Auburn, Ala. -- On the first day of spring practice coach Gene Chizik asked everybody who had started six or more college football games for Auburn to raise their hands.
"Guys started looking around because there weren't very many hands up," said Chizik. "That became the picture of the reality we're now facing."
|Cam Newton isn't the only key player that Auburn will have to replace. (Getty Images)|
Both predictions came true.
Newton, as you now know, turned out to be an extraordinary talent and won the Heisman Trophy. Auburn went 14-0, winning the SEC championship and the BCS national championship. Newton performed brilliantly in the hot spotlight of an NCAA investigation into his eligibility. The NCAA ruled in December that Newton could continue to play but that did not stop the withering public criticism.
When Auburn started spring practice on March 23, there were just 49 players on scholarship. Gone were 23 seniors and two unforgettable juniors, Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley, the Lombardi Trophy winner. Gone were eight starters from each side of the ball plus kicker Wes Bynum, whose field goal on the final play gave Auburn the 22-19 win over Oregon in the championship game in Glendale, Ariz.
"We knew we would be in this position whether we won four games or 14 games last season," said Chizik. "When we got back from Arizona we told the team that we appreciated everything they contributed to the previous season. Our goal last season was to go from good to great and we did that. And now we start over."
From a sheer talent standpoint, Auburn will take a step back in 2011. The question is whether or not it is going to be a big step back. Alabama and LSU appear to be the class of the SEC West at this point. Arkansas loses Ryan Mallett at quarterback but has another good one waiting in the wings in Tyler Wilson. Mississippi State is going to be better in the third year under Dan Mullen. The jury is still out on Ole Miss.
The SEC -- particularly the SEC West -- is like NASCAR. The competition is so good that you don't have to be off very much to go from first one year to the back of the field the next year.
But the Tigers, while incredibly young, have one big thing going for them.
"They know what great looks like and they also know that we're not it," said Chizik. "They know with all of those guys gone they are not entitled to anything. They know that it is time to go back to work."
"I think this team knows exactly where we are and what we have to do," said senior quarterback Barrett Trotter, who will battle junior Clint Moseley for the job of replacing Newton. "Nobody is going to give us anything and most people think we're going to struggle. We learned a lot watching all those seniors because they had been through the wars."
Now, all has not been smooth since Auburn hoisted the crystal football in Arizona on Jan. 10.
In mid-February a caller to Paul Finebaum's radio show in Birmingham announced that he had poisoned Auburn's beloved oak trees down at Toomer's Corner. Rolling those trees with toilet paper after big victories is a long-standing tradition. The person who poisoned the trees identified himself as an Alabama fan. He was later arrested.
Right before spring practice Chizik kicked four players off the team after their involvement in an armed robbery. Among them were starting safety Michael McNeil.
Then on March 30 four former Auburn players told HBO's Real Sports that they had received cash from boosters during their playing days. One player, Troy Reddick, said he was given cash by an assistant coach. Chizik denounced the report, calling it one sided. Several former Auburn players went public saying they never got a dime. Auburn and SEC officials said they would investigate and get to the bottom of it.
Let's face it. No investigative agency will ever prove if the players got cash from boosters. Hundred dollar handshakes go back to the leather helmet days. The cash from the assistant coach, if it happened, is problematic. But if Reddick doesn't give up the name of the coach, there is little chance that it gets nailed down.
But here is where I'm concerned if I am an Auburn fan. You survived the Cameron Newton investigation when a lot of people -- a lot of people --ripped the NCAA for not sitting the kid. The sport's governing body has been getting ripped ever since. They were hammered (and rightfully so) for letting the Ohio State Five play in the Sugar Bowl. In the span of five days last week new president Mark Emmert was grilled on PBS (Frontline) and then faced tough questioning from the media at the Final Four in Houston. In short, this has not been a good year on the PR front for the NCAA.
We don't know that the NCAA will launch an investigation into the charges leveled on HBO. But if you're Auburn, after everything you've been through, do you really want investigators back on campus?
The moral of the story: Life changes when you finally win the crystal football. It brings wealth and fame. It also brings a new level of scrutiny. When this spring started, the Auburn Tigers thought their biggest problem would be replacing 23 seniors and a Heisman Trophy winner. They hope that will still be the case.