Commentary

Fortune, ability favor Auburn in title run

Originally Published: January 10, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Auburn coach Gene Chizik strode into the press conference Tuesday morning in his favorite shiny leather jacket and jeans. He sat down at a long table. To his right stood four trophies that now belong to the Tigers, including the crystal football that Auburn will display from now until the university changes its colors to crimson and white.

That's what Auburn got for defeating Oregon 22-19 as time expired in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game. According to Chizik, the celebration belongs in the trophy case, too.

[+] EnlargeGene Chizik
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesGene Chizik is already thinking about life as a defending champion absent many of the faces that helped deliver the trophy.

"It's expired," Chizik said. "… We'll crank it back up today and have a great memory of what happened last night."

He allowed himself to indulge in a brief moment of I-told-you-so: "When you go in the locker room last night and you look at 100 guys that 15 weeks ago nobody would have gave a dime for to win a national championship -- which is fact -- and you see them look at you, and your coaches are saying 'thank you' to the players, and the players are saying 'thank you' to the coaches, that's family. And you've brought these guys from point A to point Z. I get a lot of joy out of that."

Chizik's edict that the celebration is over applies only to him and his staff (try telling the Auburn faithful to tone it down). That is how football coaches think. But it is one decision that Chizik should reconsider. He should think about reveling in how Auburn threaded the needle to finish No. 1.

Chizik had one season with a 22-member senior class. It is fair to presume that he had one season with the two best players on the field Monday night, quarterback Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley, winners of the Heisman Trophy and Lombardi Awards, respectively. Both juniors are expected to announce this week that they will make themselves available for the 2011 NFL draft.

"We are going to have to sit down and hash through some things and talk about it," Chizik said. "Don't really know exactly where those conversations are going to go. But at the end of the day, I will always want what's best for the young men."

And Auburn had one season when the ball bounced its way, game after improbable game. The Tigers put themselves in position to take advantage of those bounces. But it happened all season, from the Mark Ingram fumble that danced right down the Bryant-Denny Stadium sideline in the 28-27 victory over Alabama, to the game Monday night.

Only the 2010 Auburn Tigers could stop the momentum of Oregon's first scoring drive by coming to the end of the first quarter. The Ducks ran off nine snaps in 2:14, including catching the Tigers with 12 defenders on the field, and got to the 3-yard-line. The breakneck pace skidded to a stop, however, with the end of the quarter. Auburn regrouped and held Oregon to a field goal.

[+] EnlargeMichael Dyer
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe space between Michael Dyer's knee and the ground proved to be the decisive margin in Auburn's win over Oregon.

Only the 2010 Auburn Tigers could turn Newton's short-armed incompletion on fourth-and-goal at the Oregon 1 in the second quarter into nine points. Two plays later, defensive tackle Mike Blanc tackled Ducks tailback LaMichael James for a safety, and the Tigers took the ensuing free kick for a touchdown shortly before halftime.

And only the 2010 Auburn Tigers could set up Wes Byrum's game-winning field goal by that improbable freeze-tag 37-yard run by Michael Dyer to the Oregon 23 with 1:39 to play. Give credit to Dyer for having the leg strength to remain upright as rover Eddie Pleasant dragged him down, and for realizing that the whistle had never blown. But if you had to pick a team that would have made that play in that game, it would have been Auburn.

That's why Chizik should celebrate a little longer. The seniors are gone. Newton and Fairley are all but gone. Auburn will attempt to defend the national championship with a team of mostly juniors and sophomores and whatever help the freshman class can provide. Chizik will have to deal with the malaise that affects every No. 1 team, from the scout-teamers who get a ring and think they have arrived to the praise that softens even the steeliest work ethic.

Auburn also will have to deal with the target that will be on its jerseys. Teams will focus to beat the national champion, regardless of which players are wearing the Auburn uniform.

Chizik knows all that. He remained at Texas for one season after the Longhorns won the 2005 national championship. That team struggled to go 10-3. Given Auburn's inexperience, it will be lucky to be that successful.

That's why Chizik should extend the celebration. When he and Auburn go back to work on the 2011 season, they will have much to do.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com