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8 Days Until Kickoff

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Fans outside the stadium, the official Jordan-Hare time is...

Tomorrow marks one week until kickoff. Soon we’ll have official depth charts, game-week press conferences, regular Tiger Talk shows with Gus Malzahn... ahh, it’ll be great!

For my part, I can only find one game that Auburn won when scoring eight points, so we’re going a different route today for the first time. That game was an 8-0 victory over Kentucky in 1958, en route to an unbeaten season.

But, back in 1913, the Tigers finished 8-0 and won the national championship by one selector, the Billingsley Report. What kind of weight is put on that championship selection? Not much, but the Billingsley Report made its choice based on:

...a unique rule for head-to-head competition, with the overall system consisting of a balanced approach to wins, losses, strength of schedule, and home-field advantage. A slight weight is given to most recent performance. The Billingsley formula does not use margin of victory, however, the Billingsley MOV formula does include margin of victory in the calculations...

Not bad, Auburn probably could claim 1913 officially and put it somewhere as another title, but with Harvard grabbing most of the notoriety from that season, and Chicago even netting a claim, its far from unanimous. Still, how can Auburn deny giving some credence to the accomplishments of such a dashing dude?

That’s Iron Mike Donahue for ya.

8 Years Ago - 2009

We pick up here where we left off the previous season -- December of 2008. Auburn needed a new head coach after Tommy Tuberville left the post about a week after getting drilled by Alabama. Times were changing in the SEC, Bama was back, and Tuberville didn’t seem to have the heart in competing with what Nick Saban wanted to do.

Auburn needed someone a bit younger, more vibrant, and with some new ideas that would challenge the definite athletic advantage that Saban was building across the state.

Who knows which candidates were seriously considered, but it seems like most people were turning toward Turner Gill of Buffalo. Gill was a former triple option savant while a quarterback at Nebraska, and had taken the Buffalo Bulls to an upset of previously-unbeaten Ball State in the MAC Championship Game. He was a hot name in the coaching carousel, and many people gave him the leg up at Auburn. Then, when other candidates were considered, all of a sudden AUBURN RACIST, Y’ALL. Even our own Charles Barkley bashed Auburn because he believed that race played a part in Gill not being hired.

In the end, and in somewhat of a surprise move, the Tigers hired Gene Chizik. Chizik had been the architect of the nation’s top defense in 2004, winning the Broyles Award before heading off to Texas. He coached two straight Thorpe Award winners and went on a personal 29-game winning streak as an assistant in Auburn and Austin. He’d been hired as the head coach at Iowa State, and did pretty poorly leading the program (5-19 overall record in two seasons), but he knew the area around Auburn, had recruited the state of Florida well, knew the SEC (and Nick Saban), and had power conference head coaching experience.

Auburn had done the same thing with the Al Borges hire. Anyone who looked at Indiana’s numbers while Borges was there would’ve said the hire was nuts, but it worked out great for the Tigers. Chizik’s hiring was very similar. He had nothing to work with in Ames, and he was competing with already very established programs almost across the board in the Big 12.

When he came to Auburn, some anonymous fan yelled at Jay Jacobs as he stepped off the plane “We want a leader, not a loser!” and that became the moment that people associated with Chizik’s hiring. But Gene didn’t waste time in accruing a pretty solid staff to work with.

I remember someone gave me Gus Malzahn’s book for Christmas in 2008.

Complete with religion-based hand signs

I read it and remembered that this was the guy whose high school offense had run through the SEC in 2006, then dominated Conference USA at Tulsa the next two seasons. I thought he might be a good offensive coordinator, and then he was hired to run the offense.

Alright!

The rest of the staff fell in place with guys who knew how to recruit and motivate. Trooper Taylor, the backward-hat-wearing, towel-waving receivers coach and Tracy Rocker, the legendary former Tiger turned defensive line coach headlined the group. It seemed like things were coming together.

Fast-forward to the start of the season, and Auburn opened with Louisiana Tech, led by hot young coach Derek Dooley. This was my first season working on the Tiger Tailgate Show with the Auburn football radio broadcast, and I was star-struck when Vince Dooley came onto the show to talk about his son (he told us he was pulling against his alma mater). The offense started pretty slowly, leading the Bulldogs just 13-10 at halftime, but things looked much better. Then, as I made my way up to the press box for the second half, I settled in on the upper level of the radio booth to watch the game.

It was there that I got a bird’s-eye view of the action. This offense moved. It was tough to follow. I had no idea how a defense at the same level could tell what was going on. They just weren’t clicking yet — that is, until the pump fake.

Chris Todd hit Terrell Zachery with the pump fake that we’d see multiple times in the future, and it turned into the longest play from scrimmage in Auburn history. 93 yards for the touchdown, and the floodgates opened. The Tigers won going away, 37-13. Noticeable among the numbers from the game — Onterio McCalebb rushed for nearly 150 yards, Ben Tate broke the century mark, and Auburn rolled up more than 550 yards total.

The next week, things were similar as Mississippi State visited Jordan-Hare. Gone was Sylvester Croom, unable to do much in his five seasons in Starkville, and in his place was former Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen. A matchup of two power-running teams in the past turned into two spread offenses going at it in 2009, and Auburn was clearly superior.

Auburn jumped out to a 42-17 lead after three quarters and cruised to a 49-24 win, but the big takeaway was that the country had started to see the Tiger offense and stare in awe as ESPN cameras failed to follow the ball because of the shifting and motion. Things were looking good a couple of games into the Chizik era.

Then came West Virginia and the blackest skies I’ve ever seen.

We abandoned the Tiger Tailgate Show due to the impending rain, and Tiger Walk itself even happened in a different area. They pulled buses up in front of Beard-Eaves and let the players off there, where they walked up Heisman Drive instead of Donahue to get into the stadium. It was a weird day, but it didn’t really rain until just before kickoff.

As I sat in the student section, I could see people in the North end zone start to pull out ponchos and rain jackets, but the sky above them was clear and blue. I looked behind the Jumbotron and saw the blackest skies I’ve ever seen. It was insane. I grabbed my friends and told them that we should head into the concourse. I made my way up to the press box as the rains started, and the rain was so hard that I couldn’t see the student section across the field as I was standing in the radio booth. Before the game had even begun, the third Saturday of the season had been a wild one.

The game was wild too. In the first quarter alone, 31 points were scored. West Virginia and Noel Devine went to work early, as Devine blasted through on a 71-yard scoring burst to give the Mountaineers a 14-0 lead. Auburn punched back, posting ten straight before WVU notched another score to take a 21-10 lead after just fifteen minutes.

However, the second quarter was all Tigers. Darvin Adams caught his second touchdown pass of the night and pulled Auburn within a point at 21-20 as halftime hit. In the third, WVU kept the Tigers at arm’s length by holding a field goal advantage, but once again, Auburn took control in the final period.

Adams’ third touchdown of the night gave Auburn a 34-30 lead, and then with just a couple minutes remaining, Craig Stevens tipped a Jarrett Brown pass to himself and returned it for a score right into the student section. Auburn led 41-30 and held on for the win over WVU, outscoring the Mountaineers 31-9 after the first quarter.

Next up, it was an easy home warmup against Ball State, which the Tigers handled 54-30, posting another offensive gem with more than 550 yards of offense. All of a sudden, Auburn was 4-0 with a trip to Knoxville on deck. Honestly, it resembled 2004. Win your first four, take out a pretty good opponent in a crazy home game, and get a chance for the national notice at Neyland Stadium.

Auburn didn’t do what they did to the Vols in 2004, but the Tigers never trailed Lane Kiffin’s side in Knoxville, and Ben Tate embarrassed Eric Berry on the way to a 128-yard rushing performance.

Oh.

The Tigers won 26-22 and were 5-0, and made their first appearance in the rankings at #17.

It was short-lived.

We thought the Hog Hex had died with Tuberville, but I guess the ghost of Gus Malzahn’s past kept a vestige of the curse alive. After the win over Tennessee, Auburn went to Fayetteville for a game that I didn’t even think would be an issue. Arkansas wasn’t great. They’d gone 5-7 the year before just like Auburn did, and were 2-2 to start 2009. It would be a breeze.

Except for the fact that Ryan Mallett decided to show up and play football and put the Hogs up 27-3 up at halftime over Auburn. The Tigers showed a little more life in the second half, but the deficit was too much to overcome. Final, 44-23 Razorbacks. The Hog Hex lived on.

Auburn wandered hungover through the next couple of games — a perplexing loss at home to Kentucky, and a wickedly brutal defeat down in Baton Rouge — to send the once-promising record to 5-3. Then Ole Miss came to town on Halloween weekend.

The Tigers got off the slide against the Rebels with a 33-20 victory, but most importantly during that game was the ordeal that Zac Etheridge went through.

Big thanks always to Rebs running back Rodney Scott for his role in preventing further injury to Etheridge, and we’re obviously thrilled that Zac burst back onto the scene the next season fully healthy. This was a scary moment, however, and at the time we weren’t sure how it was going to end.

Auburn breezed through the next game, a homecoming win over Furman, before heading to Athens for the final road trip of the year. Mark Richt had taken control of the rivalry, with Georgia winning two straight games in the series and four of the last six, and this November night would be no different. In a very evenly-matched game, Auburn fell 31-24 at Sanford Stadium, giving up two fourth quarter touchdowns in the loss that dropped them to 7-4 overall with the #1 team in the country on the horizon.

With a bye week between the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry and the Iron Bowl, Auburn regrouped and we saw one of the best efforts in a loss the Tigers had given in some time. It was enough to give hope heading into the offseason.

The Tigers jumped up 14-0 over the top-ranked Tide, first on a scintillating 67-yard reverse by Terrell Zachery, and then on a punishing drive that ended with a short Eric Smith score. Bama rebounded and tied the game going into halftime, but Auburn hit the pump fake to Darvin Adams right out of the locker room for the second long touchdown and a 21-14 lead.

Up by just one score, the Tiger advantage dwindled as Bama hit two field goals (a rarity in those parts) and then got the final score after pick-playing their way down the field. Auburn’s last-ditch hail mary was batted away and the Tide won the Iron Bowl, finishing the regular season unbeaten.

Still, there was cause to be optimistic. Auburn had held the eventual Heisman Trophy winner to just 30 yards on 16 carries. They’d led Bama for nearly 59 minutes and just didn’t have the horses in the end. Much of the team was coming back the next season and would only get better. I felt as good walking out of that stadium as I could possibly feel after losing the Iron Bowl.

After that, Auburn got a bid to play Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. It started off as well as it could possibly go.

It’s almost the longest play Rod’s ever called! More on that later.

SIde note: Auburn came out in this game with the changeup in uniform to the white shoe/sock combo and I really liked it.

Auburn led Northwestern 21-7 midway through the second quarter, with McFadden’s pick-six being the highlight of the game so far, but the Wildcats fought back tall awkward receivers somehow sliced through the Tiger secondary for long play after long play.

We thought things were okay after two Ben Tate touchdown runs in the fourth quarter gave Auburn a 35-21 lead, but Northwestern fought back! After tying the game with a little over a minute left, they got the ball back and drove within field goal range, but missed a 44-yard kick to win the game. Off to overtime we went.

Auburn struck first with a short Wes Byrum field goal, and then the Wildcats got wild. Multiple times Auburn thought they won the game, first with another missed field goal that drew a roughing the kicker penalty, and then they finally did after Northwestern failed on a fumblerooskie attempt. Auburn stopped the trick play just short of the goal line and won 38-35 to finish the year 8-5.

Altogether, not much of a season, especially when Alabama was winning the national championship in comparison, but it was still very different from what we’d seen over the past decade and it would lead to the greatest season in modern Auburn history just one year later.

Coming Up: Flash That Smile, Cam!