Auburn football players and coaches have endured almost two weeks of scorching criticism for the meltdown at Jordan-Hare on Nov. 17. The 31-7 loss to Alabama can't be adequately explained and never will be.
But maybe it's time to look, not at one game, but at the program Tommy Tuberville has built in his almost three seasons as Auburn's head coach. For an Auburn supporter, taking a closer look might be therapeutic.
As the 1998 season ended, Auburn's football program was as dispirited and dysfunctional as any I've ever been around. Terry Bowden had walked out at midseason, leaving in a huff because his feelings were hurt. Bill Oliver had restored some life to a team bound for nowhere, but it was becoming obvious by season's end that he wasn't going to get the head coaching job permanently.
Players accustomed to winning were hurt by not being able to win. They were hurt because they bonded with Oliver, only to see him be passed over for the job. Some were openly talking about leaving. Auburn football seemed to be at a low ebb. Conventional wisdom was it would take years for Auburn football to recover.
Tommy Tuberville was named head coach on Nov. 23. That decision wasn't universally applauded. Some wanted former Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan. Some wanted Oliver. Some were still angry over the perceived mistreatment of Bowden. Tuberville did not find a stable situation when he arrived from Ole Miss. The talent level was not up to SEC standards or even close.
It would have been laughable then to suggest that Auburn would win any kind of championship any time soon.
Look what has happened. Auburn won the West and played in the SEC Championship Game in Tuberville's second season, a remarkable feat. Regardless of what happens at LSU on Saturday, it has won at least a share of another division championship. The talent level has risen dramatically.
Perhaps more importantly, the character level has risen dramatically. Tuberville made tough decisions, showed some players who could have helped him win the door. Senior offensive tackle Kendall Simmons is a thoughtful and bright young man who has been part of it all. "I think one of the best things they did was get rid of some bad apples," Simmons says. "It doesn't take but five or six bad ones to start infecting everybody else."
Senior wide receiver Tim Carter was reflecting Wednesday on his career. He readily admits he wasn't thinking about championships at the end of that tumultuous 1998 season. "It started with the coaching staff and the kind of players and people they brought in," Carter said. "The attitude everyone carries is so different now. Because I was here before when there was a lot of confusion going on, I've seen a lot of change"
Tuberville knew when he arrived he had a lot of work to do to win over players who had lost their trust. It was his first priority. And he succeeded. "I love that man," senior defensive end James Callier says. "I don't care if he never wins another game. I'm an Auburn man and will always be an Auburn man. It's hard to describe how much he's meant to me."
Tuberville would have put Auburn back in a bowl game his first season if Ben Leard had not been injured and missed half the season. The Tigers won nine games and a division championship in his second season. They have won at least part of a division championship, beaten the No. 1 team in the nation and beaten an outstanding Georgia team on the road this season. The loss to Alabama notwithstanding, getting this team to this point with a chance to go back to Atlanta might be one of the better coaching jobs ever done here. It's happened with instability at quarterback and tailback and with rookies playing at crucial positions.
Against LSU, Auburn will start two freshmen or redshirt freshmen in the secondary, one at quarterback and one at tailback.
At Tuberville's insistence, facilities have improved remarkably. Within a few months, Auburn will have a weight training facility that will be among the nation's best. There is no better venue for a college football game than Jordan-Hare Stadium. The talent level in the freshman and sophomore classes is of championship caliber. Another successful recruiting class is imminent. There is not a hint of scandal.
Is Auburn good enough to beat LSU on the road and earn a second consecutive trip to the SEC Championship Game? That's hard to say. It was good enough to beat Florida and Georgia, the two best teams it has played so far. It wasn't good enough to keep from being blown out by Alabama and Arkansas. It all depends on how young players experiencing such games for the first time react.
What is obvious is that Auburn's football program is moving in the right direction and is moving faster than anyone had a right to expect.
BOWL TALK: Auburn's most likely holiday destination seems to be the Peach Bowl, though things could still change. Auburn could, of course, earn a Sugar Bowl bid by beating LSU and beating the Florida-Tennessee winner in the championship game. There is also some question about what the Outback Bowl's plans are. But if Auburn doesn't win the championship game and the Outback Bowl takes Georgia as expected, look for Auburn to go to the Peach Bowl and LSU to the Cotton Bowl, regardless of the outcome of Saturday night's game.
The Cotton Bowl is required by its agreement with the SEC to take the championship game loser if that teams is not going to the BCS, Citrus or Outback. Auburn, however, doesn't want to go to the Cotton Bowl. It prefers the Peach Bowl. If Alabama beats Southern Mississippi tonight, the SEC will have nine bowl eligible teams. Somebody is going to get left out, and it looks like that will be Ole Miss.
If Auburn goes to the Peach Bowl, its opponent will be North Carolina. If it goes to the Outback Bowl, the opponent will be Ohio State.