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Auburn's wild ride not slowing down

8/14/2011

What a ride it’s been on the Plains the last couple of years.

If it can happen in college football, chances are it’s happened at Auburn.

“It’s been a little crazy at times, and it hasn’t always been easy. But we like where we’re headed,” Auburn junior receiver Emory Blake said.

One thing’s for sure: It hasn’t been dull.

Starting with Tommy Tuberville’s unceremonious exit as coach following the 2008 season, the roller coaster hasn’t slowed down.

Rewind back to Gene Chizik coming in to replace Tuberville after Chizik had gone 5-19 in two seasons as Iowa State’s head coach.

Granted, not all Auburn fans were voicing their displeasure as vehemently as that obnoxious fan at the airport when Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs returned from finalizing the deal with Chizik, but just about everybody on the Plains was asking himself the same question: We just hired a coach that was 5-19?

Turns out that coach would go on to hire one of the best recruiting staffs in college football, as evidenced by the Tigers pulling in top 5 classes nationally each of the past two years.

And in his second season, that same coach would lead the Tigers to a 14-0 record and a national championship.

But even that ride was a bumpy one.

Allegations involving star quarterback Cam Newton’s recruitment rocked the program the last part of the season, and Newton was ruled ineligible for a day after the NCAA determined that Newton’s father, Cecil, tried to shop his son to Mississippi State for as much as $180,000.

Newton said he knew nothing about his father’s pay-for-play scheme and was allowed to play without missing any games.

The Tigers were the essence of resilience on the field, coming back time and time again in the second half to win games. Their comeback 28-27 victory against Alabama last season was one for the ages after being down 24-0 at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Not long after their 22-19 win against Oregon in the BCS National Championship Game, more allegations of wrongdoing in the program surfaced.

There were various media reports about the NCAA looking into different matters, and HBO Real Sports talked to four former players who said they received money while playing at Auburn, albeit before Chizik arrived as head coach.

All the while, the NCAA’s investigation has remained open, something that has irked Chizik and everybody else in the Auburn family.

At the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla., in June, Chizik quizzed Julie Roe Lach, the NCAA’s vice president for enforcement, about why the NCAA had not publicly announced that the investigation into the Newton matter was over.

There were football coaches, basketball coaches and athletic directors in the room, and after Chizik followed up with Roe Lach at least two more times, Roe Lach told Chizik, “You’ll know when we’re finished … and we’re not finished.”

For his part, Chizik says the exchange wasn’t testy, and he’s repeated several times that he sleeps well at night in knowing that Auburn has gone about things in the right way on his watch.

Besides, he has a football team to get ready, a team that’s missing all but six starters from last season’s national championship club. More than 35 players who were on the roster out in Glendale, Ariz., for the title game are gone.

Everywhere you look this season on Auburn’s team, there will be new faces.

“We’ll be an inexperienced football team, but we’ll be a talented football team,” Chizik said. “What we’re building is a foundation, and this is another step in that process. The goals stay the same.”

Nosa Eguae, a third-year sophomore defensive end, bristles at the notion that the Tigers were a one-year wonder last season.

“We have a bunch of guys who are hungry, and just because they don’t have a bunch of starts, that doesn’t mean they can’t play,” Eguae said. “We know what everybody is saying about us, and that’s fine.

“We’re an underdog. We were last year, too. Auburn has always been an underdog. We might not have the big name and all the commercials like Alabama does, but we’re going to be there every day grinding it out.

“If that’s what you call being an underdog, so be it. We’re just going to keep on winning football games.”

Eguae said any talk about the NCAA investigation hasn’t filtered down to the players and hasn’t been a distraction in what the Tigers are trying to accomplish this season.

While conceding that some of the younger players will have to grow up in a hurry, Eguae said the only thing on anybody’s mind is what happens this season.

In other words, last season is a distant memory.

“I hear people asking if we have what it takes to live up to the 14-0 season,” Eguae said. “There’s no living up to anything. We plan on being a great football team this year, next year and the year after that.

“Coach Chizik talks about it every day, what we’re trying to do here at Auburn. And just because you won a national championship, it doesn’t stop. It never stops. The only thing we talk about is winning more.

“We’re here to win national championships. It’s always plural with us.”