AUBURN, Ala. — Abby Lemons had no idea what she was getting herself into when she decided to go to Auburn.
She came to Auburn in part because of the football atmosphere two years ago, but morale on campus was at an all-time low when she was a freshman following the first winless SEC season in school history and the tragic poisoning of the historic oak trees at Toomer’s Corner.
“Going into last year, we had lost our coach, lost our trees at Toomer’s Corner and we felt like we had nothing (else) to lose,” Lemons said. “So last season was a bizarre and eerie situation as it seemed like the trees were speaking to us. We got two miracles for each tree — the first for Georgia and the second for Alabama.”
The miracles credited to the Toomer’s oaks were Ricardo Louis’ circus catch against Georgia and Chris Davis’ 100-yard missed field goal returned for a touchdown to beat Alabama.
The energy that courses through the Plains is now palpable after Gus Malzahn led a team that won just three games the year before on an unlikely run to the BCS National Championship game. The campus is brimming with excitement, the community is smiling again and over 70,000 people — the second time in as many years Auburn has topped 70,000 for A-Day — showed up on a chilly, overcast Saturday in April to watch a glorified practice.
Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs has witnessed those excruciating lows and the remarkable highs first hand.
“It’s been quite a ride,” Jacobs said. “We’ve had some high points, some low points and some curves but it’s been a fun ride. It’s a great time for Auburn University.”
There is no doubt Auburn is a fun place to be right now, but both Jacobs and Malzahn understand the difficulty of winning over the long haul in the SEC. They understand the pressures that come with winning the conference championship and returning a team that was seconds away from winning a second national title in four years.
“The epicenter of college football right now is right here in the state of Alabama,” Jacobs said.
The epicenter, of course, includes Iron Bowl rival Alabama. Auburn has reached the title game twice in four seasons, but along the way, the Tigers fired the coach who won a title and needed those two unlikely finishes to reach the second.
Auburn is on top of the college football world right now, but the Tigers still have work to do in order to become a machine that mirrors the one in Tuscaloosa.
“We got better in the spring, but we still have a long way to go,” Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates said. “We still have to prove a point.”
Jacobs, who has dealt with his share of adversity in his decade-long run as Auburn AD, can’t help but smile when he talks about his athletic department. Who can blame him? He watched his football team win the SEC title and play in the BCS title game with a first-year coach, and he recently hired cult-hero Bruce Pearl to lead the basketball program.
Malzahn, however, is not ready to bask in the accomplishments from last season.
Auburn honored the departing players from last year’s SEC championship team with a ring ceremony and a highlight package culminating with the “Kick Six” against Alabama.
Highlights from one game — the loss to Florida State in the championship game — were conspicuously absent from the montage but not from the mind of Malzahn, though.
“As a coach, I think about the last game a lot,” Malzahn said.
In contrast to his up-tempo offense, the Auburn coach doesn’t have time for enthusiasm or the whispers of oak trees. The deliberate second-year coach knows his team got lucky a year ago, and if it expects to repeat as SEC champs, Auburn will have to address some major concerns this summer.
Those concerns begin and end with the defense. This unit dealt with major injuries all spring camp and had to mix and match pieces during the spring finale. Voids left by Dee Ford, Jake Holland and Chris Davis remain temporarily unfilled. One of the few certainties, however, is that allowing more than 420 yards per game on defense isn’t a way to sustain success in the nation’s toughest league.
It’s why Malzahn’s mind wanders and he fidgets after sitting in the same place for more than five minutes at a time. He likes the young players he has on defense but can’t afford to let anyone know about it.
“You cannot pretend to be something you’re not because this business will eat you up if you do,” Jacobs said. “Gus runs a very tight ship and wants to keep everything very close to the vest. He’s is a dot-the-I, cross-the-T sort of guy.”
Jacobs’ job is to address the entire Auburn picture, deal with the politics of major college football and keep the rabid boosters at bay. Malzahn’s job is to find linebackers who can tackle, defensive backs who can cover and defensive ends who can pressure the quarterback. The heavy pressure to win games falls squarely on the head coach's shoulders and it all happens under the most powerful microscope in college football in the most difficult league in the nation.
Lemons recounts her first A-Day a year ago when a record 83,401 fans showed up the spring game to roll Toomer’s Corner for the last time.
“One of my favorite scenes from my first spring game was all of the older couples walking hand-in-hand, who had met at Auburn, fell in love at Auburn and had returned to Auburn to roll the trees one final time,” Lemons said. “It symbolized how important the community is and how important the trees were to the Auburn atmosphere.”
Jacobs and Lemons can afford to get caught up in the moment and enjoy the wild ride that has been Auburn football over the last 24 months. Malzahn cannot.
“Our success in football last year is because of the environment I created here,” Jacobs said.
“More than anything, however, it was Gus Malzahn and his leadership.”