There'd been a couple of bumps along the way, but Florida and Georgia had been beaten. Few doubted that Alabama would be next, then on to Atlanta for the next straight season.
Auburn athletics hasn't been a lot of fun since that day. The nosedive started when Alabama walked out of Jordan-Hare Stadium with a 31-7 victory that left anger and hurt feelings that cost people their jobs and haven't gone away to this day. There would be another loss to LSU, meaning no trip to Atlanta, and yet another to a less-than-average North Carolina team in the Peach Bowl.
Ah, but basketball was coming. Auburn had lost point guard Jamison Brewer to the NBA draft, but there were five players returning who had started at one time or another and a recruiting class ranked by many in the nation's top five. There were some bumps along the way in basketball, too. There was an 0-2 start in the SEC with shot-blocking center Kyle Davis out with an elbow injury. But Davis' stirring return weeks ahead of schedule sparked a stunning 59-56 victory over Alabama. Five straight losses later, Auburn is 1-7 in the SEC, 9-10 overall and going nowhere.
Adding to the malaise, women's coach Joe Ciampi seemed to have his best team in years. But Tia Miller, his best player, went out for the year with an ACL injury. Brandi Hillman, the top inside reserve, was lost for several weeks. Suddenly, what seemed to be an outstanding team was a struggling team.
It would seem only Steve Renfroe's baseball team, which starts its season next week, is left to stop this from being one of the all-time downer years for Auburn in the more prominent sport football, basketball and baseball. That could be a tall order. The Tigers have a potentially dominant pitching staff, but they're young and unproven on offense. Time will tell.
Back to football and basketball, it is fair to ask what happened, how the marquee programs fell so far so fast and what that says about the future. Though no one would have predicted the total meltdown against Alabama, there were signs even when the football team was winning that things were fragile. The offense struggled to score points, there was uncertainty at the quarterback position, the defense was dominant at times and seemingly incapable of slowing anyone down at times.
Against Alabama, all the negatives came together in a loss that will go down as perhaps the most devastating in Auburn's football history. After that, the Tigers were a team without confidence. They played hard against LSU and against North Carolina, but they were done for the year. There are similarities in basketball. It is as difficult to win without a point guard in basketball as it is to win without a quarterback in football. Auburn started off trying freshman Dwayne Mitchell, a natural wing player, at point guard. That didn't work. Junior Marquis Daniels had some good moments, but he struggled once SEC play started. His scoring was needed more than his ball-handling.
The Tigers have struggled to score enough points to give themselves opportunities to win, failing four times in eight games to get out of the 50s. They are the worst shooting team in the league from the field and the free throw line. The specter of going 1-15 in the SEC just three years after going 14-2 is very real. Oh, it probably won't happen, but it's difficult to see a game remaining on the schedule in which Auburn is not an underdog.
If you're looking for a bright side in either sport, look to the future. Brandon Robinson, Marco Killingsworth, Lewis Monroe and friends will be very good SEC players. They will surely lead Auburn back from the mess that this season has become. The same is true in football. There is plenty of young talent and another good recruiting class on the way. By 2003, the Tigers should be talented enough and experienced enough to look any team in the eye.
For now, the basketball team has a season to finish. Barring a miraculous turnaround, it will end in early March with an early loss in the SEC Tournament. By then, baseball season and spring football practice will be under way and the future will beckon.