Auburn and the back-to-back roadblock

It will always be amazing that certain college sports programs — comprised of human beings but not embodying actual persons themselves — exhibit the same tendencies across many decades, as though they have consistent and predictable psychological profiles.

By Matt Zemek

Auburn University has played collegiate football since the spring of 1892. Early-period college football (in the first few decades of the 20th century) frequently involved regular seasons shorter than 10 games (also seasons with irregular lengths relative to other major programs). Auburn’s first 10-game season was in 1922. Beginning in 1932, Auburn played 10-game seasons on a relatively regular basis, with a few occasional exceptions. That’s roughly 80 years of playing seasons 10 games or longer.

This is the number of times Auburn has won 10 or more games in back-to-back seasons: 1.

If you wanted to be a less generous analyst, you could say that Auburn has NEVER won at least 10 games in consecutive REGULAR seasons.

In 1989, Auburn went 10-2, one year after doing the same in 1988. That’s the only time Auburn has won at least 10 games in consecutive seasons, INCLUDING the bowl game. In 1988, Auburn went 10-1 in the regular season and lost its bowl game, but in 1989, Auburn went 9-2 in the regular season and won its bowl game.

To be sure, Auburn has produced consecutive successful regular seasons a number of times. The 1958 team went 9-0-1 after the 1957 team went 10-0. The 1987 team lost only once, whereas the 1986 team was 10-2. The quirk: The 1987 team improbably tied two of its games for a 9-1-2 mark. The 1970 and 1971 teams went 9-2 before the 1972 team used “Punt, Bama Punt!” to forge a 10-1 record. Auburn owns a rich history, and both Shug Jordan and Pat Dye are iconically great SEC head coaches.

Nevertheless, it is improbable that with its tremendously rich football heritage, Auburn has never delivered 10-win regular seasons in consecutive years, several times possessing teams which were capable of the feat. It has never come together for AU — not to that extent, at any rate — in a long and proud gridiron history.

Last season’s team wasn’t one of the all-time great Auburn teams, but it nevertheless defeated the two teams which played in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, a reality which was simultaneously a point of pride and a very bitter pill to swallow for Tiger fans. Gus Malzahn saved his tenure and recalled portions of the 2013 team’s journey to the national title game, but this time, Auburn played a team much better than the Missouri squad AU destroyed in the 2013 SEC Championship Game. The 2017 Georgia Bulldogs were a much more complete team, AND Auburn had to play them in Atlanta, AND Auburn had to play UGA at a point in time when Georgia was hungry for revenge and was also not as taxed by its rivalry game the previous week against Georgia Tech. While Georgia easily handled Tech, Auburn had to defeat Alabama. The Tigers were the clearly superior team on that day against Bama, but playing the Crimson Tide takes a toll whether in victory or defeat. So much about the 2017 SEC Championship Game lined up well for Georgia. The Dawgs took advantage, and Auburn was left in the cold.

2017 Auburn did not hoist the trophies which normally belong to unforgettable teams, but the Tigers nevertheless set a high standard. A key reason AU fundamentally reached its potential last year: It finally had a high-level quarterback again… and again, that quarterback was not home-grown by Malzahn, but a player who transferred into the program.

In 2013, that transfer quarterback was Nick Marshall. Last year, that quarterback was Jarrett Stidham. Finally, Malzahn had the kind of field general who could make the right decisions and throws, a marked departure from Jeremy Johnson and several notches better than the competent-but-not-elite Sean White. Stidham displayed the versatility, dexterity and field awareness to put the offense in the right situation on a consistent basis, and when plays broke down, Stidham was a highly capable runner who could improvise often enough to change the equation on the field. Stidham did hurt his team with turnovers in both the SEC title game and the Peach Bowl loss to UCF, but those mistakes were minimized in the lead-up to those two games in Atlanta. Auburn won the SEC West because Stidham was the quarterback he was supposed to be — though hardly perfect, and even though a 20-0 collapse against LSU stained the season, Stidham lived up to the advance billing.

With him returning in 2018, Auburn has the centerpiece component, the essential foundation, on which a 10- or 11-win team can be built. This certainly rates as another example of a season in which Auburn is poised to win 10 or more games in consecutive seasons, but at this same intersection of fear and opportunity, Auburn has failed to hit the target. Can this program, blessed with another season from a foremost gunslinger at the sport’s most important position, shed the baggage of the past and that nasty, persistent tendency to lose ground (sometimes a slight amount, sometimes much more) one year after forging a journey marked by considerable successes?

This is the drama of Auburn football in 2018. This is the drama of Auburn football over the course of many decades. This is the drama Auburn football fans — intellectually and emotionally — know so very well. It’s the reality which creates a potent cocktail of anxiety and hunger in the stomachs of those who cry, “War Eagle!”

Hope is a dangerous thing. Auburn fans — wanting to cross the threshold from “great on a once-every-few-years basis” to “great every year, dammit!” — are hoping that this program can take the next and very rare step in its evolution, but they are aware that if this season slides off the rails, it wouldn’t be an unfamiliar event.

We are about to see if Auburn can smash the back-to-back roadblock and get the Gus Bus in high gear on the open freeway.

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