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Auburn at a Crossroads

When you think about Auburn's football history over the past half century, one word comes to mind - fortunate. There are inherent advantages to being the "state university," whether you are talking academics or football. When your state school goes on a run, you better have an answer. If you don't, then you become Miss State.

Auburn has always answered.

Auburn people have been fortunate to have the right person running its football program at critical times in its battle with cross-state rival Alabama.

Whether it was Shug Jordan averaging nearly eight wins a season (against a 10 game schedule) during Bear Bryant's heyday or Terry Bowden going 11-0 a year after Alabama won the national championship in 1992, the program has always found a way to respond.

Over the past five years, Alabama has raised the stakes. Again, Auburn has found a way to hold serve. The result is three consecutive national titles for the state with no professional sports.

What makes Auburn the most successful land grant football program in the country? There's no question money and leadership top the list. But more importantly, it has been the head football coach roaming the sidelines.

Where would this program be today had Jordan not kept Auburn relevant during the run of arguably the greatest college coach of all time? Shug was more than just a name on a stadium. He won titles in a time when SEC teams refused to play on Auburn's campus.

Jordan spent his career playing most of his conference home games in Birmingham, Columbus and Atlanta. It's amazing the Iron Bowl is considered the top rivalry in America when you consider Auburn played the vast majority of the contests on the road at Alabama's home stadium, whether it be Legion Field or Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Not until the end of Jordan's career did the majority of SEC programs finally agree to play games at Auburn, and for once, level the playing field for the Tigers. This is not ancient history. We are talking as recently as 35 years ago.

Where would Auburn be today without Pat Dye arriving in December 1980? If you didn't live it, it's hard to put into words how downtrodden Auburn people were before his arrival. Alabama and Georgia had won the previous three national championships and many wondered whether Auburn had the money or desire to pick itself up off the mat.

They had lost nine straight to Alabama and Bryant was at the apex of his career. If Jordan held serve for 25 years, then Dye kicked the door down and took firm control of the state for more than a decade.

It was a staggering turn of events for the state of Alabama. Beginning with Auburn's win in 1982, the program has dominated for the past 30 years, going 17-13 against Alabama from 1982 to 2011.

Now Auburn faces another crossroads - another defining moment. As disappointing as it was to watch Alabama claim the national championship last week, think how much worse it would have been had 2010 never happened.

Like Jordan, Dye and Bowden before him, Gene Chizik seems to be the right man at the right time for this Auburn program. Many haters in the state will try to brand him as a one hit wonder - somebody that never could have won without Cam Newton and Nick Fairley. Despite the obvious ignorance of such statement, it's one Chizik will hear until his team returns to the top of the SEC.

The hiring of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder sends a strong message to Tuscaloosa. Auburn has no intention of surrendering the state to Bama. Tuscaloosa is riding high. There's no arguing Nick Saban's success. But don't let their excitement cloud the truth.

The Auburn program has never been better. Not in its 100+ year existence has there been a group of athletes like the ones on campus today. Auburn's coaching staff is as good as any in America.

Alabama has raised the stakes - again. Auburn has always answered. History proves it.

We are all fortunate.