It has been nothing but a long, bumpy ride for Auburn fans since Gene Chizik lifted the coveted crystal ball above his head on January 10, 2011.
There have been numerous incidents off of the field and things have been just as tough on the field for the 2010 BCS national champions. According to Ryan Wood of the Opelika-Auburn News, the Tigers are trying to avoid being on the wrong side of history in their final two games.
"The Tigers are far from a BCS championship level. They must win their final two games — one of which comes Nov. 24 at No. 4 Alabama in the Iron Bowl — to avoid having the worst record of any Associated Press champion two seasons after winning a title.
Auburn will become the fourth team to have a losing record in its second season after winning the AP title, joining 1940 TCU, 1954 Michigan State and 1988 Penn State."
Many people have marveled at how bad this Auburn team is. It's as talented as any team in the SEC, but it plays more like a team from an FCS school.
It has more than a handful of players who can say they have won the SEC West, the SEC and the national championship. They can now say they were part of the worst Auburn team in the modern era.
Where did it all go wrong? When? Oddly enough, the downward spiral began with Chizik's last big win. On October 1, 2011 against the South Carolina Gamecocks in Williams-Brice Stadium.
It's no secret that two weeks before that day in Clemson, SC, Chizik asked offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to slow his offense down at halftime in order to protect a defense that had many depth issues.
As we know, Clemson scored 17 points in the second half compared to Auburn's three after Chizik used his head coaching authority to hold back Malzahn's offense. That loss ended Auburn's 17-game winning streak; the longest in the nation at the time.
Chizik did what he vowed not to do when he hired Malzahn. Here is a quote from August of 2009:
"I'm simply going to be another set of eyes that can intelligently look at a defense and be able to help," Chizik said. "There's a huge, huge difference between helping and meddling. I don't want to be a meddler." (via Kevin Scarbinsky, The Birmingham News)
So, wouldn't the game against Clemson be where Auburn's turbulent plunge to the bottom of the SEC began? No.
Two weeks after Chizik began meddling in the offense and putting the brakes on Gus Malzahn (who had scored 137 points in the first four games of 2011), the worst thing that could have happened did.
Auburn went up to Columbia, SC and beat the 10th-ranked Gamecocks, 16-13.
Auburn ran the ball 67 times (including 41 carries from Mike Dyer) and pulled off the upset. Auburn fans celebrated that night in Columbia because of the unlikely upset, but that's when things started to come apart. No one knew at the time that it would probably be Chizik's last big win as Auburn head coach.
That is when the downturn started because it gave Chizik a false sense of confidence that his style of offense could succeed against the top teams in the SEC.
It assured him of his decision that the Auburn offense needs to slow down and to not let Malzahn do what he has been successful at doing at every stop he's been.
Above all, it confirmed to Chizik that Auburn needed to go away from the spread offense that took him to the top of the college football mountain. Regardless of the fact that the personnel on the team had been recruited for a spread offense, Chizik elected to move towards a pro-style offense.
Enter Auburn's current offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, leader of the 116th-ranked scoring offense in the country.
When hired by Chizik in January 2012, Loeffler signaled a complete change of pace from what Auburn had recruited for and what the current players are used to. Here is what Loeffler said in his introductory press conference (via auburntigers.com):
"The majority of the head coaches that I've been around are defensive guys, so I understand the mentality to win a championship is all based around great defense and great special teams, and it's our job as an offense to protect that defense to make sure our players are highly involved in the special teams, and at the end of the day, it's our job to score football points, and that's what we are going to do here."
It's almost as if Chizik was whispering into Loeffler's ear what he wanted him to say. "Protecting the defense" is all Chizik needed to hear.
It's impossible to say what may have happened had Auburn struggled and been defeated against the Gamecocks that October afternoon. But it's logical to think that Chizik may have been forced to reevaluate his stance on slowing down Malzahn and his offense.
Since that game, Auburn is averaging 19.6 points per game on offense. The most offensive production since that game came against Virginia in the Chick-fil-A bowl when it appeared that the reins were taken off of Malzahn's offense in his last game as offensive coordinator.
From the time Chizik took over in 2009 until the game against the Gamecocks, Auburn was averaging 37 points a game on offense.
Has the slower offensive pace protected the defense like Chizik had hoped? The numbers say that it has not. Auburn has given up an average of 29 points per game since the game against South Carolina.
Before that, Auburn was giving up an average of 27 points per game.
Auburn had some wins in 2011 after slowing the offense down, but the wins after South Carolina were against a Florida team that was just the worse bad team that day. The other wins were against Ole Miss (who won three games in 2011), Samford and Virginia in the Chick-fil-A bowl.
If you're looking for the tipping point of when Auburn began tumbling down to the depths where it sits today, look no further than October 1, 2011, when an unlikely upset fueled an ego that has torn down a proud program.
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