What happened? How could a football team that looked so good six weeks ago look so bad in Monday's 24-10 loss to Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl? There are no easy answers.
From what I could tell, the preparation for this game was the same as for the previous three bowls, all Auburn victories. Auburn players said all the right things, though only they know what they felt inside.
Wisconsin approached the game with fierce determination. The Badgers were playing for Barry Alvarez, their coach who will now concentrate on his duties as athletic director. And they were sick and tired of hearing that they had no chance against Auburn.
After all, they pointed out to anyone who would listen, they had won nine games. They had won some big games. They had one of the nation's top offenses. And maybe we all should have paid more attention instead of laughing when their defensive coaches said they liked the matchup against Auburn's offense.
Maybe we should have noticed that offensive coordinator Al Borges and defensive coordinator David Gibbs had struggled at previous schools against Alvarez and Wisconsin. Gibbs, who coached against Wisconsin four times as defensive coordinator at Minnesota, is now 0-5 against the Badgers. Borges, who coached against Wisconsin twice in the Rose Bowl at UCLA and twice in the regular season at Indiana, is now 1-4.
For whatever reason, it was obvious early that Wisconsin was playing on a different emotional level than Auburn was. From the time quarterback Brandon Cox underthrew wide-open Devin Aromashodu on the game's second play, turning what should have been a touchdown into an interception, the Tigers seemed to be on their heels.
Auburn's defense was abused by a trio of really outstanding Wisconsin players. Tailback Brian Calhoun was everything he was reputed to be. So was wide receiver Brandon Williams. The Wisconsin player who surprised me the most was quarterback John Stocco. With the possible exception of Georgia's D.J. Shockley, I didn't see one as good in the SEC this season.
But the defense doesn't deserve all the blame. It was predictable that Auburn's defense would have some struggles against Wisconsin's offense. The shock was that Auburn's offense struggled so against Wisconsin's defense, one that was giving up more than 430 yards per game.
Brandon Cox couldn't take advantage of a Badger defense designed to stop the run.
Wisconsin stacked the box and dared Auburn to throw. Cox, so consistent and accurate since his first-game struggles against Georgia Tech, played the worst game of his college career. Receivers were open, but his throws were wide, high, low, you name it. When he made good throws, receivers frequently dropped them. If Cox could have hit enough passes to force Wisconsin to back off, it might have been a different story. He couldn't.
The result was that the Tigers didn't do what they have done all season. They didn't keep the ball and keep their defense on the sideline. Playing on a hot day, some defensive players had to take IV fluids at halftime. They finally ran out of gas, allowing a 98-yard drive that consumed the final nine minutes of the game. The Badgers, with a month to prepare, knew where the soft spots were. And they pounded those soft spots unmercifully. Another touchdown was there for the taking, but Stocco took a knee at the one-yard line and time ran out.
Auburn has plenty of company in its disappointment. Bowl season has been open season on highly ranked teams. Amazingly, the teams ranked No. 5 (Notre Dame), No. 6 (Oregon), No. 7 (Auburn), No. 8 (Georgia) and No. 9 (Miami) in the Associated Press poll all lost their bowl games. Only Notre Dame was an underdog.
So what does Monday's meltdown mean to Auburn football? It means the Tigers missed out on a chance to finish in the top five and the seniors will have to share the school record for most wins. Other than that, it really doesn't mean much.
It does not change the fact that the Tigers beat Georgia in Athens and dominated Alabama to win their fourth consecutive Iron Bowl. It doesn't change the fact that they have won 17 of their last 18 against SEC opponents and now 24 of their last 27 games. It doesn't change the direction of Tommy Tuberville's program. And it is not likely to sway a single recruit to abandon Auburn and sign with another school.
It might or might not affect where Auburn is ranked in the preseason in 2006. But the truth is that really is unlikely to matter. Yes, it mattered a lot in 2004. But that was only time in the BCS era that more than two BCS teams finished with perfect records.
Before Monday, Auburn and Georgia were widely considered the SEC's top two teams. Both played below their own expectations and both lost. You'd have to say that LSU, after its 40-3 trouncing of Miami, can stake a claim for being in that picture. Its loss to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game came at the end of 12 consecutive games without a break. Alabama? The Tide is still a step below, having lost at home to LSU and having been beaten badly by Auburn.
At Auburn, the offseason program begins next Monday. Signing day is four weeks from Wednesday. Spring practice is two months away.
Life and football go on.