Talking about expectations for Auburn’s 2010 football season is tricky.
On the one hand, we’re still not even two years removed from 5-7–and being three points away from 0-8 in the SEC–and a contentious, awkward coaching transition. We’re not yet three years removed from the recruiting disaster of 2008; in fact, this is arguably the first Auburn team more talented, top-to-bottom, than its predecessor since 2004. In terms of the typical, natural progression of a rebuilding SEC team, it’s too soon to expect big things.
Then again, when you’ve got Gus Malzahn, one of the nation’s best offensive lines, a collection of skill position talent equal to almost anyone’s in the SEC, some modicum of both talent and depth defensively, and–critically–as forgiving a home/road scheduling split as you can get in this league, why be typical? In terms of the opportunity offered by both the talent and schedule, Auburn’s perfectly justified in expecting big things.
So … where does that leave us? I think all Auburn fans would agree with the team itself that a final tally of eight “ain’t enough,” but what if it’s eight in the regular season and a ninth in a bowl? Are we happy with that? With nine either way? Is it 10 wins or bust? What about the West division title–do we have enough of a team to feel legitimately disappointed if that doesn’t happen? If Auburn goes 10-2 and gets nudged out of Atlanta by tiebreaker, that’s a successful season, right?
Me, I haven’t made up my mind about all that. I can see scenarios where I’m deliriously happy with 9-4. I can see scenarios where I’m tragically disappointed in 10-3, maybe even a smidge upset by 11-2. Why? Because this season, it’s not just about how many teams Auburn beats. It’s about who Auburn beats.
Sure, 2007 wasn’t so bad; it had the Florida upset, The Index Finger on the Opposite Hand, the shutdown of McFadden and Jones in Fayetteville. Likewise, 2009 has a lot to recommend it: the giddy 5-0 start, the resuscitation against Ole Miss, the Great Escape in the Outback Bowl, the general resurgence of Auburn as a team that must be taken seriously. But pleasant enough as they were, you combine those two seasons with the near-total washout of 2008, and what you are left with is a ton of unfinished business for 2010. Wins against Florida and Tennessee are awful, awful nice–there’s too much history between our program and theirs for them not to be–but when it comes to annual rivalries, most Auburn fans would agree that there are four games that matter (matter matter) on the schedule each and every season.
What Auburn has accomplished of late in those four games:
vs. Arkansas: Lost three of the last four. Of those three defeats, all three came with Auburn favored; two came in Jordan-Hare; two came with Auburn entering the game undefeated; two were uncompetitive in the fourth quarter.
vs. LSU: Lost three straight, and four of five. Most recent loss came by 21 points against arguably weakest LSU team of Saban/Miles era.
vs. Georgia. Lost four straight. ’09 seniors graduated without having ever defeated Georgia. Average margin of Dawg victory over that span: 14.5 points. Points allowed by Auburn in those four games: 37, 45, 17, 31. Five-game lead in the all-time series now down to one.
vs. Alabama. Not as bad here: Auburn is still 6-2 in the last eight, still over .500 over the last five. And the 2009 meeting proved the ’08 whitewashing was a fluke. Still, though: lost two straight. Against Alabama.
Put all of that together, and you’re left with an 0-8 record against our biggest rivals over the past two seasons, and a 2-10 mark since 2007. Auburn hasn’t gone over .500 against the four of them since 2005.
This is where Gene Chizik must show improvement, and where he must show it this season. 2011 will be fun with all the new talent on the field, but fun or not the odds of that team being as strong as this year’s–after losing 4/5ths of the offensive line, up to six members of the front seven, possibly 3/4s of the secondary–are slim indeed. Also: the first three teams on this list all come to Jordan-Hare this year. They may or may not also have their own holes to patch in ’11, but nonetheless, the iron is hot now. It’s time for Auburn to strike back.
And so this, ultimately, is how I feel the 2010 season will be judged. After 2008, I can forgive a year spent simply getting competitive against the better teams in the SEC. I’m not sure, with the team and the staff and the schedule Chizik has at his disposal in 2010, I can forgive not turning that competitiveness into wins. If we want to become a legitimate challenger in the SEC West, we have to beat the Hogs and Bayou Bengals. If we want to preserve some measure of self-dignity in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, we’ve got to beat the Dawgs. (Please, please, for the love of everything holy, beat the Dawgs.) And, of course, if we want to stave off the advance of evil into the state of Alabama for a year and defend all that is righteous and good, we have to beat the Tide.
These are my expectations, Auburn: beat these guys. Not just one of them. Their scalps belong on our wall again. Do that, and whatever else happens, things are going to be OK.