Late Friday afternoon during the Alabama-Auburn telecast on CBS, play-by-play announcer Verne Lundquist noticed that the cloudy skies over Bryant-Denny Stadium had cleared. He quickly pointed out there was a section of the upper deck that was in sunlight and had a blue sunset sky in a way that only Lundquist could, in his deep Southern drawl.
That upper deck that was now bathed in late-November Alabama sun just happened to be filled with Auburn fans. They were in the sun, just as the sun was about to set on the Crimson Tide’s chances of an upset.
There was no doubt about who the best team has been in the state this season, though the outcome came right down to the wire last week. Auburn, like its fans, finally had its moment in the sun. A comeback win over the arch rival Tide to finish the regular season 12-0 and a showdown with South Carolina is all that’s standing between the Tigers and a date in the National Championship game.
Auburn is one win away from being the best team in the SEC this year, but is it okay to broach the subject that possibly, maybe, the Tigers have surpassed Alabama as the dominant program in the SEC?
To make it simple: not yet.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and a big brother-little brother type of rivalry. Auburn has a very proud tradition and an extremely rabid fan base. The way the entire War Eagle nation, as it were, seemed to stand up as a whole and take it upon themselves to defend quarterback Cam Newton in light of the allegations surrounding him more than proved that.
But they didn’t exactly embrace Gene Chizik, the coach who is 19-5 in two seasons at Auburn when he was hired either. There were Internet videos of athletic director Jay Jacobs being heckled by fans and one very famous alumnus wondering aloud why Turner Gill wasn’t hired.
The outrage on the Plains was pretty different from the scene in Tuscaloosa, where Nick Saban’s plane was greeted at the tarmac by a mob of happy fans.
Then again, Saban had the pedigree. Chizik didn’t.
Saban’s built programs and built winners (except in Miami, but that’s a different story), with the emphasis on built. You try finding a better recruiter than Saban. There’s a reason why Alabama’s won the in-state recruiting war every year since he’s arrived.
While Auburn’s had top-25 classes and even the No. 4-ranked class last year, Alabama hasn’t been lower than third since Saban came along. The only exception was 2007, when Alabama’s recruiting class was ranked 17th, but signing day came right after Saban was hired.
Since Saban, the Alabama program has been re-born. It has emerged from the scandal surrounding Mike Shula and the Dennis Franchione eras to become a National Championship contender and has overseen the renovation or improvement of Bryant-Denny Stadium and both of its practice facilities in the last year or two.
In Auburn, there’ll be a new indoor practice facility that will be completed next year, but there haven’t been any improvements in recent years made to Jordan-Hare Stadium. It’s one of the best environments in college football, but it still seats less than Alabama.
Then there’s the history. And is there history.
Fans who might not follow the SEC religiously might not realize that the Tigers have more than 700 wins, have a share of eight national championships, and not only two Heisman Trophy winners but also Heisman himself. Yes, John Heisman was a head coach of Auburn Football back in 1895.
But then there’s Alabama, and all you have to say is Bear. And you think of the famous checkered hat that Bryant used to wear when Joe Willie Namath and Ken “The Snake” Stabler and Don Hutson wore the Red and White. There are the National Championships and “Roll Tide” and all the great memories in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. It’s hard for any school to compete with that.
But this is not about the past and comparing the ghosts and legends of yesteryear. This is about the here and now and what will be.
What Gene Chizik has been able to do with this program is remarkable. In two years, he’s rebuilt the Tigers in the toughest conference in the country and turned them into a powerhouse, at least this year. They may not be getting the recruiting classes Alabama is getting, but that’s the thing about can’t miss prospects. Sometimes they miss, and miss badly.
Chizik was able to get Cameron Newton and Michael Dyer, two big pieces of the Auburn offense. The fact that Chizik has made the team competitive two years from the disastrous last year under Tommy Tuberville, when the offense was a mess, is nothing short of commendable.
But this conference has a way of humbling coaches relatively quickly. Just ask Urban Meyer and the five-loss Florida Gators or Derek Dooley trying to rebuild the program on Rocky Top. This league puts coaches, players and fans through the entire gamut of emotions: top of the world one moment, bottom of the barrel the next.
Gene Chizik and the rest of the Auburn faithful should enjoy every single moment of this season. The SEC Championship and the National Championship (assuming the Tigers take care of business against the Gamecocks) should be a celebration that Chizik, at least for now, was and is the right man for the job and that the Auburn administration saw something that a lot of people didn’t.
But remember, Les Miles won a championship right out of the gate at LSU, too. Coming into this season, there were a lot of people calling for the Mad Hatter’s head. A two-loss season might not change that either.
So has Auburn surpassed Alabama as the dominant SEC team? Not yet. But the program is on the right track. If Chizik can continue to recruit well and just win, then there’s no reason why they can’t.
It’s very hard to compete with the aura of Alabama. Auburn can’t do it and quite frankly, very few schools can. But if Chizik has more days like last Friday and more seasons like this one, then maybe he’s the one that builds the aura of Auburn.
And creates more days in the sun.