Reading the Tea Leaves: Predicting 2009 for Auburn and Alabama

Kevin StricklandCorrespondent IDecember 11, 2008

Past success (or failure) is no guarantee of future results.  When you’re looking to the future, however, sometimes the past can give you a little insight into what to expect. When you look at historical trends for both the Auburn and Alabama football teams, the forecast for 2009 has the potential for storms. 


For those surprised by Alabama’s 12-1 pre-bowl record, history says you really shouldn’t have been. Since the 10-3 season in 1996, Alabama posted double-digit wins every third season. The 2008 season fit that pattern. Alabama was 10-3 in 1996, 1999, and 2002 and posted a 10-2 mark in 2005.


The downside to that trend is that Alabama followed each of those 10-win seasons with a losing campaign. The Tide stumbled to 4-7 in 1997, 3-8 in 2000, 4-9 in 2003, and 6-7 in 2006.  In addition, Alabama stumbled to mediocre records in the seasons preceding the 10-win years. The Tide won seven games in 1998, 2001, and 2007 and six games in 2004.


Before you start penciling in what would be considered a shocking drop and a potential losing mark for Alabama in 2009, there are other trends to consider. 


Five Alabama coaches since 1925 posted double-digit wins in their third season at the Crimson Tide helm.


Wallace Wade went 10-0 and claimed a national title in his third season in 1925. Bill Curry was 10-2 in his third and final season at the Capstone.  In his third year as Alabama coach, Gene Stallings posted a perfect 13-0 mark and captured the consensus national title in 1992. Mike DuBose crafted a 10-3 campaign in his third season, and Mike Shula built a 10-2 record in his third. 


Are double-digit wins ahead, then, for Nick Saban in his third season at Alabama?  His personal coaching history says no. 


Saban has three seasons of 10 wins or more in his coaching career. He followed each of those with fewer. Saban was 10-2 at Michigan State and dipped to 8-4 in his first year at LSU.  After a 10-3 effort at LSU in 2001, the Tigers fell to 8-5 the following season.  Saban’s Tigers posted a 13-1 mark in 2003 but slipped to 9-3 in Saban’s final season in Baton Rouge.


Saban’s third-year record as a coach directly conflicts with Alabama’s historical trend for coaches in their third seasons. In his third year at both Michigan State and LSU, Saban’s teams lost five games.  It’s worth noting that Saban-led teams lost five or more games in six of his 12 seasons prior to 2008.


Saban was named SEC Coach of the Year for 2008.  That honor is a mixed bag. Of the 18 Coach of the Year Selections since 1990, only Georgia’s Mark Richt, who was selected Coach of the Year in 2002 and 2005, is still in the league or with the same team. 


Sylvester Croom, the 2007 honoree, left (or was asked to leave) the Bulldogs after a dismal 2008 campaign. Houston Nutt, Coach of the Year in 2006, departed Arkansas under duress following the 2007 season. Mike DuBose, the Coach of the Year in 1999, was dismissed from Alabama after a 2000 season that went awry.


Alabama fans banking on a return to the SEC Championship game in 2009 might want to wait to make their Atlanta reservations.


Since 1995, no West champion has repeated. Arkansas has three appearances, Alabama three, Auburn three, Mississippi State one, and LSU four. In fact, if you’re looking at a historical trend, LSU is the team most likely to make the trip. The Tigers have made the title game in every odd-numbered year since 2001.


The only SEC West team to ever repeat is Alabama, however. The Tide made three straight appearances in the championship game from 1992-94.


When you take all the historical trends, stir them together, and add in the fact that Alabama will be breaking in a new quarterback and have some possible holes to fill on both the offensive and defensive lines, you come up with the following most likely result:


Alabama will win between seven and nine games and contend for but not make the SEC title game.


Across the state at Auburn, the trends are more clearly defined. 


The Tigers are in transition, searching for a new coach and coming off a disappointing 5-7 season.


Regardless of whom the Tigers hire, 2009 promises to be a difficult season for Auburn and its fans. 


Of the last 10 first-year Tiger coaches, only one posted a winning record: Terry Bowden in 1993.  Bowden’s Tigers were 11-0. 


Tommy Tuberville and Pat Dye went 5-6 in their first seasons. Doug Barfield was 4-7, Shug Jordan 5-5, Earl Brown 1-8, Carl Voyles 4-4, Jack Meagher 2-8, Chet Wynne 3-7, and George Bohler 1-8.


In recorded Auburn football history, only eight coaches opened their career with a winning campaign. Three—Bowden in 1993, Mike Donahue (7-0) in 1904, and Billy Watkins (4-0) in 1900—were undefeated in their inaugural season.


Since 1965, Auburn has followed every losing season with another deficit campaign. In 1965 the Tigers were 5-5 and followed that with a 4-6 season in 1966. The Tigers chased a 4-6 season in 1975 with a 4-7 mark in 1976.  Auburn was 5-6 in 1980 and went back-to-back with a 5-6 record in 1981. The Tigers were 5-6 in 1991 and 5-5 in 1992.  After a 3-8 season in 1998, Auburn was 5-6 in 1999.


Three of those two-game strings included a coaching change.  Barfield took the reins in 1976, Dye became Auburn coach in 1981, and Tuberville began his Auburn career in 1999. The 1992 season preceded Bowden’s hiring.


Auburn fans looking for silver linings should note that Auburn has not posted a three-year losing streak since 1948-50.  Auburn went 6-4 in 1967, 6-5 in 1977, 9-3 in 1982, 11-0 in 1993, and 9-4 in 2000.


If Auburn doesn’t make the SEC Championship game in 2009, it will mark the longest period the Tigers failed to make an appearance since a six-year drought that began in 1992.


One factor that could change the downward Auburn dynamic is the number of experienced players returning next season. The Tigers potentially return all but three offensive starters and nine of 11 defensive starters. In that respect, Auburn is much closer to the squad Terry Bowden inherited in 1993 than to the teams that Dye or Tuberville took over in 1981 and 1999.


Still, based on historical trends, the Tigers are unlikely participants or even contenders for the SEC title game in 2009.  Whoever Auburn brings in as head coach, Tiger fans are looking at a likely scenario where five or six wins would be considered a successful transition and a winning record would be a significant achievement.  


The biggest question that remains is whether Alabama will extend its current winning streak in the Iron Bowl to two or if the Tigers can reverse the trend and start a new streak of their own.


History says it will be an Alabama year. The only first-year coaches to prevail in the Iron Bowl in the last 50 years are Terry Bowden, Dennis Franchione, and Gene Stallings.  The only trend in Auburn's favor is that only once since 1993 has Alabama managed consecutive wins in the series, that a two-game string in 1998 and 1999.


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