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The Wishbone presents: A Season of Our Dreams

This ain't no pseudo-regional consolation prize.

Perhaps you’ve heard by now:  Late in the evening of Monday, January 10, 2011, Auburn University defeated the University of Oregon by a score of 22-19 to win the BCS College Football National Championship—Auburn’s first broadly-acknowledged national title in football in fifty-three seasons.

In addition, the Tigers completed a perfect 14-0 season, giving Auburn three undefeated runs in the past seventeen years—an accomplishment unmatched by any other program in the country.

It is now, as of this writing, a full week later… and we still don’t know exactly how to react to this, or what to say about it.

By any reasonable measure, for the Tigers to have won it all this year is improbable; indeed, even in retrospect, it seems almost impossible.  But it happened. It really happened.

Your intrepid Wishbone columnists have been struggling to come to grips with this almost unfathomable occurrence for nearly every second since Wes Byrum’s kick sent the ball through the University of Phoenix Stadium uprights on the game’s final play.  One of us (Van) was there, in the big silver toaster in the desert, absorbing the raw emotion of the moment; the other (John) was safely ensconced with his family at home in front of the television, taking in all the discussion and analysis.  Together we got the complete picture…and yet, even so, we scarcely know where to begin or what to say.

We simply want to jump up and down and scream our happiness.  For fifty-three more years, we want to scream.

Because, of course, that’s how long it took: more than five decades.  The last time people were yelling “War Eagle!” about a national championship, the other popular catchphrases were “I Like Ike” and “I Love Lucy.”

It truly is mind-blowing.  We find it hard to believe.  It’s not that we’ve ever bought into the propaganda emanating from the western side of the state, designed to make us feel somehow inferior, like second-class citizens (or “little brothers,” if you prefer).  Those people have to tear us down in order to feel better about themselves, and we understand that.  It’s easy to ignore, if annoying nonetheless.

Propaganda aside, though, these have been fifty-three years of incredibly bad luck for Auburn when it comes to national championships.  We all know the dates—they burn in our minds with equal measures of pride in the success we enjoyed and disappointment in the greater prize we were denied: 1958, 1983, 1988, 1993, 2004.

For an Auburn team to defy all the odds, all the history, and all the bad mojo, and simply go out there to Glendale and get the job done… well, as Auburn people, we’re in a territory just as uncharted as some of that Arizona desert we just visited.  Consequently, we don’t quite know how to react.  Sure, we’re running around and buying up all the souvenirs, all the t-shirts, all the commemorative magazines and DVDs we can find.  We just can’t wrap our minds around the fact that these are the real deal, and not some kind of pseudo-regional consolation prizes, as were the Sports Illustrated special issues we still prize in our collections (but with mixed feelings) from 1993 and 2004.

In a way, there’s some of the feeling of Wile E. Coyote from the cartoon where he finally succeeded in capturing the Road Runner, after fruitlessly pursuing the little beast for what must have felt like at least fifty-three years to him.  The Coyote held the Road Runner up, looked at us, and asked, “So, I finally got him—now what do I do with him?”

Auburn University has a BCS National Championship.  We find ourselves looking around in shock and asking ourselves, “What do we do with it?”  It all seems a little surreal, a little unreal.

But, hey, don’t worry—I’m sure we’ll figure it out before too long.  We have a year to reign, and the rest of our lives to savor it afterward.  That’s plenty of time.

Before and During the Game

Roaming all over Scottsdale and Glendale and the immediate site of the stadium in the hours prior to the game, we encountered far more Auburn fans than Oregon fans.  Indeed, the ratio ultimately appeared to be roughly 2-1 in favor of Tigers supporters.  Since many past Auburn bowl trips have seen us at least marginally outnumbered by our opponents’ fans, this was quite surprising and encouraging.

It was clear that Glendale was not fully prepared for the Auburn Family to descend upon them.  Stores ran out of Auburn merchandise very quickly, while a good deal of Oregon paraphernalia lingered on shelves and temporary tables.  Restaurants and bars overflowed with orange and blue.  We were turned away from every Auburn event we tried to gain entrance to, because of overcrowding.

For their part, Oregon fans walked around with something of a bemused expression on their faces, seemingly surprised by the numbers and the fervor of their upcoming opponents.  That’s not to say the Ducks supporters were not in all cases as excited and passionate as we were; they simply didn’t seem to fully appreciate the magnitude of the moment.  We mean no offense by this; it was simply the impression we took from them.  Of course, they don’t have the history of “close-but-no-cigar” that we have, so it is understandable. Perhaps, now that they have their own very near miss to fire them up, they’ll come with all guns blazing next time.  As long as that “next time” isn’t against us, we wish them all the luck in the world.

Prior to kickoff, the Oregon fans we spoke with carried themselves with a healthy amount of confidence and bravado.  They had every reason to feel that way—their offense in particular had been spectacular all season, ringing up their PAC 10 foes (and Tennessee, too) with sudden deluges of points.  They believed with utter conviction that no one could truly stand up to the frantic pace of their scoring machine, and they held as a received truth that Auburn’s defense would, in its turn, wear down just as surely and completely as had every other defense they had faced in 2010.

Thus it was with no small bit of pleasure that Auburn fans watched their Duck counterparts slowly deflate over the course of the game, as the Auburn defense continued to mostly dominate their previously unstoppable offense.  As the game wore on and the Tigers didn’t wear down, confidence in the eyes of Oregon fans dissolved into concern, then into fear, then into dejection.  They were sitting on eleven points for a very long time, and they were falling farther and farther behind, and the clock was ticking right along toward the fourth quarter.

And yet, for all of that, Auburn never could quite land the knockout blow that would have surely ended the game much earlier.  Numerous chances came and went by the boards, and still Oregon trailed by only a single possession.  One major reason why Auburn could not pull away was that, shockingly, Cam Newton was playing his single worst game as a Tiger.

A bad game for Cam is a relative thing, of course.  He threw an early interception and coughed up a late fumble.  (His many detractors doubtlessly felt this to be divine justice; if so, then his ultimate victory must have soured their mood mightily.)  He just missed on two potential touchdown passes, under-throwing the short one and over-throwing the long one.  He seemed tentative when opportunities to run presented themselves, hesitating and looking for passing lanes instead; fans had to be wondering why he didn’t tear through the Ducks on foot the way he had through LSU and Arkansas and so many others.  When given the opportunity to bulldoze his way into the end zone on multiple occasions, he instead found himself stood up and stopped.  It was as if the Ducks had found a supply of Kryptonite and were shockingly bringing the mighty superhero to his knees.

More likely, he was simply not his usual physically-sound self.  In other words, he was playing hurt—and for more of the game than most people seem to realize.

Early in the game, he took a shot that sent him spinning in the air—whereupon those of us who were looking saw why he wears that big bulky protective belt around his waist.  As he spun about in the air, another Oregon player speared him in the small of the back with his helmet.  A later (and more publicly discussed) collision contributed further to his debilitation.  By the final drive of the game, he was doing well to throw the ball accurately and hand it to his running back.

Fortunately for all of us in this thing we call the Auburn Family, the rest of the squad stepped up.  Once again we saw that this was anything but a “one-man team”—much to the surprise of the Oregon fans to our left, who proclaimed beforehand that if they could stop Cam, they would easily win.  Our great quarterback was definitely a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, but he had those same largely over-achieving and under-recognized receivers and backs to pick up the slack that he’s had around him all year.  It didn’t hurt that the back he was able to hand it to on that final drive was none other than one Mike Dyer, a compact and determined bulldozer of a runner—and one with remarkable balance and agility.

If Dyer had gotten thirty-plus carries, he likely could have finished with over three hundred yards rushing, and Auburn would have won by double-digits.  We know now that Oregon had no answer for Dyer up the middle, and he still ended up with 142 yards of rushing despite not being featured until nearly the end of the game.  Many of their fans hadn’t even heard of him before the game—Van found himself explaining just who this mighty dynamo of a true freshman was to the Ducks sitting next to him, during the first quarter.

Of course, as always, the engine driving the Auburn attack was that great offensive line, which gave us one last fantastic performance in their final game together.  Cam had a good bit of time to throw in the second and third quarters and by the fourth stanza Dyer was finding those holes in the Oregon defensive front.  Indeed, it was the Ducks’ smaller defense that was wearing down at the end, not the Tigers’, as Auburn ran eighty-five plays before all was said and done.  (Gus has said he’s never lost a game in which he got to call as many as eighty plays.  That’s still true.)

The Defense Steps Up

What nobody really saw coming before kickoff was just how well both defenses would play—though, in retrospect, given the long layoff between December 4 and January 10, it does make sense that the offenses would struggle while the defenses would be extremely prepared.

If, like many, you lamented during the season that this Auburn team was no longer dominating opponents with defense, then this BCS game was tailor-made for you.  This was a defensive performance for the ages—and for those great units of Pat Dye and Tommy Tuberville, of Wayne Hall and Gene Chizik himself.

Nick Fairley perhaps moved himself all the way up the NFL draft charts to #1 with a world-class performance, demolishing and destroying the Oregon rushing game and offensive line.  Where to begin?  His constant pressure on Darron Thomas wore away at the Duck QB’s performance level and led to rushed passes, a fumble (recovered by Oregon), and an important early interception.  His sack of Thomas at the Auburn goal line kept the Ducks out of the end zone.  His great plays in the Auburn red zone kept Oregon at bay.  Perhaps the biggest single play in the game was his tackle of Kenjon Barner on fourth and goal at the Tigers one-yard line with less than three minutes to go in the third quarter.

Has a single Auburn defensive player ever had a bigger game on a bigger stage than this one by Nick Fairley?  We think back to Aundray Bruce more-or-less singlehandedly demolishing Georgia Tech in the fourth quarter at Grant Field in 1987, turning him into the eventual #1 pick in the following NFL draft.  But that game was important only if you were a Tiger or a Yellowjacket in 1987; losing it wouldn’t have even kept Auburn out of the Sugar Bowl.  The 1994 defense, not great against the run, put on some memorable shows against passing teams (notably Florida and LSU)—but even that astonishing, multi-interception fourth quarter to beat LSU saw the picks spread across several defensive backs, not just one player.  No, in all the days since Pat Dye first made bone-crunching defense the calling card of great Auburn teams, Nick Fairley’s performance might well have been the single best big-game defensive performance ever by a single Auburn player.

Of course, the entire Auburn defense stepped up and played a great game.  Tackling was good, the busted assignments that Oregon thrives on were mostly avoided, and the Ducks were held to only seventy-five yards rushing overall, or 2.3 per carry—just a tad below their season average of over three hundred per game.

White Helmets, Black Hats?

Some viewers and a few journalists noted a remarkable paucity of “SEC! SEC!” chants by the Auburn crowd in the stadium after the game.  Van, in the upper deck, heard only one feeble attempt break out, and it didn’t last long.  John, watching the TV broadcast, didn’t hear much of it at all.  Because this represented a fifth consecutive win by an SEC team in the big BCS game, the whole conference angle was thought to be a pretty big deal.  Auburn was (theoretically) in Glendale as much to defend the honor and the dominance of the SEC as it was to win a title for itself.

But was that really true?  Unlike in the four previous years, this year’s representative felt all along that the rest of the conference was not terribly supportive of us.  Each fanbase had its own set of reasons:  Miss State (and possibly Florida) fans are mad about Cam and the recruitment scandal; Georgia fans hate Nick Fairley and have generally wished us nothing but ill in the days since we defeated them; the LSU nation has forever held Auburn as beneath their contempt.  And of course Alabama is Alabama; we would be shocked and offended if they did find it in their hearts to cheer for Auburn under any circumstances, much less these rather unique ones.

The response on the part of much of the Auburn Family therefore was along the lines of, “The heck with them—we won this for Auburn and not for the SEC as a whole.”  The other powerhouses in the conference never liked us, never supported us, and certainly never believed we would win—or that we even deserved to.  To them, on the evening of January 10, 2011, the Auburn Family politely replied, “Stick it.”

That being said, some of the Auburn faithful have gone farther.  The War Eagle Reader’s own Jerry Hinnen laid his feelings bare here.  Kevin Strickland lit quite a fire.

We understand the feelings of those guys and others who want to tell the national media and the other college football fans out there that they can take their criticism of Auburn and shove it.  The temptation to just unload—to shove this achievement (and the crystal football of the Coaches’ Trophy) down the throats of the guys who attacked us so persistently and so viciously—is vast.  In some ways, it would be enormously satisfying to just turn heel and embrace the dark side.

Maybe we’re being greedy, though, but we would like to have both the National Championship and the good thoughts and wishes of the American football-watching public.  We would like for the Tigers to be thought of the way they deserve to be: as good guys, not bad guys.  We’d like this collection of players and coaches to be universally loved and/or respected for the great team that they were and are.  We didn’t want to turn on the radio or open Sports Illustrated or flip over to ESPN the day after we at long-last win the BCS National Championship and have to hear or read stuff like, “How long until they have to forfeit the title?” (with a sort of relish and gusto in the delivery) or rehashes of the Cam/Cecil story or long diatribes against Nick Fairley.  We don’t get how those people can’t see beyond the distractions and grasp just how tough minded this team was or how composed they were or how well coached they were, and just how much there was to like and admire and appreciate about them, even if you’re an (allegedly) impartial journalist and not an Auburn fan.  But they can’t—or they don’t want to.

So what we all have to admit and reconcile ourselves with and perhaps even embrace is the concept that we won it all while wearing the Black Hats.  To many viewers and commentators, we have become the bad guys of college football—something along the lines of this new decade’s Miami Hurricanes.  Of course there is no substance to that—no reality.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  But the perception remains, and we cannot control it.  It looks as if we have no choice but to live with it, at least for now.

And if we’re dealing in perceptions, the one that really matters and will continue to matter for decades to come is this one:

A Win for the Older Folks—and for the Future

This was a win for the entire Auburn Family, obviously, but it was particularly a win for the older folks—the die-hards (not just the Dye-hards!) and the long-suffering supporters of the orange and blue.  It was a win for the folks who woke up on January 2, 1984, to find that Miami had jumped us for #1.  It was a win for the folks who felt the earth move in Baton Rouge in 1988 and knew deep inside that we had just stepped in front of a bullet and taken a wound from which there would be no real recovery that year.  It was a win for the people who listened on radio in 1993, or who crowded into Jordan-Hare to see that team perform in the only way possible—with their own eyes.  And of course it was a win for those who watched the weeks tick by in 2004 and embraced the wins while knowing—just knowing, deep inside, in a way that only a true Auburn person can know—that neither USC nor Oklahoma was going to lose, simply because we are Auburn and that is how the world works.

That’s a big part of why this season we just witnessed was so amazingly, astoundingly, unbelievably special.  Because, for once—for one time in all these years—that inevitable something that always happens because we are Auburn… did not happen.

Young people can enjoy this for its surface glitz and glamour: their team is the best in the land, and they will be and should be very happy.  But those young Tigers fans won’t fully understand what they’ve just witnessed. They haven’t suffered the way the rest of us have.  They haven’t endured what we older fans have.  They will look at this and think it is normal.

It was not normal.  At least, not in the football history we have all grown up with.  Perhaps, just perhaps, it will become the norm for the future.  We certainly hope it will.  Time will tell—time, and one game at a time.

In the meantime, those young Tigers fans will grow up in a different world—a world where Auburn has recently won the biggest prize of all.  Perhaps they will expect more than we did from the program.  Perhaps they will demand more than we did.  Perhaps they won’t be satisfied until Auburn reigns supreme.

And perhaps, just perhaps, they’ll get their wish.

Bringing it Home

The 2010 Auburn Tigers did what no Tigers team in fifty-three years before them could do: They brought home the biggest prize of all.  And they did it in the most improbable fashion imaginable—with a junior college transfer at quarterback and a maligned second-year coach at the helm, and with a team that very well may not have been the most formidable Tigers squad to suit up even in the past seven years, much less fifty-three.

Yet they did it.  Despite all of the obstacles in their way, they got it done.  They went out to the desert and in that barren landscape they discovered a fountain of hope and promise and boundless joy.  In their labors they secured for us the blessings of ultimate victory and brought that home for the entire Auburn Family to share in, to bask in, to cherish and enjoy forever.

Now one door has closed, and another door opens.

The door at last has closed—has been slammed closed, emphatically—on fifty-three years of futility and frustration and disappointment.  That long, dry segment of Auburn history is just that now:  history.

A new door opens on a future that looks to be filled with promise of success and joy; a future that is very bright indeed.  That door was opened by these Tigers on that night in the desert.

And for that—and for so very much more—we thank the 2010 Auburn Tigers.  We thank them for providing us with a season of our dreams.  And we shall never forget them.  Never.

War Eagle Forever.

Photos by Ami Plexico.

Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.

John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.

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About Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer

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