The Year of the Tiger!
War Eagle, everybody! 2010 is almost finished, and what a year it was! A year ago, Auburn had just finished 5th in the SEC West, and arguably last among bowl-eligible 3-5 SEC teams. Who would have imagined that a year later, the SEC Champion Auburn Tigers would be ranked number one in the land? What a long, strange trip it’s been!
Auburn rang in 2010 early in the morning on January 1st, with the first game of the year. Tiger fans had to set the alarm clocks to wake up for the Outback Bowl at 10:00 AM. Auburn took on the Northwestern Wildcats, in a wild see-saw game that saw over a thousand yards of offense generated. The Tigers were shredded in the secondary to the tune of 532 passing yards, but picked off Wildcat quarterbackMike Kafka 5 times. Towards the end of the game, the turnover bug bit Auburn. Ben Tate fumbled the ball away, allowing Northwestern to tie the game at 35. Then Demond Washington fumbled the kickoff, allowing Northwestern a chance to win it in regulation. The Tigers survived two field goal attempts at the end by Stefan Demos, to hold on and win 38-35, on an overtime field goal by Wes Byrum.
On February 2nd, the Tigers inked possibly the best recruiting class in the history of the school. Many of these Tigers saw extensive action in the fall of 2010, including starting quarterback Cameron Newton, starting right tackle Brandon Moseley and tailback Michael Dyer. Another dozen or so of these players had a great impact on special teams and bolstered depth.
Late March saw Auburn crank up spring drills. On April 17th, the Tigers put on an aerial show in an obviously scripted A-Day scrimmage. We saw a number of signs of the way things would be in the fall. We saw a dangerous, run-stuffing defensive line with some depth. We saw a secondary that could not stop the short pass. Punting was lousy. The offense failed to run the ball effectively, opening the door for incoming freshman Michael Dyer to get some carries. We saw a deep and dangerous receiving corps. There were phantom worries that never panned out. We thought Onterio McCalebb had become too slow. This new guy, Newton, wasn’t so great. He got sacked on his one carry, and only hit 3 of 8 passes. On the scoreboard, the Blues edged the Whites 17-14. Cameron Newton was named the number one quarterback after spring drills, a move that left observers scratching their heads.
The summer of 2010 was a quiet one on the Auburn front. Players stayed out of trouble and worked hard. Versions 2.0 of Big Cat Weekend and the Tiger Prowl went off without a hitch, or NCAA rules questions. As fall camp began, Auburn was picked 23rd in the USA Today poll, and 22nd in the AP Poll. Tiger fans were hoping for a two or three game improvement in wins this season. The Tigers made it through August two-a-days with few injuries, a rarity in the past decade.
On September 4th, Auburn opened with a 52-26 win over the Arkansas Red Wolves. The offense had a big night with a successful debut by quarterback Cam Newton. He showed a tremendous arm, and great scrambling ability and speed. The Red Wolves had no answer for him. The defense was a different story, though. The Wolves rang up 323 passing yards, and concern for the secondary increased. The Auburn fans were happy with Cam’s performance, apprehensive about a Mario Fannin fumble, and frankly disappointed in giving up 26 points to the Red Wolves, while the rest of the SEC was laying waste to cupcake openers.
It was a short turnaround for the Tigers after the first game, as they took on Mississippi State on the following Thursday night in Starkville. The Bulldogs were fired up and ready, forced the worst offensive performance of the year by the Tigers. Some of the Tiger woes were caused by SEC road-opener jitters, but injuries played a bigger role. Mario Fannin reinjured a shoulder. Star left tackle Lee Ziembamissed the second half with a knee injury. With a shaky tackle situation, Bulldog end Pernell McPhee wreaked havoc in the Tiger backfield. The Tiger defense saved the day. Linemen Nick Fairley and Antoine Carter made life miserable in the Bulldog offensive backfield. MSU managed only one decent scoring drive, and a short field drive after a fumbled punt. In the end, Auburn held on for a 17-14 win. It was great to be 2-0, but certainly few folks were thinking “SEC Title” at this point!
The Auburn season appeared to come crashing down in the first half against Clemson on September 18th. Starting right tackle A. J. Green suffered a season-ending knee injury, and Clemson abused the surviving members of the line. The Tigers could neither run nor throw effectively in the first half, and faced a 17-0 deficit as Clemson exploited Auburn’s suspect coverage in the flats. Somehow, the offense kept scratching and clawing. Cam Newton had his worst game of the season with 68 rushing yards, only 7 completions and 2 interceptions. Still, Newton accounted for 271 yards in the game, and led Auburn back. There was timely explosive running by Onterio McCalebb. Newton hit a big bomb to Terrell Zachary to give Auburn the lead at 24-17. Clemson drove to tie it. The Tiger defense dug in and made Clemson pay for every yard. A Wes Byrum field goal gave Auburn the lead in overtime. To go undefeated in college football, even the best teams must have some luck. Auburn’s came as Clemson dropped a game winning pass in the end zone, then missed a game-tying field goal. Auburn survived Clemson, 27-24.
After the Clemson game, head coach Gene Chizik challenged the offensive line, and it paid off on September 25th. When South Carolina came to town, both lines dominated their Gamecock counterparts. That did not translate to an easy win, though. The secondary again had its troubles, as veteran quarterback Stephen Garcia hooked up with receiver Alshon Jeffery repeatedly. South Carolina was helped by two Mario Fannin fumbles in the first half, allowing the Gamecocks to build a 20-7 lead. Despite early success, the Gamecocks were never able to establish the run, and Garcia absorbed a number of withering hits by the Auburn front seven. Late in the game, Garcia lost two fumbles, and was replaced by true freshman QB Connor Shaw, who promptly threw two interceptions. Meanwhile, the Auburn offensive brain-trust took the training wheels off quarterback Cameron Newton. Newton had a tremendous game, rushing for a school QB rushing record 177 yards. Auburn rolled up 334 yards on the ground, and beat South Carolina 35-27.
Tiger fans had a picnic week following the win over S.C., and Cameron Newton got his first national notice, as he was selected as the Rivals.com national player of the week. The Tigers hosted Louisiana Monroe on October 2nd, and the rout was on early. Among the first four offensive plays was a 50 yard Onterio McCalebb scoring run, and a 94 yard pass from Newton to Emory Blake. The Tigers were up early 14-0, and cruised to a 52-3 win.
On October 9th, the Tigers played their second road game of the year, in Lexington, Kentucky. The Wildcats scored first on a short Randall Cobb run, but the first half was the Cam Newton show, as his four touchdown runs staked Auburn to a seemingly insurmountable 31-14 lead. However, the Wildcats were not done. Veteran quarterback Mike Hartline picked away at a suspect Auburn secondary, and Randall Cobb made plays all over the field. With 7 minutes left in the game, this one was all tied up at 34 apiece. Cam Newton took Auburn on a 14-play drive down the field that ate all of the remaining clock. As time expired, Wes Byrum booted through a 24 yard field goal, and Auburn won it, 37-34. Midway through the regular season, Auburn was 6-0!
On October16th, Auburn returned to CBS television for the first time since the 2009 Iron Bowl. The Tigers would play five of their last seven games on the big network! The Arkansas Razorbacks came to town, riding the powerful arm of quarterback Ryan Mallett. Mallett staked Arkansas to a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter, but was knocked out on a sack by Nick Fairley. Tyler Wilson replaced Mallett, and passed for 332 yards and 4 touchdowns. None of the Razorback offensive heroics mattered, though. Cameron Newton and the Auburn offense could not be stopped. Newton racked up 188 rushing yards, as Auburn piled up 330 on the ground. The defense recovered three turnovers in the 4th quarter, and Auburn stormed to a 65-43 win over the BCS Bowl-bound Razorbacks! The 65 points are an Auburn scoring record against an SEC defense.
The stage was set for an epic SEC slug-fest of unbeatens in Auburn on October 23rd. Both teams were undefeated, Auburn was ranked 5th, and LSU 6th. If anyone was going to be able to stop Cam Newton and the Auburn offensive juggernaut, it was going to be the LSU defense, led by stars Drake Nevis and Patrick Peterson. Auburn was held way below it’s usual scoring average, but it was LSU punter Derick Helton who stole the show, pinning the Tigers deep four times. Still, the Tigers kept grinding it out on the ground. Auburn ravaged the proud LSU defenders for 440 rushing yards, 217 of it by Cam Newton. LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson had some timely scrambles to keep LSU in the game till the end, but Auburn powered out a 24-17 victory.
Auburn traveled to Oxford, Mississippi for an October 30th matchup with the struggling Ole Miss Rebel Bears. Head Coach Houston Nutt had cooked up some schemes. Half the defense would spy Cam Newton, and the Rebels installed an all-shotgun, all-wildcat offense to try and exploit Auburn’s secondary. Ole Miss scored twice in the first quarter, but it didn’t take long for the Auburn coaches to figure it out. While the Rebels held Cam Newton to only 45 rushing yards, the Tigers exploited other options to the tune of 572 total yards. Tailback Michael Dyer rushed for a season-high 180 yards, and Auburn ripped past the Rebels 51-31.
Homecoming week seemed like a time to relax and enjoy a stress-free week, but this was not to be. Stories broke about Cameron Newton’s recruitment at Mississippi State, and possible NCAA eligibility concerns at mid-week, and suddenly the season seemed in jeopardy. While rumors flew, message boards went crazy, and writers trumpeted the death knell for the Tigers, the Auburn administration continued to insist that Newton was clear to play. Instead of enjoying a month of climbing to the top of the BCS standings, the Auburn family endured a month of hatchet jobs in the press, rumors and innuendo. There was fear that Newton would be held out, but the Auburn Administration was true to their word. Newton played, and joined the 300-yard passing club, in less than two quarters of work. On November 6th, Auburn steamrolled the Chattanooga Moccasins 62-24.
On November 13th, Auburn hosted the Georgia Bulldogs. Again there was pointless debate about whether Cam Newton would play. Auburn stuck to their guns. The Georgia guns were blazing, too. Bulldog quarterback Aaron Murraycame in red hot, hitting A. J. Green repeatedly for big gains. The Bulldog attack coupled with an Auburn dropped ball/interception allowed Georgia to take a 21-7 first quarter lead. From that point, Auburn stifled the Bulldog offense, and scored six touchdowns to the Bulldog’s one. With the 49-31 win over Georgia, Auburn clinched the SEC Western Division Title.
After a well-deserved bye week, Auburn geared up for a Black Friday Iron Bowl on November 26th. In Tuscaloosa, the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide players were determined to send Auburn home a loser. The Tide played outstanding football early, and Auburn did not. Early in the 2nd quarter, Alabama led 24-0 and was driving again. A Bama dropped pass on the goal line and two miracle defensive plays kept the score from being much higher. Auburn rallied for a late scoring drive in the half, with Emory Blake hauling in a 36 yard pass from Cam Newton. The Tigers trailed 24-7 at the half. Auburn opened the second half scoring with a 70-yard bomb from Newton to Terrell Zachary, and the Tigers climbed back into the game. A muffed punt return deep in Tiger territory threatened to allow Alabama to extend the lead, but Nick Fairley and the Auburn defense slammed the door. Alabama was held to a field goal, and Auburn trailed only 21-27 at the end of three quarters. Auburn tied the game on a great drive, and a flood-route throwback pass to tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen. Wes Byrum’s extra point put Auburn ahead to stay, 28-27. The Tiger defense stymied the Bama offense the rest of the way, and Auburn completed the biggest comeback in team history. The Tigers were 12-0, heading to Atlanta!
During the week leading up to the league title game, Auburn and the NCAA eligibility division effectively neutered the media campaign against Cam Newton. Auburn declared Cam ineligible, and asked for a ruling from the NCAA. They got one in less than 24 hours. Newton was eligible. There was no evidence that Newton had received ANY extra benefits, or that he had even known about the events at Mississippi State. With that monkey off Tiger backs, the team could now focus on football.
On December 4th, Auburn met South Carolina in the SEC Championship Game in the Georgia Dome, in Atlanta. South Carolina went for broke trying to stop Auburn’s running game, often with nine men in the box. Cameron Newton made ‘em pay early, with a 62 yard bomb to Darvin Adams to set up a score. The Gamecocks answered with a drive of their own, but found the going tough beyond that. Cam Newton connected with Darvin Adams on a 54 yard, wide open score, and found Adams again on a Hail Mary at the end of the half. Auburn led 28-14 at the break. In the second half, it was all Auburn. The Tigers crushed South Carolina 56-17, an SEC title game record. Auburn took over the number one spot in the AP Poll, and the BCS Standings.
The Tigers close out the year as one of the most decorated teams in Auburn history. Numerous post-season awards have followed a perfect season. Head Coach Gene Chizik was named “coach of the year” by several organizations. Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzhan won the Frank Broyles Award. Auburn placed Nick Fairley, Antoine Carter, Josh Bynes, Ryan Pugh, Lee Ziemba, and Cameron Newton on All-SEC teams. Michael Dyer was named a freshman All-American. Nick Fairley won the Lombardi Award as the most dominant lineman in the nation. Cam Newton swept dozens of awards, including the Heisman Trophy and the Davy O’Brien Award. The team had a well-deserved Christmas break, and is now gearing up for Auburn’s first ever national championship game! The Tigers face the PAC-10 Champion Oregon Ducks in Glendale, Arizona on January 10th, for all the marbles! War Eagle! What a great year 2010 has been!
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