Auburn started the season off by allowing Utah State to run all over them en route to a 21-7 lead for the Aggies at the 7:58 mark of the second quarter. The whispers of an upset grew bold late when true freshman quarterback Chuckie Keeton put Utah State up 38-28 with under four minutes to go.
While thousands of Auburn fans began trudging for the exits, Utah State (0-43 against ranked opponents on the road and 1-54 overall) looked poised to turn Auburn into only the fourth ever defending national champion to lose their season opener.
That was of course before Barrett Trotter led the Tigers on a six-play, 65-yard touchdown drive that ended with Philip Lutzenkirchen calmly pulling the catch undefended in the endzone with 2:07 seconds on the clock.
Auburn followed that up with an onside kick recovery and a Michael Dyer touchdown run, turning a 10-point deficit into a 4-point advantage in under 60 seconds.
The Tigers survived.
What would have been a historically embarrassing defeat now stands as a close call. But Auburn is exposed.
Utah State went 4-8 and finished seventh in the WAC last season.
If the Tigers are putting up performances like this against the SEC portion of the schedule, the results will be disastrous. Granted, it's opening weekend with a new quarterback under center in Trotter that's trying to fill the clown-sized shoes Cam Newton left behind.
But 78 rushing yards—2.6 ypc—is the last thing you want to see from a team featuring sophomore sensation Michael Dyer at tailback.
You don't need to be told how hard the SEC is, the strength of schedules is jarring at a glance for any team in the conference.
Auburn doesn't have the luxury of time here. Mississippi State (20) arrives in seven days. Clemson looms a couple weeks after that. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. October could be a potential nightmare.
Visits to South Carolina (12), Arkansas (15) and LSU (4). Florida (22) at home.
So while Auburn fans—at least those that didn't shame themselves leaving early—can be happy about a stunning comeback, the overall picture is bleak.
The secondary looked like a turnstile. The defensive line was abused—227 rushing yards and 5 rushing touchdowns given up against the Aggies—and while Trotter proved he's capable of leading the comeback trail and Travante Stallworth emerged as dangerous weapon at receiver, Auburn left the game with a laundry list of question marks.
Should the national champions slip down the SEC standings a few weeks before Thanksgiving, you'll be going back to the Utah State game as the source of the problems that followed.
For as scrappy as Chuckie Keeton was, South Carolina's Stephen Garcia and and Arkansas' Tyler Wilson will shred these Tigers if they're given half the opportunities Keeton was offered.
A season opening cupcake to warm up Auburn now looks like the beginning of a bad story line we may be reading all year long.