CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Offseason of pains on the Plains of Auburn

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AUBURN, Ala. -- Landry Chizik recently called her father in a panic. A thunderstorm was pounding the Auburn area. Understandably, the home-alone 13-year-old was frightened. Daddy rushed home from the office late in the work day, soothed his daughter and ultimately it was all good.

If it were only that simple for all the storms to pass over the Loveliest Village. A program that was hale on the night of Jan. 10 has been dinged by its share of hail since winning the school's second national championship. When a nut job poisoned the sacred Toomer's Corner trees, it widened a wound between Auburn and Alabama that never completely heals. HBO found four former Tigers who said they were paid by boosters and/or coaches. In March, police arrested what were soon-to-be four former Tigers, including one starter, charging them with five counts of robbery. Landry's dad, Auburn coach Gene Chizik, immediately kicked them off the team.

That national championship is going to be defended with a significantly depleted roster, and not just because of the loss of Heisman winner Cam Newton. Because of a gap in recruiting left over from the previous administration, Chizik says only six of 28 players who were in the 2008 recruiting class are still around.

One bit of good news is Auburn will still have freshman sensation Michael Dyer in the backfield. (US Presswire)  
One bit of good news is Auburn will still have freshman sensation Michael Dyer in the backfield. (US Presswire)  
If that weren't enough, the NCAA is investigating the program on at least three fronts, according to reports. In a dichotomous twist, it's no secret that the Heisman winner who led the Tigers to the title and is about to get his own statue on campus, is the subject of one of those probes.

"Auburn," the Birmingham News proclaimed last week, "is challenging for the worst offseason ever by a national champion."

The champs just need something to go right. The skies show no sign of clearing.

"I don't feel like we have to defend our honor at all," Chizik said. "A lot of circumstances that happened over the last five or six months we had no control over because we weren't involved in any of it. We feel comfortable when we go to bed at night."

Elsewhere in this state, they sleep with one eye open. For better and worse, the center of the college football now rests here in Alabama until further notice. Nick Saban, the $4 Million Dollar Man, got his own statue Saturday -- after only four seasons. Chizik became the fifth coach since 2000 to win a national championship within his first two seasons at a school. The back-to-back titles by Alabama and Auburn mark one of the few times in AP poll history that different schools from the same state have won in consecutive years. The Heismans won by Alabama's Mark Ingram and Newton mark the third time schools from the same state have produced the winner in back-to-back years, the first time in 18 years.

If you want a glimpse of the best college football at the moment you need to pass through the state. Do the same and you'll likely catch a whiff of all that is wrong with the sport as well.

The outside world doesn't have to be reminded that the Tigers and Tide have extended the SEC's run of national championships to five in a row. Those accomplishments seem to have come with a price. In the best of times, Auburn and Alabama barely tolerate each other -- Alabama with its self-proclaimed 13 national championships and Auburn with its in-state little brother status. Now that they have become somewhat equals, there is a Deepwater Horizon to the situation. Something is getting ready to blow.

"It's a good thing," Clay Travis tweeted last week, "Auburn and Alabama fans don't have nuclear weapons."

"I'm serious about that," Travis said when contacted by CBSSports.com. Travis is an accomplished author, SEC observer and journalist who hosts a sports talk radio show in Knoxville, Tenn.

"There is an unholy alliance. The rivalry has gotten taken over by people who don't have an affiliation with either university. There are the people who went there and the high school drop outs where this is 95 percent of their self esteem. There are so many brilliant SEC football fans. They get typecast by the crazies."

We may find out that Harvey Updyke Jr. was one of those crazies with access to the nuclear launch codes. The 62-year-old Alabama fan allegedly was the person to boast about the tree poisoning on the nationally syndicated Paul Finebaum radio show in January. If that was the case, his incredible stupidity and hubris helped lead police to him. The wait for Updyke's court case parallels the wait for the NCAA to do or say something about Newton. The association is still investigating the quarterback's recruitment during which dad Cecil solicited a reported $180,000 from Mississippi State.

There has been absolutely nothing from the enforcement underground, to indicate Auburn will get hammered. Still, Bammers can't believe there was no NCAA bylaw to keep Cam off the field longer once he was declared ineligible for one day prior to the SEC title game. Barners, as one person tweeted last week, are upset at the constant "baseless" accusations regarding their program.

Baseless? Let's say both schools have fantastic on-base percentages when it comes to NCAA enforcement. Auburn is tied for third all-time with seven major infractions cases. The News reported that Alabama leads Division I-A since 1995 in that category with four.

"It's insane down there right now," Travis said. "It's kind of the dark side of the growth of college athletics. The interest level has never been higher but the danger level has never been higher."

That was evident when Updyke allegedly applied lethal doses of Spike 80DF herbicide to Auburn's beloved oaks in late December. Since then for Auburn fans, it has been like watching beloved relatives die a slow death. Toomer's Corner has been a traditional gathering place to T.P. those trees after wins. The 130-year old live oaks have survived a car crash and fires (from lit toilet paper) but perhaps not this. The first symptoms of death are beginning to show on the tree that stands along College St. Leaves that have fallen off, aren't growing back.

"I was mortified to be candid with you," said Gina Smith, a member of Tide For Toomer's, a grassroots organization of Alabama grads who reached out to Auburn after the poisoning. "I think there is a silent majority of fans at both schools who are able to keep this rivalry in perspective. This was absolutely taking it too far."

Tide For Toomer's recently donated $50,000 to Auburn. The money was applied to the landscaping work needed to attempt to save the trees.

"Who kills trees, especially those two trees?" said Scott Enebak, a professor in Auburn's School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. "Someone who really wasn't thinking right, I guess. He hit the Auburn fans where it would hurt the most."

Just four years ago Auburn had completed its sixth consecutive Iron Bowl win against Alabama. Two years after that Saban and Alabama broke through for the school's first national championship in 17 years. With the addition of Cam, little brother then won it all for the first time since 1957. Auburn's Newton-led rally from a 24-0 deficit in Tuscaloosa to win the 2010 Iron Bowl is now like an embarrassing tattoo every 'Bama fan woke up with.

"Once you get to the top, it's easy for people to take the shots," said Auburn spokesman Mike Clardy, standing on Toomer's Corner over the weekend. "Cam is a super guy, charismatic, to me a great representative of the university. You can't deny he was great on the football field."

No, you can't, which is what grinds Alabama and soothes Auburn. It shows in both coaches, who stiffen when it is brought up that their shared national dominance of the sport has been localized to the Sweet Home.

"It just means there's two really good programs here," Saban said Saturday 24 hours after Chizik said, "I feel like we're blessed to be a part of great football in this state."

Perhaps never has so much joy been mixed with so much foreboding. Alabama will start the season in the top five. But will some Auburn "crazy" -- maybe one of Travis' high-school dropouts -- feel compelled to retaliate for "Treeson"? Auburn may boast a national championship and No. 1 draft choice within four months, but will the 2010 title remain legit?

For now, the Tigers would settle for some small amount of good news. Maybe Enebak, the forestry professor, has it. He said the chance of one of the afflicted trees surviving is now "better than 50-50."

The healing might have begun. Literally.

"People want to know," Enebak said, "Are they going to live or die, so they can move on."


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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