SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Ten hours after winning the national title, Auburn coach Gene Chizik was typically intense and businesslike, already saying the time to celebrate was over.
“It’s expired,” he said Wednesday morning, adding that they “have to start all over starting today.”
OK, the Tigers might not have to start from scratch after a 14-0 season that culminated with the program’s second national title, first since 1957.
They do face quite a challenge to make sure their rise to national championship contender is not a passing fad. That’s especially true if the Tigers’ biggest stars, quarterback Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley, head to the NFL following their junior seasons.
Those two All-Americans often powered the Tigers to wins. If they join the exodus of 23 seniors — including 13 starters — Auburn seems unlikely to be picked to repeat in the SEC West much less as national champs.
Of course, the Tigers were predicted as middle-of-the-packers in the division this season, too, but wound up perfect and pulled off nine comeback victories — including Monday night’s.
Those modest projections came before Newton emerged as college football’s most dynamic player and a runaway Heisman Trophy winner, and before Fairley became the most fearsome defensive lineman in the nation.
Newton weathered a recruiting scandal along the way. Now, he’s moved on to celebrity status and was to appear on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” Tuesday night.
“When you look at that guy a year ago, nobody knew who he was,” Chizik said. “And you look at just what he’s done, it’s a great story. He is a huge part of what our football team became. I think he got our players to rally around him in terms of the way they upped their level of play.”
Chizik and Fairley both said after the game they would sit down with family and coaches before making the NFL decision. It would be hard to imagine either — or Auburn — topping this season.
They have only until Saturday to declare for the draft.
“The time is obviously coming up,” Chizik said. “We have one focus before this game and I’ve got so much respect for both of those guys because they are getting hit from every angle with the same question, ‘What are you going to do? Are you going to stay? Are you going to go?'”
They didn’t miss a beat on the field.
Newton passed for 265 yards and two touchdowns with an interception and ran for 64 yards despite hurting his back. Chizik said he had no update on the injury, which didn’t sideline the quarterback for any plays in the title game.
Newton did leave the postgame news conference early.
Fairley had three tackles for a loss, a sack and forced a fumble while making a key stop on a goal line stand. The performance “proved he’s the best defensive lineman in the country,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said.
Chizik proved something, too. He needed just two seasons to take the Tigers to the top after his hiring met with plenty of skepticism following two losing seasons at Iowa State. Far from gloating, he said he was “just very blessed to be a small part of something really big.”
The only difference the morning after was he wore a leather jacket and jeans instead of a suit to the news conference, before heading to the airport for the flight back to Alabama. His demeanor was as serious and focused as ever. No jokes. Few big smiles. Just business.
As he pointed out, “there are no days off” in major college football these days. Now, it’s a matter of trying to polish off a signing class that has been pushing toward the top 10 nationally, according to recruiting services.
A team light on stars beyond Newton and Fairley will lose plenty of key players. That group includes left tackle Lee Ziemba, center Ryan Pugh, defensive end Antoine Carter and linebacker Josh Bynes.
There are some promising youngsters returning, led by tailback Mike Dyer, cornerback T’Sharvan Bell and defensive end Nosa Eguae. Leading receiver Darvin Adams also is a junior who might leave for the NFL.Dyer punctuated his freshman season with 143 yard rushing against Oregon, including a wild, he’s-down-wait-no-he-isn’t 37-yarder on the drive for Wes Byrum’s short game-winning field on the final play.
Dyer finished with 1,093 rushing yards on the season, breaking Bo Jackson’s school record for a freshman.
“I think he’s got a chance to be a really, really good tailback in the SEC,” Chizik said. “He is kind of coming into his own.
“He certainly has not arrived yet because he got the MVP of the national championship game,” he added. “But I think he has got the potential to do whatever he wants to do if he will work at it.”
That’s the approach Chizik said he’s still taking with his program. He said the foundation is still being built.
Since Tommy Tuberville’s 2004 team went unbeaten and finished No. 2 in 2004, the Tigers have finished unranked twice and in the Top 10 only once — No. 9 in 2006.
“We’re not there yet,” Chizik said. “But we’ll continue to work every day in that direction.
“I think at the moment where we feel like we have arrived and we feel like we are there, I think we’re in trouble.”