Auburn won't let go, same as a stubborn cold. It's always seems to be there, in a climate -- in a state -- so hyper-competitive that it's not for everyone. Sorry to get ahead of things, but here it is the first week of November and the Tigers -- sporting a new coach and a new look with few noticing -- control their destiny in the SEC West.
Surprised? Post-Gus? Yes. This fast? Yes. Gus Malzahn was run out of town despite being the only active coach walking the planet who has defeated Nick Saban three times and despite eight straight winning seasons, something that hadn't been done on The Plains since 2007.
Perhaps the relationship had grown stale, but that's an old story now. For better or worse, Auburn continues to reinvent itself. It has no other choice considering the in-state behemoth it competes with 24/7/365.
Bryan Harsin is the program's fourth full-time coach since Tommy Tuberville was fired in December 2008. None of the prior three won less than 63% of their games. Prior to Harsin, all of them had won SEC titles. Gene Chizik, with Malzahn as his offensive coordinator, won a national championship.
That's the standard. And so it must mentioned three weeks from the Iron Bowl that No. 13 Auburn is 6-2 headed to No. 14 Texas A&M with a puncher's chance to win the SEC West. You should know the most immediate implications. The Tigers have never lost in College Station, Texas, though they are 1-4 at home against the Aggies.
"This team doesn't have that memory," Harsin said of being unbeaten at Texas A&M. "This team has to go create that."
Sweep these next three SEC games, and Auburn is in the SEC Championship Game for the fourth time since 2010. That accomplishment would come with the greatest dynasty of all time -- down the road in Tuscaloosa, Alabama -- still dominating.
But why is Auburn so competitive and, well, annoying to its rivals? The answer is within the question: It has no other choice.
Alabama has The Process. Clemson sells fun. Auburn has to operate a different way. Its success has transcended upheaval and coaching change. Malzahn was looking over his shoulder each week. Auburn athletic director Allen Green made a statement, taking control of what had become a messy hiring process and going with his guy.
Through it all, that standard has been set. Sometimes it gets ugly. Auburn and Alabama are tied for fourth all-time in major NCAA infractions cases. (To be fair, there's been no major cases in football for Auburn since 1993, and Alabama's last such meaningful penalty was in 1995.)
There are other states where schools share turf uncomfortably. In Michigan, Michigan State has been motivated in an already intense rivalry after being called "Little Brother" by Wolverines running back Mike Hart in 2007. USC and UCLA always means something in Southern California. North Florida and south Georgia might as well be one state when Florida and Georgia meet.
But the Iron Bowl has a feel unlike any other, and not to get ahead of ourselves again, it has that upset feel this year with Auburn lurking. Since 2013 when Malzahn first arrived, Alabama is 26-4 in the month of November. Three of those losses have been to Auburn. Alabama hasn't won on The Plains since 2015.
The next meeting feels like a lifetime from now. Alabama still has to play LSU and Arkansas in the SEC. Auburn has Texas A&M, Mississippi State and South Carolina left. Please, can we get to Nov. 27 with the division at stake?
"What you do in the Iron Bowl lives with you forever," said former Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell, who works on the Tigers' pregame and halftime shows.
Campbell never lost to Alabama, playing in the middle of the Tuberville's run of six in a row over the Crimson Tide. The quarterback is quick to point out, though, he did lose twice to Saban while the coach was at LSU.
Wrap it all in a pretty bow and impatience -- surprise! -- continues to be a brand name in college football. Ed Orgeron was out of a job at LSU just 21 months after going 15-0. Chizik lost his Auburn job 22 months after winning the 2010 national championship. His sin was going 0-8 in the SEC in 2012. Gus might have lost a bit of his fastball, but he lasted those eight solid seasons.
Once again, Auburn cannot afford to dally. It has a history of doing more with less. With a new coach from outside the SEC footprint thriving, and with four weeks left in the season, it is a sort of mini-win for Auburn to be in this position in the SEC West.
"That's the best way to put it," Campbell said. "If you were to ask Coach Harsin at the beginning of the season if he was nine or 10 games into the season and had a chance to play for the SEC, 'Would you take that?' He would take that. To rely on your own destiny is a big thing."
Safe to say, Harsin wasn't a traditional SEC hire. Although he had big-time experience (Texas as offensive coordinator), Harsin had spent 16 years at Boise State, the last seven as head coach. It was assumed an assimilation period would be required.
Well, no. Not exactly.
Harsin quickly "got" Auburn. He hired coordinators with SEC experience in Mike Bobo and Derek Mason. Harsin and Bobo have successfully massaged quarterback Bo Nix's talents to get to this point. Since being pulled against Georgia State, Nix has completed 61.5% of his passes and averaged 282 passing yards.
Trust me, that's "Good" Bo Nix.
Mason reminded us what he does best. The Vanderbilt experience didn't end well, but Mason got the job in the first place because of four years at Stanford, three as defensive coordinator. Insiders say Mason's 3-4 defense and halftime adjustments have been key to a unit which is surrendering 50 yards fewer per game than 2020.
All of it has happened without Auburn losing any of its traditional physicality. There's a reason No. 16 Ole Miss has only two healthy starters left on defense. Those injuries certainly have been cumulative, but Auburn had something to do with it in a convincing 31-20 win over the Rebels last week.
The players got confidence winning at LSU for the first time since 1999. Even though it lost against Penn State on the road, Auburn made progress. This being Auburn, all of it can change in a heartbeat.
But a program in need of repair got its mojo back. It got a coach who isn't looking over his shoulder. Instead, Harsin is coaching like there is a chip on his.
"The reason he accepted the challenge, it's a football school," Campbell said. "… You want to be playing in November for something. That's a lot of the reason he came here."