Unpredictable Auburn has a new problem. Off to the side, it has created one for Tennessee.
The Tigers, thought to be championship contenders back in the summer, are disappointing. They lost to LSU. They floundered around against Southern Mississippi. They did some kind of collapse at Mississippi State.
In losing, Auburn has generated a ray of hope for Tennessee. I doubt that the Volunteers will become overconfident so I will risk this assessment: If they play their best and the Tigers cooperate, a most unlikely upset would be possible.
For me, Auburn has long been a complex contradiction. I appreciate the loveliest village on the plains. Once upon a time, I actually enjoyed pep rallies at Toomer’s Corner. The town is blessed with special loyalties, atmosphere and energy.
Among the finest people I’ve met in a lifetime on the edge of college athletics is David Housel, as Auburn as a man can get.
There is a flip side. I am puzzled that Auburn people can be proud of accomplishments when the school has seven convictions for cheating.
Auburn was in the NCAA crosshairs on other occasions without getting shot. Relatively recently it won a national title amid accusations that Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton received a substantial amount of money in a pay-for-play arrangement.
Oh no, not us, said Auburn. An internal inspection found nothing even worthy of an NCAA stop and sniff. All is well, good life as usual, onward and upward.
Even if the current Tigers revive and romp past Tennessee on Saturday, the result won’t be a world record. That was established 60 years ago. The then defending national champs flexed muscles for a national TV audience. The Volunteers didn’t make a first down. They finished with minus 49 rushing and plus 19 passing.
Several beautiful broken-field runs enabled Tennessee tailback Bill Majors to get back within two or three yards of the line of scrimmage.
The NCAA eventually discovered the great team was built dishonestly.
There have been other interesting landmarks. In 1973, Tennessee defeated Auburn 21-0 in Knoxville in a driving rainstorm. Throughout the fourth quarter, Tennessee punted on first down. Auburn coaches took the strange position that getting rid of the wet ball was unfair.
When time finally expired, Auburn coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan refused to shake hands with Vol coach Bill Battle. Shug said Bill skipped the meet and greet before the game.
One year later, Tennessee made its first trip to Auburn because the contract said Birmingham was no longer acceptable. Auburn won, ironically, by the same 21-0. Fans chanted “Punt, punt, punt” when Auburn made a first down. It was not raining.
In 1991, Auburn’s Eric Ramsey made world news. The defensive back brought down the football program. He wrote a term paper for a sociology class about what it was like to be a black student at a predominately white university. He said he had been told he was purchased to play football. He admitted receiving money from boosters and coaches.
The professor shared the paper with a newspaper. All hell broke loose. First were denials. Ramsey produced secret tape recordings of secret deals. Coach and athletic director Pat Dye resigned. The NCAA imposed significant penalties.
Tennessee won four in a row during this period of conflict.
There were more conflicts. In 2006, there were charges of academic fraud. In 2009, an Auburn student sued a football player for assault. Headlines said there was a gang environment. That was the year of the Big Cat recruiting weekend. Many rules were bent and some fractured. The school reported 22 “minor” transgressions.
Cam Newton allegations broke in 2010. The NCAA, Auburn and the SEC agreed that the great quarterback had been offered for sale but the Tigers claimed innocence in the marketplace.
In 2011, four Auburn players were arrested for robbery. Coach Gene Chizik dismissed them and said the incident was “deeply troubling.”
Later that year, four other former players told HBO they had received thousands of dollars while being recruited by the Tigers. Chizik refuted that as false news, pure garbage. Auburn president Jay Gogue said athletics director Jay Jacobs would investigate “thoroughly and completely” and that Auburn was committed to “play by the rules.”
That September, the NCAA said it was looking at possible lack of institutional control. In October, Auburn got the “all clear.”
Auburn penalized itself. It stopped recruiting quarterback Jameis Winston. Assistant head coach Trooper Taylor got another slap on the wrist.
Chizik said “I am comforted knowing that the truth always prevails.”
There was no mention of truth when Chizik was eventually fired. Termination was based on losing too many games.
Really bad news was next. In 2013, almost a great year, Selena Roberts, an Auburn alum, former writer for the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, reported an assortment of NCAA violations by Auburn, including but not limited to payment of players and changing grades.
Sources were one of the four arrested for armed robbery and “more than a dozen players” from the championship team. Roberts said 40 Tigers tested positive for drugs.
NCAA president Mark Emmert said it was just a newspaper story.
“We haven’t done anything with that case because we don’t know anything about it.”
Auburn fans think Alabama is somehow behind most of Auburn’s troubles. I think Auburn has a disproportionate total. The current one is almost nothing, a bit of discomfort for Arthur Gustavo Malzahn III. He is 10 months into a seven-year coaching contract worth $49 million.
Personal dilemma: I never liked those who flaunted the rules but I have long liked Auburn. That said, go Vols.
Marvin West invites reader reactions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org