When the disappointment that is the 2008 Auburn football season finally lurches to a close, Auburn officials must answer questions about the future of head football coach Tommy Tuberville.
Whether the season ends with dramatic flair and a victory over chief rivals Alabama and/or Georgia, or it ends with a whimper and losses—perhaps losses in which the Tigers are thoroughly dominated—to both the Tide and Bulldogs, the questions remain the same.
Despite fan-fueled speculation, the question is not whether Alabama and Nick Saban have surpassed the Tigers. The question is not whether hiring Tony Franklin to remake the offense was a mistake. The question is not whether Auburn can beat Georgia. Those questions already have answers.
The real question that must be answered is of a much broader scale: Is Tuberville the best choice to direct the Auburn football program? If so, does he also have the understanding and willingness to make necessary course corrections to reverse the current negative trend?
The 2008 season is an unqualified disaster. Auburn spiraled from preseason predictions of an SEC West title to a slim chance to even earn bowl eligibility.
The reasons for the precipitous decline are myriad. Obvious struggles at the quarterback position, mismanaged game planning, mass confusion in terms of overall offensive direction, the glaringly bad fit of Franklin on the Tiger coaching staff, too much reliance on the defense to win games, inconsistent play by the running backs, and gaffes in special teams play have all contributed to mounting losses.
It would be easy to point the finger of blame at Franklin and write this disappointing season off as an anomaly. While Franklin does shoulder much blame, in particular for his stubborn insistence on playing an obviously ineffective and injury-hampered Chris Todd, the buck doesn’t stop there.
Since the undefeated 2004 season, Auburn’s offensive numbers have dipped dramatically each year. Auburn finished the 2004 campaign ranked 25th nationally in total offense. That ranking dropped to 37th in 2006 and tumbled to 101st in 2007.
Al Borges, the offensive coordinator wunderkind who masterminded the 2004 revival, was ousted after 2007's dismal offensive output. He was replaced by self-anointed spread guru Franklin, who brought promise of a point-a-minute fast-paced offense.
Six games into the season, with his offense barely racking up a point a quarter, the Tiger offense mired at 104th nationally, and the wheels falling off the program, Franklin was released.
Hidden in the frustration over the disappointment of this season is how eerily close it is to mirroring recent seasons past.
A made extra point in one game, a successful short field goal in another, and one more defensive stop in a third would have this Auburn team sitting at 8-2 with two games remaining. Even if the Tigers lose to both Georgia and Alabama, a bowl win would package another typical Tuberville nine-win season for Auburn.
The ball didn’t bounce that way in 2008. The kick that beat Florida in 2007 fluttered wide against Arkansas in 2008. The defense that saved the Tigers' bacon against Ole Miss in 2007 ran out of gas against LSU in 2008.
The handful of plays that spelled the difference between 11-2 and 6-7 in 2006 all turned in Auburn’s favor. Those same few plays came up losers for the Tigers in 2008.
Facing the very real prospect of a 5-7 season, the first losing record since Tuberville’s initial campaign in 1999, Auburn administration must determine whether the embattled coach still has what it takes to turn the team around.
The case for retaining Tuberville is a strong one. Then again, so is the case against him.
Pro: Tuberville turned the Auburn program into a perennial winner. Six of his Tiger teams have won nine or more games. Auburn was riding an eight-year bowl streak entering the 2008 campaign.
Con: Under Tuberville, Auburn has just two seasons of 10 or more wins and earned a berth in the SEC Championship game twice, winning once. The Tigers have failed to deliver on expectations in a disastrous way in both 2003 and 2008.
Pro: Tuberville’s teams win big games. Six straight wins over archrival Alabama, three consecutive wins over Tennessee, and wins over top-ranked Florida teams dot his resume.
Con: Tuberville’s Auburn teams also suffer debilitating losses. The Tigers are currently in two-game holes to both LSU and Georgia, both traditional rivals. Tuberville’s tenure also includes losses to Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and South Florida. Tuberville consistently struggles with Houston Nutt-coached teams at both Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Pro: You can’t judge Tuberville on one season. You have to examine his entire body of work.
Con: As illustrated here, the 2008 collapse is not necessarily a one-season anomaly and may be indicative of a more pervasive trend.
Pro: Tuberville runs a clean program. There has been nothing resembling major scandal in his tenure, he demands and expects certain behaviors from Auburn players, and he deals with transgressions swiftly and sternly—sometimes at the detriment of the on-field team.
Con: Unfortunately, fans don’t care about graduation rates and good citizenship awards. When rival teams withstand cocaine dealing in the athletic complex parking lot and armed robbery outside the athletic dorm, those negatives are mostly forgotten in the glow of a winning season. Hopefully Auburn administration won’t take the same cavalier attitude of the typical fan.
Pro: Tuberville attracts quality talent to Auburn and has an established track record of producing NFL-level players on both sides of the ball. In a Sports Illustrated ranking of the top 30 backs in the NFL prior to the 2008 season, four were Tuberville protégés: Ronnie Brown, Deuce McAllister, Rudi Johnson, and Brandon Jacobs. Had injury not sidelined him, odds are that Carnell Williams would also be on that list.
Karlos Dansby, Jason Campbell, Reggie Torbor, Carlos Rogers, Quentin Groves, Stanley McClover, and Heath Evans are among the more than 30 former Auburn players on NFL rosters in 2008. Only Georgia, LSU, and Tennessee had more.
Con: There’s not a certain NFL draft pick on the current Tiger roster. The 2008 season has been a giant step backward for most Auburn players with professional aspirations. The team seems particularly lacking in talent—or perhaps coaching—at the offensive skill positions.
Pro: Tuberville is loyal to Auburn and to his assistant coaches. He’s been with the program for nearly 10 years, and the core of his coaching staff has been with him longer than that.
Con: Tuberville’s name comes up in relation to almost every coaching vacancy. Rumored flirtations with Arkansas, LSU, and Miami have been a mainstay of his tenure. His loyalty to assistant coaches, while admirable, has almost certainly kept Auburn from reaching its potential, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
In the final determination, Auburn officials are at a true crossroads. They must determine what Auburn is to be for the future. Is it Auburn's mission to build a championship team at all costs, or is a competitive team that maintains a positive image satisfactory?
Before Tuberville took the Auburn helm, the average Tiger fan listed four major criteria that would meet expectations for the new coaching regime.
1) Run a clean program that produces good citizens as well as good players.
2) Be a good ambassador for the program on the national scale.
3) Produce a competitive football team that would have the opportunity to win every game, be in contention for the league title, and when the conditions were right, make a run on the national stage.
4) Beat Alabama, LSU, and Georgia more often than not.
Tuberville met and exceeded all of the above. For that reason, he should be given the opportunity to prove that he can reverse the recent trend and get the Auburn program headed back in the right direction.
It's the sad reality of college football that success, particularly the kind of success Auburn had in 2004, breeds expectations that can unfairly put the very architect of that success in jeopardy when he cannot replicate it on a regular basis.
Auburn officials must be careful to recognize that the present drift isn’t a single-season oddity, but the natural extension of a much longer slide. If Tuberville is retained, Auburn bosses and fans must insist that he address issues across the board. He must also be given adequate time to do so.
Auburn did not arrive at its current situation in a single offseason. It will likely take longer than a single offseason to fix.