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Auburn treads a precarious path

When Auburn fans finally catch their breath from the days of uproarious laughter about rival Alabama’s embarrassing, 31-17 loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl, they will soon realize their own program sits squarely in the middle of an important crossroads.

Everyone knows about the exit of Tommy Tuberville after a 10-year tenure and the entrance of Gene Chizik, but Auburn’s situation is much more complex than breaking in a new coach.

From the 2000 season until this past season, the majority of Tuberville’s tenure, Auburn was one of only three SEC West teams to represent the division in the conference championship game. LSU and Arkansas were the others, though the West was determined by the winner of the Auburn-LSU game in all but two years.

Then, a number of unexpected factors combined to shake up the division hierarchy: Houston Nutt and Arkansas parted ways, Nutt signed on at Ole Miss and led the Rebels to nine wins (including victories over Auburn and LSU), LSU went 3-5 in conference games, Auburn lost seven games and its coach, and Alabama ascended to the top of the division with a perfect regular season.

Now that the dust has settled, we can reassess what the 2008 season will mean for the future. Neither Alabama nor LSU are going anywhere anytime soon. The Crimson Tide is following up last year’s consensus No. 1 recruiting class with at least a top-5 effort this year, and LSU has been doing that sort of thing for years now (if you’re curious, Rivals.com ranks LSU’s class No. 1 nationally and Alabama’s class No. 4 so far).

The Tigers appear to have found an answer at quarterback with youngster Jordan Jefferson, who was Offensive Most Outstanding Player in a 38-3 bowl win over Georgia Tech. The Crimson Tide next year will depend on a defense that was one of the nation’s best this season (other than the Utah game), will lose only two contributors and will feature two preseason All-Americans in defensive tackle Terrance Cody and linebacker Rolando McClain. Most will have these teams picked at the top of the West next year.

So, what about Auburn? To work its way back to the top of the division, Auburn must first go through Ole Miss and Arkansas, no easy task because both Nutt and Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino have a one-year head start on Chizik’s efforts on the Plains.

So, in the next couple months, every assistant Chizik hires and every recruit he convinces to stick by his commitment to Auburn will have a very real effect on whether the Tigers can claw their way back up the conference ladder or if they will slip into the cellar.

There’s nothing funny about that—even if you’re having a hard time wiping the Sugar Bowl-induced smile off your face.