The October from Hell. Red October. The Meat Grinder. The Gauntlet. Gene Chizik and the Month of Doom. Whatever cheesily ominous ESPN-style brand you give it likely applies to the slate facing Auburn in the weeks ahead.
After an inauspicious 3-1 start to the 2011 campaign (which could easily have been 1-3) the most brutal stretch of the schedule has arrived. At No. 10 South Carolina. At No. 18 Arkansas. Home against No. 12 Florida. At No. 1 LSU. Home versus unranked Ole Miss (oh, sweet relief).
Auburn’s coaches, players and fans have been hearing about October ad nauseum since the schedule was announced, so it isn’t catching anyone by surprise. But while the Tiger’s opponents arrive at this point as advertised and with only one loss among them (Rebels excluded, of course), Auburn has lent credence to the popular preseason prediction that this would be a rebuilding year on The Plains.
It’s not the come-from-ahead loss to a good Clemson team that has been so discouraging, but the uneven (at best) performances in the three victories. Having to miraculously pull out a dramatic escape against Utah State in the opener is one thing. Nursing a 10-6 halftime lead over the worst offensive team in the nation in Florida Atlantic last week is something else entirely.
The October schedule would be a mine field for a team loaded with veterans that is clicking on all cylinders on both sides of the ball. For a young and inexperienced Auburn squad (yes, that description still applies at this point in the season, but just barely) that is having issues in nearly every facet of the game, it could serve as a crushing blow to a team that has spent the first month of the season living on the edge.
Finish the month 1-4 or 0-5 and the wheels could very well come off. With rivals Georgia and No. 3 Alabama waiting patiently to pound on the team’s battered remains in November, getting to six wins and the lesser bowl invite that comes with it could be nearly impossible. Finish the year 5-7 (or worse) and the longer term effect on recruiting, player confidence and program stability all gets a bit murkier. Yes, the 2010 championship afterglow will cushion the blow for most, and it should, but for a fan base that expects bowls at a minimum it won’t go over well.
Of course, where there are the prospects for doom and gloom, there is also the opportunity for sunshine and glory. Auburn, largely written off following the loss to Clemson, has been given a chance to play their way back into the national discussion. A chance to erase any misinformed notion that 2010 was a one year wonder built around two amazing players. To add theirs to the list of unlikely Tiger teams who have slain the giants in past years. Steve Spurrier knows all too well from his days at Florida what an underdog Auburn team can do to a title contender.
If the Tigers can make it through October alive, adding two or three to the win column, then the month would have to be considered an unqualified success. It would show the world that Auburn’s coaches didn’t forget how to coach in one year, that its players won’t roll over just because they don’t have a Heisman or Lombardi winner on the field.
More importantly, it would give hope to all in orange and blue that this is a team that can make some real noise starting next year. Win more than three… well, dare to dream big and all, but it would take more than this year’s team has shown so far to prove it’s capable of accomplishing that feat. Still, glory is there for the taking and every goal this team has is still attainable. As a football team, or fan, that’s all you can ever ask for.
Riley Downing graduated from Auburn in 1999 and moved to the Washington, D.C. area, where he has been stuck ever since. He makes the most of his long daily commute and forfeits sleep in an attempt to keep up with everything Auburn and cling to his brief moment on The Plains. Follow him on Twitter—@FearlessandTrue.
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