AUBURN, Ala. — Once upon a time, winning a college football national championship was nearly certain to preface some lean years.
That time, however, was pre-World War II — an obscure generation with miniscule rosters (players would never be subbed out, manning multiple starting positions) and recruiting was rudimentary, leaning heavily on regional prospects rather than today’s coast-to-coast competition.
Not in the last 70 years has any program been crowned Associated Press champion and proceeded to fall this far, this fast, in the way Auburn has been hungover since Jan. 10, 2011.
That was a magical night from Toomer’s Corner to the desert in Arizona, where Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton and coach Gene Chizik led their Tigers to a 22-19 BCS National Championship victory over Oregon.
In 21 months and change since Newton and Chizik cradled the crystal ball, the Ducks are 18-2 — the reigning Rose Bowl champs firmly entrenched in the running for entrance to this year’s national championship game.
Meanwhile, Auburn is 9-10 in the same span.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” senior wide receiver Emory Blake said. “I’m not used to losing, and I don’t like losing. Neither do any of my teammates or coaches, but we’re not a team that’s going to give up. We’re going to keep chopping wood and keep working hard.”
A losing record in Auburn’s couple of years since winning it all. That’s unprecedented in college football’s modern era.
Since the birth of the BCS, 12 national champions preceding Auburn from 1998-2009 compiled a 249-60 record, winning 80.6 percent of all games in their two ensuing seasons following a title.
None of those former champs had a season record worse than 8-5, which LSU and Florida each finished soon after reaching the mountaintop.
Auburn was 8-5 as defending champion last year, and sits at 1-5 heading into Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt. Three ranked opponents — Texas A&M, Georgia and No. 1 Alabama — remain on the schedule.
In the wake of Auburn’s other national championship, Ralph “Shug” Jordan built upon 10-0 perfection in 1957. Auburn responded with a 9-0-1 campaign (finishing fourth in the rankings) and produced seven consecutive winning seasons.
The closest recent example of a regressing champion would be Penn State, which won national titles under Joe Paterno in 1982 and 1986. In the two seasons following each crowning moment, the Nittany Lions’ record was 27-19-1 overall, including twice failing to grab a bowl bid.
For spectacular relapses, you have to go back eight decades, when Michigan won back-to-back national championships in 1932-33 under Harry Kipke, a young coach in his mid-30s at the time. The Wolverines immediately caved in, winning just once in its 1934 double-title defense as part of a 10-22 record the four years after their championships.
Kipke lasted as coach until the end of those four years, likely because he was a Michigan man and former All-American halfback/punter for Fielding H. Yost.
Michigan wasn’t alone. USC wasn’t the 1939 AP king — that’s Texas A&M — but the Trojans shut out then-No. 1 Tennessee in the Rose Bowl (in 2004, the school began claiming that season as a national championship.) Under three different coaches to start the 1940s, USC sputtered to 10-15-4 without a winning season.
Pittsburgh was 17-1-2 in 1936-37, the latter year including an AP national title. Pitt’s demise took a little more time to develop; the Panthers couldn’t find the plus side of .500 from 1940-47, an eight-year stretch.
TCU won it all in 1938, then went 3-7 each of the ensuing two years.
Minnesota went back-to-back in 1940-41, but stepped back into mediocrity the following three seasons (15-11-1) under new coach George Hauser. Ohio State yo-yoed from a 1942 undefeated campaign and national title to 3-6 the next year, but bounced back to 9-0 in 1944.
Six games remain for Auburn, and while bowl plans are all but dashed, the Tigers go forward hoping to make something of the season’s second half.
“It’s OK to lose, but it’s not OK to be defeated,” sophomore center Tunde Fariyike said. “We’re not defeated yet.”
THEY’VE GOT A HANGOVER … WHOA
Here’s how AP National Champions have fared in the two years after winning it all: