Yesterday, we went through the justification for making a change at offensive coordinator after the 2007 season, and the decline of the Al Borges Gulf Coast Offense under Tommy Tuberville. The raw numbers supported getting rid of him, but you have to take into account other factors...
- Tuberville’s meddling in the offense. This week, our own James Jones tweeted a mystery box score and asked Auburn fans to identify the game.
A little morning Box Score Trivia. Home team is on the right. pic.twitter.com/XeDZIMcBPZ— James Jones (@JamesJones_55) July 27, 2017
Spoiler alert — it was the 2005 Iron Bowl. The 11 sacks at the bottom give it away, but look at that total yardage. 257 yards for Auburn in a victory that was never in doubt? It was 28-7 at halftime, and Auburn never trailed or was really threatened in any way. Bama scored to make it 28-18 with 23 seconds left, still down two scores. Auburn scored touchdowns on its first three drives and then again right before halftime to essentially ice the game. So what happened in the second half? The Tigers sat on the ball like they’d do countless times with Tuberville running the show. Auburn could’ve posted 50 in that game if they’d wanted, but Tuberville was content with the win. Thus, the 10 point margin is still the largest for Auburn in the series since 1969 (Auburn beat Bama by 10 in 1987, 89, 02, & 05)
- Recruiting wasn’t humming, especially offensively. From 2002-2007, Auburn’s recruiting class was ranking 15th in the country on average according to 247. Not bad, but we know the state of SEC recruiting. In their highest ranked class (9th in 2007), that still put the Tigers 6th in the SEC.
- Injuries. 2004 and 2005 were fantastic years offensively, and 2006 started on fire, but injuries to Brandon Cox and Kenny Irons early on hampered the production and the Tigers never really found their footing.
So, let’s play the What-If game and decree that Al Borges gets another year in 2008. Now remember, this is all me creating a completely hypothetical scenario just for the fun of imagining what could’ve been.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Do you remember 2008? Of course. It was a dismal and dreary time on the Plains where Auburn began the year ranked 10th in the AP Poll and stumbled its way to a 5-7 season all while Alabama went undefeated in the regular season and just missed playing for a national championship in Nick Saban’s second year. It was not a good time to be in the Yellowhammer State.
Of the seven losses, four were by five points or less, one was a 17-7 loss at Ole Miss, one was the loss at West Virginia where Auburn led 17-3 in the second quarter, and then there was the Iron Bowl.
In 2007, Auburn averaged 24 points per game. In 2008 they averaged 17 points per game. Let’s say Borges’ presence gives Auburn that extra touchdown per game and they flat out win the LSU, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and Georgia games. With a more potent offense it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they hold a big lead against West Virginia, or even win a tight one at Ole Miss. Best case scenario, Auburn could have been 11-0 heading into the Iron Bowl with a slightly more potent offense. Let’s not pretend they could’ve won that game, but do remember they were down just 10-0 at halftime after having missed a field goal at the horn.
Either way, let’s say Auburn wins the single-digit affairs, and splits WVU/Ole Miss. We’ll chalk up the Iron Bowl as a loss. That puts Auburn at 10-2 in 2008, with both losses coming on the road. Even 9-3 is a top fifteen finish for Tuberville. Borges probably stays for another year, Tuberville definitely doesn’t get fired, and ends up staying at Auburn for who knows how long.
So, let’s list what might have happened without the change from Tuberville to Chizik:
- No presence of Gus Malzahn ever at Auburn. Gus probably would’ve eventually been the guy at Arkansas once Petrino had his ill-fated motorcycle crash. The favored son of Northwest Arkansas would’ve come home to Fayetteville after a successful stint as offensive coordinator at some other major conference school and would’ve taken the head job in the spring of 2012.
- Without Gus and Chizik, it’s unlikely that Cam Newton ever would’ve set foot on Auburn’s campus. The Tigers were one of his favorites coming out of high school, but he still would’ve likely gone to Florida to play for Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen. Then, if things still played out the way they did, Cam probably goes from junior college to Mississippi State with Mullen and the Bulldogs. Then in 2010, Mississippi State goes from 5th in the SEC West to 1st or 2nd behind the strength of Cam Newton running the offense. There’s no BCS Championship for Auburn in 2010, and no third Heisman in the trophy case.
- Down the line, after Tuberville either leaves or is let go, there’s no telling in which direction Auburn goes for a new head coach. Like we said, Malzahn is probably firmly entrenched at Arkansas, and so there’s a decision to make regarding whether it’s an internal promotion and a similar style of play, or if a radical new hire is made and Auburn shifts direction to an offensively-oriented option.
- The list of coaches also listed as probables when Chizik was hired in 2008 included Gary Patterson, Brady Hoke, Turner Gill, Todd Graham, Derek Dooley, Rodney Garner, and even Patrick Nix. First of all, Auburn avoids the headache of being labeled as racist for not hiring Gill away from Buffalo. Do they grab someone else from that list? Derek Dooley would’ve been an Auburn legacy because of Vince, as would Rodney Garner and Patrick Nix. Gary Patterson’s the most successful head coach from that list, as TCU has been a force in the Big 12, and Todd Graham’s the only other name still a head coach somewhere. If Auburn had been able to swing Patterson, it would’ve been great, but there really aren’t many exciting names there.
- Over the next three years, the various guys hired to major jobs included James Franklin, Hugh Freeze, David Shaw, Dana Holgorsen, Jim McElwain, Bill O’Brien, Larry Fedora, Jim Mora, and Justin Fuente. Who knows if any of those names would’ve been considered for the vacancy, but they’ve all had pretty solid success in the time since.
- Two names that have popped up in every recent coaching search at Auburn have been two former offensive assistants...
If we’re going to go ahead and have fun assuming that 2008 might have been a ten-win season or better, we can also have some fun and pretend that one of these two guys ended up at Auburn. Let’s take Jimbo over Petrino, and say that Auburn would’ve been at the end of Tuberville’s rope by the end of 2011. Maybe Alabama still has two national championships then, but Auburn certainly wouldn’t have won it all in 2010 with Tuberville still on board.
Alright, Jimbo Fisher leaves Florida State after 2011 -- why, you might ask? Well, he wasn’t as loved after his second year on the job as he is now. He won one division title in those two years (falling to Virginia Tech in the 2010 ACC Championship), and went 19-8 from 2010-2011. Not bad, but not great for a fanbase frothing for more of the success of the 1990s.
His offenses also weren’t as prolific as we saw in 2013 with Jameis Winston. The Seminoles averaged just over 30 points per game in his first two seasons with Christian Ponder and EJ Manuel calling signals. To make matters worse, the top record in the ACC both of those seasons was 11-3, which wouldn’t get a team close to the BCS Championship Game. Competing in the SEC got you a significant boost when it came to reaching the BCS title game.
With Fisher’s ties to Auburn and the state of Alabama as a whole, the move would’ve made sense if it had happened at the time, and there wouldn’t have been the road blocks in going to Auburn as there reportedly were in his near-hiring at UAB.
So there we go. Fisher gets hired at Auburn after facing some criticism early at FSU and wanting to coach in a league where he feels he can reach the top. Let’s say this comes after the 2011 season. What happens then? Well, if you want to really speculate, Auburn may flip the tables and snag a guy who broke their hearts two years later.
By many reports, Winston (whose mother was an Auburn fan) was interested in the Tigers, but improper contact forced Auburn to back off for awhile. Obviously, the improper contact wouldn’t have happened with a totally different staff in place at the time, and Winston’s relationship with Jimbo may have sealed the deal for him to attend Auburn. Now, who knows what happens with 2013, if Fisher’s able to put together a juggernaut like he had in Tallahassee, or if it’s another good-but-not-great season.
Either way, the presence of Jimbo Fisher in the SEC West to compete with his former mentor in Nick Saban would be something incredibly fascinating to watch. The Iron Bowl each year would be a true master/apprentice affair, and nobody can deny that Auburn would likely be even more talented than they are now due to Fisher’s prowess on the recruiting trail. The fun thing is that we will get to see this matchup, just with Fisher still at FSU.
Who knows how things would’ve eventually shaken out? There are obviously leaps across rumor and faith itself in concocting such a what-if situation, but every possibility was rooted in some shred of fact at some point. Remember, this is not what I wish had happened, or what I think should have happened, but what could have happened if one fairly inconsequential move had been made. If Al Borges had been afforded another year as offensive coordinator at Auburn, it may have affected events around football to allow someone else (in this case, Jimbo Fisher) to become the head coach.
Kickoff needs to get here before we go down some really weird rabbit holes.