Back in 2000, I left my suburban home on the northeast side of Houston, Texas to move up to a small town in western Illinois. The name of that town is Galesburg. It was three hours from Chicago, three hours from St. Louis and surrounded by corn. It was the hometown of three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sandberg. It was also the home of George Reeves, the actor who would famously portray Superman in the 1950s, and Whitcomb L. Judson, the inventor of the zipper. I had moved up to Galesburg with my father, who had taken a job there, before the start of my junior year in high school, while my mother and sister stayed in Houston to try and sell our house. It was there, in Galesburg, on a Thursday night, I watched my first Auburn football game.
Sixteen years ago today, August 31st, unranked Auburn hosted Wyoming in a 35-21 victory over the Cowboys. It was in this game, Rudi Johnson would rush for his first of ten 100 yard rushing games (174 yards as a matter of fact) and three touchdowns. My dad and I sat on the couch (which was also my bed) in our efficiency apartment eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and cheering loudly for Auburn. It was a great night that would set up a good season for Auburn.
A season that would see Auburn winning its first SEC West title since 1997, play against Florida in Atlanta for the SEC Championship and be ranked in the top 20 with a 9 - 4 record. Rudi Johnson would receive SEC Player of the Year honors accumulating 1,567 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. It was a great season that I'm sure no one was expecting. Considering the previous year where Tuberville and Auburn went 5 - 6, I'm fairly certain that not many in the world of sports writing and sports broadcasting gave Auburn much of a chance if they even gave Auburn a chance at all.
That probably sounds a little bit familiar, doesn't it?
Heading into the 2016 season, the Auburn Tigers are currently unranked, projected to maybe, maybe, finish 6 - 6 and the current head coach, Gus Malzahn is already on the hot seat (according to many) before the season even begins. Unlike the beginning of the 2000 season, Auburn will not be opening the season against the likes of a team such as Wyoming. Instead, the Tigers will be hosting those other tigers from South Carolina, Clemson. Who, as we all know, played for the national title back in January (and lost) and is ranked as the second best team in the nation.
If there was ever a time when Auburn could have used an under the radar start, this was certainly not the way to go about setting that up.
Now, I want to be clear, I'm not counting out Auburn for this season. I think there is a possibility of having a better season than most are expecting. However, I am a little tense as despite my efforts to ignore the musings of summertime bored college football writers, sometimes I found myself reading their work anyway. I'm not proud of myself for giving in, but I did.
Of course, in all these articles, there was one common thread; Gus Malzahn and the security of his job.
Just do a google search, "Gus Malzahn hot seat" and see just how many results you get. Want me to save you the trouble? 24,900. That's right. Gus Malzahn and the current temperature of his chair has been mentioned in some way or some form, in some fashion, twenty-four thousand and nine hundred times.
Of course, some could say this is the result of a self-inflicted wound. The Auburn football program has now become synonymous with firing it's head coaches with regularity. Jokingly so, too.
Now, I don't want to be that fan. The one who becomes all agitated and says loudly, "but but but there have been plenty of other football teams that have done this! Southern Cal is now on their 4th head coach since 2008! Ole Miss fired their best head coach in 30 years after one bad season! Alabama went through four head coaches from '97 to 2006! Tennessee! Florida!" and so on and so on.
Well, I guess I was just that fan, but the only reason I can give you is, "because Auburn".
Because Auburn is the program that performed a coaching search before the season was even over, only to have that coach go undefeated the next season and miss out on playing for a national title. Because Auburn is the program that did fire their head coach two years after winning the program's first national title in 50 years! Only for almost that same team to play for another national title the following season!
Because Auburn is the team that went through these developments during what is now a peak in popularity of college football. It is also ever present due to immediate availability whether it be through blogs, social media, podcasts, television, et cetera and if one outlet says it, then everyone is saying it and therefore must be true. Not only is college football more popular than ever, but also Auburn is in arguably the most popular conference in the sport, the Southeastern Conference.
If all of this had taken place 10 years prior, then more than likely no one would be talking about this. Or maybe they would, who knows.
That's the world as it is right now folks. I'm sure a lot of you are saying, "but Oscar, that's the way it has always been for Auburn".
Maybe in the state of Alabama, but not so much elsewhere. Trust me, I know, I've lived elsewhere.
And what feels like the 10th time in 8 years there is a quarterback kerfuffle over who is and who should be the starting signal caller for the Tigers. It is, of course, a bigger fuss than it should be and is resonating at a slightly higher frequency this year due to a) Malzahn's "Plastic Walmart Deck set ablaze", b) the (there's no easy way to put this) proverbial failure that was Jeremy Johnson's junior year part and parcel to the hype that facilitated that failure and c) John Franklin III.
Once again, I could be one of those fans who points out that as of writing this that programs like Alabama or Michigan have yet to announce a starting quarterback. However, like I said, I don't want to do that even though I kind of just did.
What may be another big part of this supposed fuss is the aforementioned JF3. It would be hard to argue that there were not at least some Auburn fans out there who were excited at the signing of the former Florida State and EMCC quarterback. I'm certain many thought he'd be a Nick Marshall 2.0 (you can't improve on the Cam Newton model) and that Auburn would return to an offense reminiscent of the 2013-14 seasons.
But before Malzahn could even make a decision as to who would be taking the direct snaps, Netflix's series "Last Chance U" debuted and we all got a close look at Franklin's personality. It wasn't the best of portrayals, I'll admit, but what I saw was a young person who has been told his whole life that he is hot shit acting like a young person who has been told his whole life that he is hot shit. How did you think he was going to behave on camera? You have an athlete who is trying to re-up his stock and value as a football player by going to a program that will try to make him look as flashy and awesome as possible as a means to continue to prop up their own brand. Now, you're sticking a lens in his face, telling him to act like the camera crew isn't there and that when they're done that sometime in the near future he and everyone that knows or doesn't know him is going to be able to watch him play on the most renowned pay for video streaming service on the planet.
Yeah, that sounds like the makings of the biggest and best piece of humble pie that's ever been served.
Fans everywhere made their opinion of how they felt about JF3 known to anyone on the internet who would listen, whether they were positive, negative (largely this) or neutral (me). And as we all know, Franklin did not get the starting role. Not only did he not get the starting role, but he is sharing the backup spot with JJ. He's not even a true No. 2 or 3!
That leaves Sean White, finally named the starter last week. There's already plenty that has been said and written about him. Like Coach Malzahn has said (I'm pretty sure he said this), I believe White gives Auburn its best chance at winning football games this season. If the Tigers don't win many football games, hopefully, Sean will make Auburn at least look competitive in those losses. I honestly don't even know what else I can say other than that.
Wrapping all of this nonsense I've written is the opener against Clemson. I didn't watch much of the Lake Tigers' games last season. In fact, I only watched two of their games in full and yeah, those would be the playoff games. So, I turned to the one resource that I know is a horrible way to get a feel for an opposing team. That would be SB Nation's Clemson blog, Shakin' the Southland.
HAHAHAHAHAHA! I'm just kidding! I'm sure they do great work over there. I don't know, I've never read their stuff.
No, I'm talking about cfbstats.com. I know, this is a terrible thing to do, but I'm lazy and 60% percent of the time it works every time. Anyway, as I looked through 2015 Clemson's statistical data I started to notice how similar it was with Auburn's 2013 team. The biggest difference being that DeShaun Watson personally accounted for 5209 yards of total offense. That's 399 yards more than Auburn's entire offense put up last season. Yes, Watson did play two more games than Auburn did, but still.
Reading over these statistics brought back some fun memories of that 2013 Tigers team and led me to wonder about what it must have been like for opposing teams that had to face Auburn's offense three years ago.
I think we're going to find out come Saturday.
I'm not down on our Tigers and I think Gus and Co. will find a way to be competitive Saturday night. But as Randy Quaid said in Independence Day, "I picked a hell of day to quit drinking".
That's a lie, I haven't quit drinking.