Auburn’s Emory Blake celebrates by lifting Cam Newton during last year’s BCS National Championship.
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — It would be easy to forget these days about how Auburn started the year.
The Tigers capped a stunning run to the national title led by Cam Newton, Nick Fairley and Mike Dyer on a chilly Arizona evening in January. Many of the principles from that game — including both coordinators — are either gone, leaving or, in Dyer’s case, in suspension limbo.
If such developments have fans a little jittery, Auburn still supplied the state’s biggest sports story of 2011 — as chosen by the Associated Press Montgomery bureau — by winning its first national title since 1957. As for all the rest, coach Gene Chizik remains undaunted.
“Our goal from here is to make sure we grow and continue on a path that we know the Auburn football program is going to stay on,” Chizik said, in what amounted to a state-of-the-team address after a 42-14 loss to Alabama.
Alabama, meanwhile, has taken up the torch for a state aiming for a third-straight national title. The second-ranked Crimson Tide’s securing of a championship shot against No. 1 LSU in New Orleans on Jan. 9 is the No. 2 story.
One state streak has already ended. Tailback Trent Richardson finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting, ending the state’s two-year stranglehold on that coveted hardware.
It was an eventful year at Auburn, good and bad. Other top state stories include the poisoning of Auburn’s iconic oak trees at Toomer’s Corner (No. 3), the team’s decline and departures (No. 4) and the end of the NCAA’s investigation into Newton’s recruitment (No. 5).
Questions linger about whether Auburn’s football program will stabilize and quickly return to championship form, but Tigers fans got some indelible memories on Jan. 10.
The defense contained Oregon’s Heisman Trophy finalist LaMichael James, whose 49 yards was 103 shy of his season average, and the Ducks’ fast-paced offense.
Dyer upstaged Newton with a stop-and-go 37-yard run — and a subsequent 16-yarder — to set up Wes Byrum’s short field goal to seal a 22-19 win over the second-ranked Ducks.
That capped a 14-0 season and unprecedented climb from a No. 22 ranking to start the season.
Now, the Tigers’ sophomore All-Southeastern Conference tailback is suspended indefinitely for violating team rules and will miss the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia on New Year’s Eve.
Some growing pains were certainly to be expected with so many key players gone from that team. A loss to Virginia in the bowl game would leave Auburn (7-5) with the worst record of any defending BCS national champion.
Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is leaving after the bowl game to return to his home state and take over the Arkansas State program. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof has already started in the same position at Central Florida.
Chizik dismisses any negative perceptions about his program’s stability.
“People try to portray it however they want to but the reality is nothing has changed and we’re on the exact same path we were a month ago, two months ago,” he said. “People are going to spin it how they want to spin it, but I can assure everybody out there that there is absolutely 100 percent one direction that we’re going and that’s the same direction we’ve been going since we got here three years ago.
“Nothing has changed and the future is very bright.”