange trim, are those two omnipresent words: National Champions.
More than three months have passed since Tigers coach Gene Chizik hoisted the crystal trophy that night in Glendale, Ariz., but the glow has yet to dim here at Auburn, where moments like these only come around once every 53 years. In the parking lots Saturday, fans donned all variety of national championship T-shirts, many listing the scores of all 14 victories on the back.
Yet this picture of joyous revelry stands in almost total contrast to the perception of Auburn currently held by most outside of this secluded southern campus. From the incredulous fans of a certain school across the state to dismissive skeptics around the rest of the SEC to jaded college football fans in general -- the ones that comment on their favorite blogs or dole out snarky jabs on Twitter -- Auburn is not being viewed as the king of college football. It's become the sport's black hat.
Case in point: When I
Nearly six months after the initial headlines, there has yet to be a shred of evidence that reigning Heisman winner Cam Newton or his father received money to play for Auburn, yet for many, it's become accepted truth. When four disgruntled former players went on HBO's
"The people that really know us, they know all of that's hogwash," said Malzahn, the renowned coordinator who turned down a lucrative head-coaching offer from Vanderbilt last winter. "Coach Chizik runs as clean a program as anybody in the country. But we do realize when you're at the top, people are going to come after you -- especially if you haven't been there in a while and you're not one of those programs people expect to be there year-in, year-out."
And there's the rub.
While the Newton saga would have been just as consuming had he been the quarterback at Florida, Texas or any other more-established power, it might not have been so defining. Alabama was hit with NCAA sanctions three times in the 1990s and 2000s, but when the Tide won their 2009 title, the ensuing narrative was solely about Nick Saban's coaching acumen. When, like Chizik, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops (2000), Ohio State's Jim Tressel ('02) and Florida's Urban Meyer ('06) led their programs to surprise championships in just their second years on the job, we couldn't wait to proclaim that the Sooners, Buckeyes and Gators -- all of which have their own checkered off-field histories -- were
However in Auburn's case, cynicism far outweighs admiration. Many are waiting for the purportedly inevitable day when the Tigers have to give
The guess here is that those still wishing for the former scenario will be left disappointed for perpetuity, though not before providing thousands more hours of programming for Paul Finebaum's radio show. As for the latter -- they may well get their wish this fall.
The Auburn team that took the field for Saturday's offense vs. defense scrimmage bore stunningly little carryover from last year's title squad. In fact, more starters from last year's team participated in a pregame awards ceremony (seven) than will suit up this fall (six). Of those remaining six, sophomore running back Michael Dyer -- the star of January's game-winning drive against Oregon -- may be the only recognizable name outside the state of Alabama.
"Either you come back with a lot of starters and you have to protect yourself from complacency and all the things that come with that, or you kind of have to start over," said Chizik, who was Texas' defensive coordinator during and after its 2005 title run. "In our case, it's extreme the other way."
Chizik and staff have known this day was coming for nearly two years. They inherited a roster stacked with upperclassmen, and they signed top-five recruiting classes each of the past two years. But, in a staggering rash of attrition, only six of the 28 signees in predecessor Tommy Tuberville's last class (2008) -- guys that would currently be juniors or seniors -- are still with the team. Eighteen either failed to qualify academically, were dismissed or suffered serious injuries within 18 months of signing.
Adding to Auburn's number woes: Four players, most notably starting safety Michael McNeil, were dismissed in March following their arrests for first-degree robbery.
On offense, Malzahn is working with just 13 returning lettermen, including the two quarterbacks vying to replace Newton, junior Barrett Trotter and sophomore Clint Moseley. Neither are considered running QBs, so Auburn will lean heavily on tailbacks Dyer and Onterio McCalebb.
"This year we'll go back to the Ben Tate-type running game, and Michael will be a huge factor in that," said Malzahn, referring to the '09 season in which former tailback Tate ran for 1,362 yards. Tight end/H-back Philip Lutzenkirchen, who caught a 19-yard touchdown pass Saturday, will be one of the top receiving targets, along with wideouts Emory Blake, DeAngelo Benton and Trovon Reed. But they'll be depending on an offensive line with almost no experience at center or guard.
Defensively, Chizik is banking on several talented defensive linemen who contributed last season as freshmen -- returning starter Nosa Eguae, Corey Lemonier and Jeff Whitaker -- as well as junior Dee Ford. Junior Darren Bates returns at linebacker, but "you're going to see a lot of true freshmen playing there this year," Chizik said. "We don't have a choice." Returning corner Neiko Thorpe has moved to safety, with junior T'Sharvan Bell emerging as the top corner.
Even Wes Byrum, the kicker who nailed the BCS trophy-clinching field goal, is gone.
"We're not naive enough to not think we're going to go through some growing pains," Malzahn said. "That's pretty obvious."
If it sounds like Malzahn and Chizik are almost bracing fans for the possibility of a Liberty Bowl season, you wouldn't be wrong. It's an entirely realistic and historically atypical possibility for the defending champs. LSU, which went 8-5 the year after its 2007 title, holds the current futility record in the BCS era, though Les Miles' Tigers fell from 12-2, not 14-0.
Auburn is not without its saving graces. Malzahn, who will be working with his sixth different starting quarterback in six seasons as a college coordinator (framed pictures of the previous five line his office wall), is sure to tailor his unit to Trotter's or Moseley's strengths, and his penchant for deception and creativity can help mask the growing pains. Meanwhile, it's not like the Tigers aren't talented; they're young. And, much like last year's team, they'll be playing with a chip on their shoulders.
"Our coaches have been saying all spring that people are saying all our good players are gone," Blake said. "Just like all last year, people were doubting us, except Auburn fans. No one seemed to be on our side."
That doesn't figure to change anytime soon.
No matter the record this fall, The Auburn Family presses on with confidence that Chizik and Co. will have the Tigers right back in title contention come 2012. They plan to fight tooth and nail with Saban's Tide year-in, year-out.
"A lot of coaches on this staff had a chance to [take another job] in the midst of all of this [controversy]," Malzahn said. "That should tell everybody a lot about how we feel, how committed we are to Auburn and to try and do it again. Our goal is to get back to that game."
Yet news surfaced just last week of an open NCAA investigation into Tiger Prowl, a since-discontinued recruiting gimmick in which Auburn assistants visited high schools in the spring in stretch-limmo Hummers or a decorated bus. Any related infractions would almost certainly be secondary. But add in the fact investigators are known to have interviewed figures related to the recruitment of two Louisiana prospects on Auburn's roster (one of them Reed) last winter, as well as at least one of the ex-players from the HBO expose, and much of the world outside of Auburn is waiting for an inevitable hammer to fall.
"I don't feel like we have to defend our honor at all," said Chizik, noting the HBO allegations predated his tenure. "We feel very comfortable when we go to sleep at night with the direction this program is heading. There's no question in my mind what our intent and purpose is here at Auburn."
It's to deliver more moments like the kind they enjoyed here last fall. An hour before kickoff Saturday, the stadium jumbotron replayed Byrum's kick against Oregon, and the cluster of fans already inside roared like it was Jan. 10 all over again. Some believe the NCAA will one day say that victory never happened. It's far more certain that logo will still be dotting Auburn's campus for years to come.