The Auburn Tigers reached the pinnacle of college football with a 22-19 victory over the Oregon Ducks in the 2010 National Championship game. They are in jeopardy of starting the 2012 season at 0-3 and a loss to the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks would place the headstone on their collapse.
A week ago the mere thought of losing to the Warhawks would have been laughable.
However, Auburn was embarrassed by Mississippi State while UL-Monroe notched an upset win over the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Arkansas was hampered by the loss of quarterback Tyler Wilson in the second quarter, but the Warhawks won by virtue of impressive offensive play.
So what has happened to the Tigers?
It is easy to point to the major losses from the 2010 squad. Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton left for the NFL along with Nick Fairley who won the Lombardi Award.
But the losses were much more severe. They lost roughly 40 percent of their roster after the 2010 season, making them one of the hardest hit of any FBS program.
Coach Gene Chizik is attempting to bridge the gap until the consensus top-five recruiting classes of 2010 and 2011 can get up to speed. But losing respected offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to Arkansas State, where he took over for the departed Hugh Freeze, was a big hit to the offense.
There was also some collateral damage with the departure of Malzahn. Auburn's star running back, Michael Dyer, thought it would be better to miss a season of playing time to follow his former coordinator to Arkansas State. Granted, his suspension late in the 2011 season put his status at Auburn in question.
The Tigers haven't been able to replace his production and don't have a quarterback that can carry the team. First-year starter Kiehl Frazier has been marginal rushing the ball and even less impressive while throwing.
He's completed less than 50 percent of his passes and has four interceptions to just one touchdown pass.
Auburn is also struggling with transition issues on defense. They are implementing a new system under first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons.
The team is thin at linebacker and was one of the worst in pass defense in 2011.
The one strength of the unit could be the defensive line, led by defensive end Corey Lemonier.
The issue facing Auburn this weekend is stopping the balanced offensive attack of UL-Monroe that notched 550 yards of offense against Arkansas. Kolton Browning wasn't spectacular in the game, despite compiling over 400 yards passing, but he found receivers with regularity and marched his team down the field.
Tiger fans will anticipate the slipper has fallen off the Warhawks. Back-to-back wins over SEC opponents is simply too much to expect from a Sun Belt team.
But anything less than a convincing blowout by Auburn will likely forecast a lost season for the Tigers.
The future still looks promising as the team builds continuity with their two new coordinators. They have ample talent to work with from their newer recruits and 2013 could bring them back to relevance.
But 2012 will be a tough season and a loss this weekend will make even the lowliest of bowl bids a stretch.
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