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Friday, Dec. 02, 2011

Joel A. Erickson commentary on Auburn football: No time to panic for Tigers, even with 7-5 regular season

- jerickson@ledger-enquirer.com
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Before this season began, Auburn fans knew another run at the national championship wasn’t reasonable.

An experienced senior class graduated, leaving a roster that had 51 underclassmen among its 79 scholarship players. Expectations for the Tigers were nothing like the lofty heights the program reached in 2010.

But in the wake of a 7-5 season that featured five losses of 14 points or more -- the first time that has happened to Auburn since 1973 -- a vocal set of fans has become convinced the program is headed in the wrong direction.

This is no time to panic. Sometimes a program takes a little time to rebuild. Look at the two teams meeting in Atlanta this weekend for the SEC Championship Game.

Back in 2008, LSU was in the same position that Auburn faced this season. Coming off of a national title won early in coach Les Miles’ tenure at the school, the Tigers struggled to an 8-5 mark and finished 3-5 in the SEC, despite a weak SEC West that featured only two teams (Alabama and Ole Miss) with winning records in SEC play.

A pair of young quarterbacks named Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson struggled badly that season, and the defense gave up more than 24 points per game.

Fans started to wonder whether Miles could recapture the magic that led LSU to the national title.

Miles came back. In 2009, LSU played in the Capital One Bowl. In 2010, LSU finished 11-2 and obliterated Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. And now LSU is a win, maybe even a loss, from returning to the national title game.

The process has taken a little bit longer for Georgia’s Mark Richt.

In Richt’s first eight seasons at Georgia, he posted 10 or more wins six times and established himself as one of the most stable coaches in the SEC.

Two rough seasons ended that perception. Following eight wins in 2009 and bottoming out at 6-7 last year, Richt was supposedly on the hot seat at Georgia if he failed to produce big results this season.

All of which seems almost silly now that Richt has Georgia on a 10-game winning streak with a relatively young roster and won the SEC East title.

The people angry about Auburn’s season have plenty of numbers for evidence: The offense was ranked 104th; the defense ranked 78th; the Tigers lost four SEC games by an average of 31.3 points.

But Auburn also lost a talented, experienced senior class, a wrecking ball of a defensive player in Nick Fairley and the nation’s best overall player, by far, in Cam Newton.

Only 11 upperclassmen were among Auburn’s 22 starters this season. Alabama has 19 upperclassmen in starting roles.

Fans -- and sportswriters -- tend to be impatient. People do not want to go through rebuilding. But one 7-5 season is no reason to jump ship on a program only one year removed from a national title.

Ask the two guys preparing their teams for the SEC title game Saturday.

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