Happy New Year, from Track Em Tigers!
War Eagle, everybody! It's New Year's Eve, and it's time for a look back at a crazy year for Auburn football! A year ago, the Auburn football program was in shambles after a disastrous 2008 campaign left the team home for the holidays. Head Coach Tommy Tuberville had resigned, and Auburn had hired Gene Chizik as his replacement, sparking a firestorm of outrage. Chizik had managed to turn heads after two weeks on the job, hiring Gus Malzhan as his offensive coordinator, and signing Eltoro Freeman, Onterrio McCalebb and Nick Fairley to letters of intent.
In the first week of the new year, Chizik started adding to his staff. Jay Boulware, Ted Roof and Trooper Taylor all joined the team. By mid-February, the on-the-field staff was set. Despite a late start, Gene Chizik pulled in a recruiting class with guys capable of playing immediately. The signees included Darren Bates, DeAngelo Benton, Emory Blake, Jonathan Evans, Dee Ford, Anthony Gulley, Travante Stallworth, and Demond Washington.
The end of March saw the start of spring practice. Quite a few fans and press folks were irritated that most of each session were closed to the media and public. The A-Day game was played on a hazy 70 degree day, and was over far too quickly. The Malzhan offense was fun to watch, and big plays abounded. The defense looked scary. By scary, I mean that we were scared that we wouldn't be able to stop anybody! If a play got past the line, it usually went for big yardage. Ben Tate, Onterrio McCalebb, and Darvin Adams would all have big days, forshadowing great things to come in the fall. In addition to defensive woes, it was clear that Auburn had a LONG way to go at the quarterback position.
During SEC Media Days, three Tigers were selected to preseason All-SEC teams: Antonio Coleman, Lee Ziemba and Ben Tate. By this time, 2009 was the year of coaches popping off and taking verbal jabs at each other. Auburn fans were grateful and pleased that Gene Chizik did not join in the trash talk. Win or lose, Coach Chizik was going to be a class act.
Fall camp started on August 5th, and it was more of the same for the fans and media. Practices were closed. Outside eyes were NOT going to get a look at the new offense and defense! We watched the practice reports mainly for the growing injury list. Even though contact was scaled back at times, big names were added to the list almost daily. In an eyebrow-raising move, Auburn announced that the team was going to have its own reality show, "Auburn Every Day." Count this writer as one of the many who were skeptical. We were wondering if it would be an MTV-style drama like the show "Two a Days," but our fears were unfounded. The series really showed the unity and family atmosphere of the team. The biggest shock of fall came was that senior quarterback Chris Todd, who had not been allowed to throw in spring drills, won the starting quarterback job after only 11 practices. Quarterback Kodi Burns moved to wide receiver, and stepped up to become a great leader on the team.
Auburn opened the season at home against Louisiana Tech, in a game many considered to be a trap game. Some media pundits picked Auburn to LOSE. It was a tight game for a half, then Chris Todd hooked up with receiver Terrell Zachary on a 93 yard record-setting touchdown pass, and the rout was on. Auburn downed the Bulldogs 37-13. The Bulldogs, coming off a bowl-winning season finished 4-8, 3-5 in the WAC.
Auburn hosted Mississippi State the next weekend, and jumped on the Bulldogs for a 14-0 lead. The Bulldogs fought back, and took a 17-14 lead after a blocked punt returned for a TD. Auburn geared up the two minute offense, and scored twice before the half, leading 28-17. In the second half, Auburn ran away from the Bullies, winning 49-24. Ben Tate and Onterrio McCalebb had both rushed for over a hundred yards each in two consecutive games. Mississippi State finished 5-7, 3-5 in the SEC.
Auburn hosted the West Virginia Mountaineers, and the story was the weather. Prior to kickoff, the skies opened up and several inches of rain fell in a short time, flooding everything! After a LONG delay, the game kicked off. Auburn fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter, but never quit fighting and clawing. Midway through the 3rd quarter, Auburn tied the game on a magnificent 82 yard screen pass from Chris Todd to Mario Fannin. In the 4th quarter Auburn's defensive pressure provided turnovers, and Auburn closed out the Mountaineers 41-30. West Virginia finished 9-3, 5-2 in the Big East. The Mountaineers will play cupcake Florida State in the Gator Bowl on New Years Day.
Auburn played Ball State the following week, and the game saw another rain delay at Jordan Hare. The Ball State Cardinals were the defending MAC West Champion, and they hung with the Tigers for a quarter. The Tigers exploded to a 33-10 halftime lead, and rested many of the starters in the second half en route to a 54-30 win. Ball State plunged to 2-10 on the season, 2-6 in the MAC.
The Auburn Tigers then took their 4-0 record on the road to Knoxville, to play the Tennessee Volunteers. Auburn held the upper hand for much of the day in a low-scoring defensive scrum. When Chris Todd zipped a hot-read pass for a TD to Terrell Zachary in the 4th quarter, Auburn had a 23-6 lead. Tennessee stormed back, but the Tigers held on for a 26-22 win. The Tigers were 5-0. Tennessee finished at 7-5, 4-4 in the SEC. The Vols face a tough test on New Year's Eve tonight against the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Peach Bowl.
Auburn had to get up early for their next game, a morning tilt against the Arkansas Razorbacks in Fayetteville. As in such games the past few seasons, the Tigers sleep-walked through the first half, trailing 34-3 midway through the 3rd quarter. Ben Tate led a rally and the Tigers scored 3 touchdowns in quick succession. The Tigers had cut the lead to 34-23, but then gave up a 70-yard kick return to set up an easy Arkansas TD. Arkansas won, 44-23. The Tigers suffered their first loss of the year. Arkansas finished 7-5, 3-5 in the SEC. Arkansas heads to the Liberty Bowl on January 2nd. They will face Conference USA Champ East Carolina Sunday night.
Auburn returned home to play the Kentucky Wildcats. Both teams struggled to move the ball. Auburn opened the scoring on a blocked field goal that Neiko Thorpe returned 69 yards for a score. Kentucky answered with a scoring drive in the second quarter, then Auburn engineered their only scoring drive of the game, capping it with a Ben Tate TD run. The 14-7 lead would not hold. The Tigers put up a miserable second half performance, and allowed two long Wildcat drives in the 4th quarter. The Tigers fell to Kentucky, 21-14. Kentucky finished 7-5, 3-5 in the SEC. The Wildcats traveled to the Music City Bowl last Sunday, to take on ACC runner up Clemson. Kentucky lost, 21-13, finishing the season at 7-6.
Auburn then traveled to Baton Rouge Louisiana, to face the 4th ranked LSU Tigers. Auburn's woes in every phase of the game continued, and LSU took an easy 31-3 lead into the 4th quarter. The backup offense got a chance late in the game, and quarterback Neil Caudle engineered a drive that culminated in a TD pass to Phillip Lutzenkirchen. LSU won the game, 31-10. The Auburn Tigers had fallen to 5-3. LSU finished 9-3, 5-3 in the SEC. LSU faces a challenge at noon on New Years Day, in the Capital One Bowl, facing Penn State.
Auburn limped home to host the 23rd-ranked Ole Miss Rebels. The Rebels made it look easy with an early TD drive, but Auburn slammed the door for the rest of the half. A TD pass from Chris Todd to Darvin Adams against a blown coverage gave Auburn a 10-7 lead at the half. Midway through the 3rd quarter, Auburn opened opened it up with a bang, rolling in just 3 plays to a TD pass from Kodi Burns to Tommy Trott. A misfired Ole Miss hitch pass deflected high in the air, and Auburn's Walter McFadden snared it and ran it in for a pick-six. A holding penalty killed an Ole Miss drive, and then Auburn was 3 plays and in again, capping the drive with a 53-yard Ben Tate run. The Tigers led 31-7, but Ole Miss was not done. Auburn proceeded to give up an 82-yard kick return for the score. On the next Rebel possession, Dexter McCluster ripped 79 yards for the score. The Ole Miss extra point was blocked by Antonio Coleman, and Demond Washington went the other way for two. Auburn made the 33-20 lead stand up, and beat the Rebels by that score. Ole Miss finished 8-4, 4-4 in the SEC. The Rebels head to the Cotton Bowl on January 2nd, to play the Oklahoma State Cowboys Saturday afternoon.
Homecoming 2009 against the Furman Paladins was basically a practice scrimmage. The Auburn offense was seldom stopped, as the starters rolled up a 42-3 halftime advantage. Reserve defenders gave up 4 second half touchdowns, but it didn't matter, as Auburn cruised to a 63-31 win. Furman finished 6-5, 5-3 in the Southern Conference.
Auburn dominated the first quarter in Athens, and led the Georgia Bulldogs 14-0. Injuries were mounting, though. Two 2009 signees (Darren Bates and Demond Washington) were already starting in the secondary, then linebacker Eltoro Freeman left the game with an injury. The depleted Tiger D struggled. Georgia cut Auburn's lead to 14-7 at the half on a 50 yard bomb. In the second half, a Bulldog field goal drive and a touchdown run gave the Bulldogs a 17-14 lead. Auburn tied the game after a long pass to Tommy Trott. Georgia ran right over Auburn to take a 24-17 lead, but then Demond Washington returned the kickoff 99 yards to tie it at 24. A Chris Todd interception set Georgia up for the game winner. Auburn drove in the waning moments to the Georgia 23. A violent collision at the goal line separated Mario Fannin from the pass attempt. A sack and a false start followed, killing the drive. Auburn fell to the Georgia Bulldogs, 31-24. Georgia finished the season with a stunning win over archrival Georgia Tech, and closed out 7-5, 4-4 in the SEC. The Bulldogs traveled to the Independence Bowl and mashed Texas A&M 44-20, to finish 8-5.
The Tigers enjoyed a week off, then hosted the undefeated, 2nd ranked Alabama Crimson Tide on Black Friday. Few gave the Tigers any chance in this game, but Auburn came out swinging. A 67 yard end around TD by Terrell Zachary opened the scoring. Wes Byrum executed a perfect onside kick, and the Tigers were back in business again. Auburn drove and scored again, on a 1 yard pass from Chris Todd to Eric Smith. Alabama fought back, with a 10-play TD drive. Just before the half, Auburn tried to cover tight end Colin Peek with a linebacker, and the Tide burned the Tigers with a 33 yard TD pass to tie the game at 14. In the 3rd quarter, Chris Todd torched a Tide corner blitz with a 72-yard strike to Darvin Adams. The Tide battled for 2 field goals, and trailed 21-20 going into the 4th quarter. Needing one more stop, the beleaguered, injured Auburn defense could not do it. Alabama marched 79 yards in 15 plays, for the win. A last ditch hail mary by Chris Todd was knocked away in the end zone, and Auburn lost to Alabama, 26-21. At 12-0, the Tide rolled into Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. The Tide POUNDED the undefeated Florida Gators, 32-13. Alabama heads to Pasadena, California for a January 7th showdown with Texas for the BCS national title.
Despite the disappointing loss in the Iron Bowl, the Tiger football team received a 5 minute standing ovation from the crowd at the end of the game. The Auburn faithful are proud of the effort put forth by this young Auburn football team, and have great hopes for the future! What a difference a year makes!
The final brilliant move for the football team this year was made by athletic director Jay Jacobs. Despite the Tigers finishing 7-5 on the season along with 5 other SEC teams, Jacobs managed to secure an invitation to the Outback Bowl. While South Carolina is in Birmingham, Arkansas in Memphis, Tennessee in Atlanta, and Ole Miss in Dallas, Auburn plays on New Years Day. It's quite an end to a year of hope.
Get fired up, Tiger fans! We'll be here bright and early tomorrow with an open thread for the Outback Bowl. We'll have the usual play by play. As always, feel free to drop by and give us your wisdom! War Eagle, and Happy New Year!