Looking back over the past 40 years of Auburn football, only four teams finished the season with a winning percentage better than 90 percent. That factors out to one every decade, which was indeed the case. Auburn finished 10-1 in 1972, 11-1 in 1983, 11-0 in 1993 and 13-0 in 2004.
Auburn fans are hoping for a special season in 2010, but how is a special season defined? Over the past 40 seasons 16 Auburn teams have finished with a winning percentage of at least 75 percent. This includes 13 teams with a percentage more than 80 percent.
Craig Stevens and his teammates won eight games last year including a bowl victory over Northwestern.
If a special season is defined by an actual championship, only five teams have finished with a conference championship. For the sake of argument, the 1972 team defeated Alabama, but because the Crimson Tide played one more conference game Auburn was eliminated from a conference title. The 1993 Auburn Tigers would have played in the Southeastern Conference Championship if not for NCAA sanctions.
If a special season is defined by 10 wins or more, 10 Auburn teams have reached that goal since 1970. Because the NCAA expanded the regular season to 12 games, winning 10 games isn't as exclusive as it once was so the same winning percentage would equate to 11 wins, and playing 13 games rather than 12. If you define a special season by 10 wins and a championship, it's happened four times in the last four decades (1983, 1988, 1989 and 2004). If Auburn is able to exceed expectations for the upcoming season, most will likely consider it a special year.
What is needed for a special season?
1.) Schedule: As special as the 1993 and 2004 seasons were, Auburn faced a combined total of seven FBS teams that finished the season with a winning record. Last season alone the 2009 Auburn Tigers faced nine FBS opponents that finished the season with a winning record. Looking at the 2010 schedule, Auburn faces eight FBS opponents that finished the season with a winning record in 2009, but six of those opponents will come to Auburn in 2010. Who and where you play will often have a direct influence on the type of season you will have.
2. ) Defense: During the 16 times Auburn finished with a winning percentage of at least 75 percent over the past 40 seasons, the defense allowed an average of 294 yards and 14 points per game. It might be the oldest cliché in football, but defense does win championships. If Auburn is to win 10 games or more in 2010 the defense will have to perform at a much higher level than 2009. It won't require a Top 10 or even a Top 20 finish, but a significant improvement will be required.
3) Quarterback Performance: During the 16 seasons Auburn had a winning percentage of 75 percent or better, Auburn's starting quarterback had an average QB rating of 134.5. During the remaining 24 seasons, the average quarterback rating was 116.5.
If there is one position that often defines the outcome of a season, it's the quarterback. He is clearly an essential component of the Gus Malzahn offense, which means Cameron Newton will need to be consistent and efficient if Auburn is to reach their preseason goals.
4) Winning the line of scrimmage: One measure of determining which team is winning the battle up front is the rushing yards gained and the rushing yards allowed. During the 16 seasons Auburn won 75 percent of its games the Tigers averaged 195 yards rushing while allowing 126 yards (+69). During the remaining 24 seasons Auburn averaged 189 yards rushing, but allowed 149 yards (+40). Auburn will field four senior starters on the offensive line in 2010, which should be invaluable. The key to success will be on the other side of the line as the Auburn coaches are counting on fielding improved defensive front.
Senior Lee Ziemba is one of the senior offensive linemen who will start for the Tigers.
5) Luck: Over the past four decades, Auburn has played in 477 games and 35 percent of those games have been decided by seven points or less. Auburn has posted a 97-61-8 record in those 166 close games, which means one or two favorable bounces of the ball can make a major difference in over one third of Auburn's games.
Staying healthy is always at the top of a coach's wish list and Auburn was extremely fortunate to remain unusually healthy in 1993 and 2004. We saw last year what depth and injury issues can do to the overall performance of a team. Sometimes being on the fortunate side of a bouncing ball can make the difference in a very close game. Of course, some believe you create your own luck, which is the result of a combination of preparation and effort.
Obviously there are other contributing factors in a special season, but the five previously listed are, no doubt, extremely important. There will be close to 10 true freshmen on the Auburn depth chart, which would traditionally be a concern. On the other end of the spectrum are a high number of more than 20 seniors, many who will be starters or see significant playing time. The Auburn coaching staff is counting on the senior leadership to balance out the mixture of a talented group of freshmen.
Because of the 85 scholarship limitation and early enrollment, true freshmen are seeing more playing time than 10-15 years ago. It should be noted that Alabama utilized six true freshmen in its depth chart during the championship run last season and the Florida Gators had nine in 2009. Playing true freshmen becomes a concern when you are counting on them to start rather than providing adequate depth.
Chizik and his coaching staff have preached "good to great" as the theme for the 2010 Auburn Tigers. There were times during the 2009 season Auburn played very well, but a lack of consistency resulted in five losses.
Making the step to greatness will require a closer attention to detail and a consistent performance and effort by the players. Greatness is derived from individuality. The player who has no other goal than to participate in common with those around him will have an existence of mediocrity. If this team is hungry to achieve greatness, as I believe these Tigers are, they will have to separate themselves from the average player knowing they will be measured not on their accomplishments, but the obstacles they overcame to reach their goals.