With early mumblings Sunday that Auburn might jump to the top of the BCS polls, the excitement was on–but just a little. “Inconceivable”, I said, always mustering up any excuse I can to utter that phrase. Did anyone see what Oregon did to UCLA? That’s enough to make Rick Neuheisel start gambling again. Besides, how many giant leaps like Oklahoma’s can the BCS see in one season? With the Sooners walking into a trap in Mizzou, certainly Oregon was poised to take the top spot in the BCS–right along with their #1 billing in the AP and Coaches Polls. And who can leap Boise State now, with their perfect season virtually in hand less than halfway through? With no Alabama or Florida leading the way from the east, was it to be the west coast’s turn again?
But something strange happened–the computers finally saw the light with the strength of schedule, and Auburn, who has played five teams who have been ranked in the top 25 at some point this season, busted through to take the top spot in the most important poll in the land after vanquishing 6th ranked LSU. This is our first time to be ranked #1 in the BCS and the first time to be ranked #1 during the season since 1985. And let’s all hope our tenure there is a little longer than before.
But as an Auburn fan, you must always be guarded in your exuberance. The Tigers don’t always take too kindly to the pressure that comes from being in the spotlight. But I think this situation is different. No magazine or single writer anointed us #1 in the preseason, only to have us trip out of the starting gate. With this lofty position, earned halfway through a season, one thing is certain: we deserve it. It started last year, with a team that was supposed to be down and out, buying into an unproven coach and his cadre of miracle-workers. That team won five straight games before their lack of depth and the law of averages caught up with them. In spite of going O-for-Amen Corner and Alabama winning the BCS crown, this team started loading up in the off-season, assembling a top 5 ranked recruiting class right in the face of the national champions. They dared to be good. They were preparing for a run, and they just needed a few key pieces to tie it all together.
This season is different. It’s looking not only like there won’t be a drop-off, but a continuing incremental improvement in each succeeding contest instead, given the way the season has progressed so far. This team is good! There’s no denying it. Not all great teams start off that way though. They play their way into it and sometimes are the beneficiary of a little luck. Our cardiac kids proved themselves early on in the line of fire, overcoming deficits and late-game point deficiencies to win them all. Initially, our shaky defense did the proverbially bend (and may have actually broke during the Arkansas game), but our spirits never did. The defense has grown up before our very eyes and have seen everything thrown their way with strife and injuries. But we’ve also seen the emergence of consistent play at linebacker and very quietly we have built one of the most fearsome defensive lines in the country.
Four-time SEC defensive player of the week Nick Fairley is the defensive equivalent of Cameron Newton. As a matter of fact, each have four such awards already this season on their respective sides of the ball. Fairley is a JUCO transfer as well. He ranks in the top 10 in sacks in the nation, but only trails by two and a half. What you don’t see in the stat sheets is how many times he fights through double-teams to either get a sack or put serious pressure on the QB–not to mention all his tackles for losses. It seems that everyone of my LSU fan friends were equally impressed with the play of Fairley as they were with Newton. LSU takes their lineman on both sides of the ball seriously, with world-class athletes virtually in every position in the trenches. It takes a mighty man to garner that kind of respect from our purple cousins. Could there even be Heisman talk for Nick? Ndamukong Suh got an invite to the ceremony last year. The monster from Nebraska finished with 12 sacks and 20.5 TFL last season. Fairley is on track for 13 and 30, respectively. You tell me. Wouldn’t it be especially satisfying to have both him and Newton in New York for the ceremony? One of them for sure will be there. If not for Nick, maybe an Outland or Lombardi award? Just like his position coach, Tracy Rocker.
So what awaits Auburn to enable them to finish out the season undefeated and have everybody book a combination football and Grand Canyon vacation this New Year’s? So many pitfalls await. Every game is a trap. Every road trip is a stumbling block. We now have the biggest target in CFB right on our backs. We can’t look past the Ole Miss Rebel-Bears. Georgia has looked resurgent in three straight wins, scoring a lot of points. Chattanooga–yea, I guess we can afford to look past them. But the lion waiting in the tall grass is Alabama. Oh yea, those guys.
Somewhat written off after dropping the game to SC, key losses by highly ranked teams have put Alabama firmly back into play. I’m a firm believer in that they could possibly control most of their own destiny. Assume for a second that Oregon wins out and takes one slot. Have Alabama win out themselves and they may make it to the BCS CG, but would need some luck with Michigan State and Missouri losing for the first time. MSU has tough conference games left with Iowa and Penn State. Mizzou has a cake walk, but will likely have a rematch in the Big 12 CG with Oklahoma–who will be looking for blood after this weekend’s result. Come to think of it, 9th ranked OU might not be out of it yet. Quality wins over 17th Oklahoma State and 6th Missouri could propel them past proverbial BCS-busters Utah (8th), TCU (4th) and Boise (3rd), whose schedules (hopefully) will be shown to be frauds in the final accounting of games.
But back to Auburn. Win out and we play for the crown–both conference and national. But what if we were to suffer a setback prior to the Alabama game? Could the toughness of the SEC schedule still vault us to the top of the BCS rankings? Hard to say at his point, but certainly possible. Let’s first keep on eyes on the main prize–a SEC championship. I’ve said all along that the SEC title goes through Tuscaloosa on Black Friday. Barring another Tide loss, there will simply be no way to win the west, the SEC or national titles without a win there. A few of us debated what the line would be if it were set this week. I think we might lay one or two points, but we could be 3.5 point dogs as well.
Irrelevant at this point, as Alabama must first return to Nick Saban’s old stomping grounds on the Bayou this weekend. For superstitious and BCS-minded Auburn fans, your choice who to root for is simple. An Alabama loss virtually seals the west for us and does nothing to bring down our BCS score. A win over the 7th ranked Tide would once again vault LSU back into the top 10. After that, a victory over a top 15 ranked Alabama would send us to Glendale for sure, even if we do meet a 3-4 conference loss team in Atlanta. Speaking of which, South Carolina will win it if they beat Florida, but this weekend’s winner of the WLOCP may still be in the running. I don’t think Georgia can make it without first beating us, but I would savor the thought of beating the pups twice within a month.
So Auburn fans, keep your heads high and your comments guarded and let’s see how this wild season is going to end. I’m always proud of Auburn fans and our high-road mentality when it comes to trash-talking. One of the great things about beating LSU this weekend is that we have cultivated a respectful rivalry with them, one reminiscent of family. The Purple Tiger’s biggest rival is actually Alabama, so it’s nice that they strive to keep the one with the school to the east a little friendlier.