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How The West Was (Is) Won

By War Eagle Atlanta

After reading Jay's excellent article last week on what passes for greatness when it comes to coaches on the Plains, it got me thinking about all the ways we've come to define it, regardless of whom we choose to bestow it upon. The most popular is through SEC championships, and we all definitely agree that those are a whole lot harder these days than they used to be. I came of age with Auburn in the late 1980s, so I thought winning SEC titles was something we just did. But after a dearth of them in the 1990s, I slowly realized that they were a lot more special than I originally thought.

Winning the SEC title is so important now, that it has birthed its own sub-goal: winning the west. And you gotta do one before you even think about the other. Today I'm going to look back at our division since the conference split in 1992 and see exactly who's been winning the west the last sixteen years. One day I'm going to write a book on why Auburn should actually be in the eastern division of the SEC, but until that time, let's look at our short history where we currently reside.

I don't call it the wild, wild, west for nothing. Face it. Our division is WIDE open. Five of the six teams have made it to Atlanta (read: the SEC championship game), where only three from the other side has. And our lone hold-out may have made it had there been one more Manning in the household to enroll... For prognosticators, picking a winner from the east is like a game of 3-card Monty, but it's never easy in the west. There's always a dark-horse coming from somewhere, and winning six conference games doesn't guarantee you squat.

The west was dominated in the early days by Alabama. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the title game was in Birmingham those first two years, but probably not. Thankfully, the powers that be saw the light and moved it to a real venue and town, the one from which I claim my moniker. The Tide was dominant in the beginning, reaching the title game four of the first five years, and five times overall in the 1990s. After that, they petered out, not to return since, which isn't surprising, considering the coaching carousel that has plagued them the last decade. Overall, the Tide collected two SEC crowns in their five trips.

It's easy to see that LSU has been the dominant western power in the 21st century. After all, every one of their four appearances in Atlanta have come since 2001, and they've collected three titles for their effort. But things weren't always so rosy for the purple Tigers. They were hamstrung themselves by a number of coaching changes in the 1990s and posted virtually only half the SEC victories they did in their first eight years from the split than they did the last eight years (25 versus 47) Still, their three SEC titles are second most in the whole conference, behind Florida's six, and ahead of Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama's two apiece.

But what should we make our own beloved school? Doesn't it always seem that we can taste a west title on our lips only to have it stolen away cruelly at the last minute? Well, brothers and sisters, let me tell you. That ain't paranoia you're feeling, it's something real. It's a feeling that we're just waiting to be unleashed, but the rope is never cut. It's a feeling that we're about to do some open-field running in this division and this conference, but we just can't break one tackle. But most of all, it's a feeling that is backed up with the numbers.

We've been to Atlanta three times, which ties us with Arkansas for third most appearances in the west. We won one SEC title, which puts us ahead of them, but still behind the three and two titles of LSU and Bama, respectively. But we've never been able to put together a solid run like the Tide did in the 90s and LSU did here recently. Yet with few exceptions, we're never quite out of it year in and year out. Only three times out of sixteen seasons have we failed to win at least half of our regular season conference games, and over that time, we've averaged 5.06 conference victories out of 8, or a total of 81 conference wins. How many for Alabama? 76, or 4.75 per season. LSU? 72, or 4.5 per season. So what's our problem? Oh, the humanity...

Despite having more conference victories than any other western division team since the split, Auburn has sucked wind with the head-to-head competition with the eventual division winner. This number is going to shock you, but in those sixteen seasons, Auburn missed out from going to Atlanta SEVEN times by only ONE GAME. Just one little conference loss. And every one of those games was lost to the team that did go to the title game. As a matter of fact, we've done it the last three seasons in A ROW-- to LSU last year, to Arkansas in 2006, and to LSU in 2005. Can you believe it? One measly game each over seven seasons and we could have represented the west in Atlanta ten out of sixteen years.

So that is the reason why the Auburn family always feels that they're close but no cigar. That is the reason why we're the Buffalo Bills of the South. We just keep coming up short! But greatness is just around the corner. Our program is just on the edge of cutting through. We're going to break that tackle and dash through the secondary into the end zone. Tuberville has the momentum, and we're poised to do it. It's been said so often that his Auburn squads love to fly under the radar, and I think it's tradition that no one ever really expects us to win it all, but they always know we're going to be no one's pushover either.

I hope I live long enough to see how the SEC titles of yesterday will be judged by history to the ones of today. I wonder if they'll look at the old split titles as relics of years gone by, the same as leather helmets and placard-type scoreboards. I wonder how many we'll have by then. However many that is, I hope we look back at this point in history and realize that it was all worth the wait...