As Auburn left the field of Jordan-Hare Stadium Friday afternoon after a heartbreaking loss to rival and second-ranked Alabama, 26-21, there was a sense of pride that seemed to prevail among many Auburn fans.
Although Auburn didn't come away with a win that would have no doubt been one of the biggest upsets in series history, the fans, coaches, and players left with a feeling that the future was bright.
Holding a Heisman-leading candidate in Mark Ingram to 30 yards rushing can do that, as can scoring 21 points on a defense that averaged giving up 11 points a game.
Auburn was tied or leading for 58:30 against what some call the best college football team in the nation; there was a lot to be proud of if you are Auburn and Gene Chizik.
At the same time, you can't help but look back and realize what could have been for this 2009 season.
Auburn held a 14-7 lead at home to Kentucky going into the fourth quarter, only to give up 14 fourth quarter points to the Cats and lose 21-14.
That was a game that lacked emotion, intensity, execution, and anything else that is the opposite of the way Auburn played Friday against Alabama.
Auburn held a 14-0 lead on the road at Georgia just two weeks ago, and lost that game as well 31-24. Once again Auburn jumped out early, but lacked the ability to finish and play consistently enough defense to hold on to a lead.
Then came Friday, when Auburn held a 14-0 lead, and a 21-20 lead late in the fourth quarter and was just one stop away from a potential monumental victory over the second-ranked Tide.
One the other hand, who would have thought Auburn goes into Knoxville and Neyland Stadium and puts it on Tennessee and a Monte Kiffin defense the way they did—leading 23-7 at one point in the third quarter on their way to a 26-22 victory that at the time, put the Tigers in the top 20 in the nation.
So Auburn finishes 7-5, which is right in line with expectations most had going into Chizik's first year at Auburn. One can't help to think though, that this team was a play or two away from something bigger.
Back to the tough loss on Friday, though.
As that Auburn team that laid their guts on the line left the field Friday, something unique happened in that stadium that I haven't witnessed in my 14 years of attending Auburn football games.
The cheer normally reserved only after an Auburn win, began to become a loud voice of support from the fans towards the team.
A sense of pride about the effort put forth by an out-manned and thin football team, and a thought to the future and what can be under this new coaching staff.
That cheer? "It's Great to Be an Auburn Tiger."
I'm sure Alabama fans had to be perplexed, as would any visiting team coming away with a huge road win.
This wasn't a moral victory for Auburn, the players said as much after the game. They weren't in the game to play it close, there were there to win, but the cheer was meant to say, "We applaud your effort, and the future is bright."
So while Auburn had it's up's and down's in 2009, the number one thing a new head coach wants to do in his first year is create optimism, build a foundation, and create excitement around the program that it will be back where the fans want it.
If hearing the voice of the fans after a heartbreaking loss was any indication of the attitude around the future of the Auburn football program right now, consider it mission accomplished.
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