Last year in winning the SEC and national championships, Auburn played a difficult schedule, as tough as anybody's in the country in 2010. Looking at the 2011 schedule for the Tigers, I think it is going to be even more challenging.
With Kentucky being replaced by Florida, and with road trips to Clemson, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia prior to the regular season home finale vs. Alabama, any team would be hard-pressed to play that lineup of opponents.
With the exception of Florida, Auburn defeated all of those teams last year, but the Tigers did enjoy the advantage of getting to play South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia at Jordan-Hare Stadium, which was certainly helpful for the Tigers.
If Auburn had to play at Clemson, at South Carolina, at Arkansas, at LSU and at Georgia last year, who knows if the Tigers would have won them all and ended the season as the national champs.
Alabama, which won the national title the year prior to Auburn doing it, had to hold off South Carolina late in a game played at Tuscaloosa that season. The Tide might not have won that day and advanced to the BCS title game if it had been playing South Carolina in Columbia where this past season the Gamecocks defeated Alabama by a comfortable margin. That is an example of how important scheduling is and how tough it is to win on the road in the SEC.
I am very familiar with another example of how scheduling can impact a team's chance to be a champion. I believe if the Auburn team I coached in 1983 had not played Texas in the second game of the season we would have won the national championship that year.
We had a four-game series with Texas with two games in Auburn and two in Austin. We won twice and they won twice. If we had played Louisiana-Monroe or somebody like that in 1983 instead of the Longhorns, I think we would have won all of our games that year, which would have been more than enough to allow us to win the national title. That 1983 team defeated Tennessee, FSU, Georgia Tech and a Top 10 Maryland team featuring All-American quarterback Boomer Esiason along with our regular Amen Corner group of opponents in that era--Florida, Georgia and Alabama, which was a killer deal because beating those three teams was very difficult to do. When we won each of those games we ended up as SEC champions.
Playing Texas looks good on your resume and improves your strength of schedule, but in reality if you are in the Southeastern Conference you better arrange your schedule as best you can to try to survive and win. In some conferences that might not be the case, especially in the past when some powerhouse teams like Nebraska and Oklahoma for example usually only had a couple of challenging conference games on their schedule. However, I see football improving across the country, and there are multiple reasons for that.
A big part of it is the rule change reducing the rosters from 105 scholarship 85. Having 20 fewer scholarship players makes a difference--a huge difference. Because of the lower limit a lot of good players who would have been on the rosters of traditional powers like Auburn, Georgia, LSU and others are now playing for other teams around the country and making them more competitive.
Look across college football from coast to coast and it is not hard to find examples of what the scholarship reductions have done for teams like Oregon State that have become very competitive. It was not that long ago that team, and others like Oregon State, had a hard time beating anybody on their schedule.
You certainly don't have to go all of the way to the West Coast to find examples of teams helped by the scholarship limits. They are here in this region in the SEC and Atlantic Coast Conference. Even the Big East teams located in Florida, the University of South Florida in Tampa and Central Florida in Orlando, are capable of beating you if you don't take them seriously because they are building programs using the players who would have been on the rosters of more well-known programs if those teams could sign 105 players.
In addition to those teams having more good players to work with, they have plenty of motivation when they get a chance to line up and play against an SEC team. If you have one of these teams on the schedule in this era of college football, you better be ready to play even if you are a power team in a power conference. It's a prestigious deal and a big opportunity for those folks to make a name for themselves if they can find a way to win. You can be sure their players are going to be at the top of their game and there is a good chance players on the power conference team are not going to be excited about playing the lesser known opponent and that is a tremendous psychological advantage for the underdogs going into the game.
Last season when Alabama played Georgia State, it was a laugher, the kind of game not many people wanted to see, but I understand why they scheduled the game. The same is true when other SEC teams, including Auburn, schedule some non-conference opponents they should beat with ease.
Of course, as fans we enjoy seeing the more interesting non-conference games like Auburn playing the Clemson Tigers or Georgia opening the upcoming season vs. Boise State. That will be a challenging game for the Bulldogs, but Georgia still has got football players over there and their quarterback is coming back so I think they will beat Boise State, but it probably won't be considered a big upset if Boise wins because that is one of the programs that has benefitted from the larger pool of prospects to chose from.
I think another reason we are seeing more parity in college football around the country is that more kids are playing the sport in high school and the quality of coaching they are getting has improved. That means in addition to less scholarships for the power teams to use, there is a deeper talent pool to choose from.
The improved coaching the players are receiving extends into the college ranks, too. I really believe there are more strong college coaches in this era than I have ever seen. You don't have to go far to find them either.
In this area, for example, South Carolina has Steve Spurrier, who is one of the most successful coaches in college history. Mark Richt has proven he can win at Georgia. Jimbo Fisher is a young head coach at FSU who a lot of people think will do well there and the same is true at Florida where Will Muschamp has taken over this season. Muschamp has to prove it, but everybody thinks he will do well as a head coach.
Dan Mullen, the coach at Mississippi State, has improved that program and whether you like the Mad Hatter or not he has had a tremendous amount of success at LSU. Bobby Petrino at Arkansas is another strong coach in the SEC who has helped make winning the SEC West tougher to do.
Coach Gene Chizik led the Tigers to a 14-0 record las season.
Here in Auburn we have Gene Chizik, who won a lot of national coach of the year awards last season, and he deserved them because I don't think there is anyone in the country who has done a better job than he has the past seasons since he took over at Auburn.
It is hard, cold, cruel, tough world out there in college football right now because there are so many good coaches who have a lot of good players. That is a lot for your team to deal with week after week. Combine that with so many major programs putting a lot of money into facilities in recent years to upgrade and it is no wonder why there are so many good teams out there with colleges Boise State, Tulsa and many others willing to put the time, energy and funding into upgrading their programs, too.
(If you have a question or a subject you would like me to write about in future columns, you can email it to PatDye@autigers.com.)
Editor's Note: This part of a series of columns that College Football Hall of Fame member Pat Dye is writing for AUTigers.com about the game he played and coached. An All-American at Georgia and one of the top head coaches in SEC history at Auburn who was also head coach at East Carolina and Wyoming, Dye participates in the Legends Poll, a Top 25 rating of the best teams in college football as determined by a panel of all-star former head coaches. Dye writes three columns a week--The Dye-Log, the Dye-Gest and Pat's Picks.