Auburn: Volatile, Vexing, Victorious

The Auburn Tigers unquestionably loathe the fact that across the way in Tuscaloosa, Nick Saban has won at least 10 games each season (if you include bowl games) since 2008. Alabama — in terms of landing in a January or (these days) New Year’s Six bowl — has become one of the surest bets in college football. In terms of consistent quality, the Crimson Tide own the clear upper hand over and against the Tigers.

However, life has a way of throwing curveballs.

As much as Alabama fans might — and should — enjoy what Nick Saban has given to them, an inconvenient set of realities hangs over the Capstone: Auburn — in terms of high-end achievements — has largely kept pace with the Tide, instead of getting left behind on the beach.

Over the past 11 seasons, both Alabama and Auburn have finished in the top 2 of the final AP poll on three occasions.

Over the past five seasons, both Alabama and Auburn have claimed two SEC championships apiece.

Yes, it’s true that Alabama has won two more national titles over the past 11 seasons, while Auburn — historically (one could even say aberrationally) unlucky for an SEC team in various poll- or rankings-based controversies such as 1983 and 2004 — has captured only one national title. Yet, in a conference where only high-end achievements (not middle-tier feats) are truly valued, no program has come closer to matching Alabama’s achievements since Tim Tebow left Florida than Auburn has.

LSU enjoyed its terrific 2011 season. Missouri’s won a couple of SEC East titles. South Carolina won 11 games in three straight seasons but never parlayed any of those seasons into division or league titles (or even a BCS bowl, which was one of the many glaring faults of an awful bowl system we thankfully don’t have to live with anymore).

Auburn, in terms of high-end accomplishments — is and has been the second most successful SEC program of the past half-decade. The program might not achieve on the steady line Alabama does, but when Auburn has entered November with an unbeaten or one-loss team in recent years, it has fulfilled its promise and potential.

Alabama might be prime-period Roger Federer — always making at least the semifinals every year and winning the national title on some of those occasions — but Auburn is late-career Pete Sampras (2000 through 2002): stumbling at various points on the tennis calendar but always producing an excellent U.S. Open, good enough to make three finals and win one of them. Sure, Alabama’s standard is higher, but Auburn — in the present tense — is eclipsing everyone else. As soon as the Urban Meyer-Charlie Strong-Tim Tebow juggernaut ran its course in Gainesville, the SEC has featured Alabama as its top dog, and Auburn as its top Tiger, with LSU trying to rediscover the magic which last flowed through Baton Rouge four seasons ago.


It’s really rather remarkable, the Auburn football story this century:

Three times, Auburn has enjoyed a max-out season translating into a top-two national finish. Three times, a five-loss season has either immediately preceded or followed that max-out season.

In 2003 and 2009, Auburn lost five games. In 2004 and 2010, Auburn did not lose a game. In 2013, Auburn barely lost an epic national championship game to Florida State, and last year — with all sorts of disorganization on defense and a generally sloppy identity as a whole — Auburn’s Gus Bus spun off the interstate and lost five times.

Since 1998, Auburn has reached 10 wins or more on only four occasions. This is not a program which machine-cranks double-digit victories. Volatility and vexation are baked into the program’s modern-day DNA. Yet, just as surely as this program careens from one identity to another, it also grabs the brass ring when it seizes a moment of opportunity.

Underscoring the program’s ability to be “consistently inconsistent” over an extended period of time, realize that Auburn’s three magnificent seasons over the past 11 years were the product of three separate coaches: Tommy Tuberville in 2004, Gene Chizik in 2010, and Gus Malzahn in 2013. It is true that 2010 was more the work of Cam Newton than anyone else — that 2010 campaign is one of the great single seasons by a player in college football history, easily one of the five best of all time and very probably in the top three. However, Malzahn was there in 2010, and his ability to help Newton unlock his immense talent is certainly something Auburn took note of when it needed to replace Chizik following (volatility alert!) a 3-9 disaster in 2012.

Auburn might still be known for its ups and downs (and for its ability to ride the up elevator better than any other non-Crimson Tide program in this decade’s SEC), but perhaps we’re about to hit a stretch of highway over the next several years in which the Gus Bus stays in its lane and gives the Tigers a smoother ride.

Vexing, volatile, but quite victorious. The Auburn experience is something else.

Fasten your seat belts (or at least hang onto the railings and safety bars inside the Gus Bus) before this season commences.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |