(NOTE: Technically, Auburn won the national title on Jan. 10, 2011. But for the purposes of this article, we’re considering only the 2011 season and the events of this preseason.)
The NCAA’s October finding that no major violations were found in the Cam Newton case should have made the list, but one gets the point. Auburn, the defending national champion, has not been a story this year.
Considering that the list contained mostly scandals, not making it can’t be all bad. Then again, the news of this season and the weeks between the Iron Bowl and Saturday’s Chick-fil-a Bowl has hardly been all good for Auburn.
That’s why the Tigers (7-5) need good news Saturday. They need a victory over Virginia (8-4) and in the worst way.
Not that it would prove anything. Auburn’s seven victories and five losses — especially the ugly margins in those losses to Clemson, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Alabama — pretty much pegged this Auburn team.
It’s mediocre, at best, and nowhere near the championship level the Tigers showed a year ago with much different personnel.
But Virginia is mediocre, too. The Cavaliers are 36th in the Bowl Championship Series standings, 11 spots behind Auburn.
In other words, this is a game Auburn should win, and winning it salvages something positive after this season’s dramatic drop from championship-caliber football. At least Auburn will have beaten a major-conference opponent for the first time since an Oct. 29 rout of Ole Miss, which has lost its last 14 games against SEC competition.
Losing to Virginia, however, just puts a negative exclamation point on a regular-season that saw Auburn lose to rivals Georgia and Alabama by a combined score of 87-21.
And then came the weeks since.
Sophomore running back Michael Dyer, twice a thousand-yard rusher, was suspended for this game and faces an uncertain future at Auburn. He’s not on the roster or in the player bios in Auburn’s bowl media guide.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for the same job at Central Florida — good news to Auburn fans after three years of bad Tiger defense, but the search for his replacement drags on.
Speaking of searches, Auburn head coach Gene Chizik must also replace new Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn, who will coach his last game as Auburn’s offensive coordinator Saturday.
Auburn seems much longer than one year removed from winning major college football’s national championship and much longer than a year away from returning to national relevance.
It’s not quite the fall Texas made from 2009 national runner-up to a 5-7 team in 2010, but it’s close and easily could have been as bad. Does anyone remember how close Auburn came to losing to Utah State and Mississippi State?
A whole lot has happened since Auburn beat Oregon for the BCS title on Jan. 10, and Auburn fans would like to forget much of it. Beating Virginia on New Year’s Eve would help.
Lose to Virginia, and, well, let’s just say Auburn needs some good news. The Tigers need to end 2011 like they began it — a winner.
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.