When Auburn went to the BCS National Championship Game in January, it was pretty easy to spotlight the players and coaches who would have the most to say about whether the Tigers sank or swam. Cam Newton, Nick Fairley, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ted Roof would all play key roles. And all of them did in Auburn's 22-19 win against Oregon to win the program's first national title in more than a half-century.
Sure, there had been plenty of controversy over the recruitment of Cam Newton. And the defense had not quite been as successful as that of earlier SEC champions. But the Tigers won, giving the SEC its fifth consecutive championship and extending an impressive streak for the conference.
Then, in the space of a year, it all fell apart. The disintegration of the team that hoisted the crystal football unfolded in two quick bursts over the space of that year, but Gene Chizik is the only one of those five key figures who remains at Auburn less than 12 months after one of the highest points of the school's football program.
It started with the NFL Draft -- Newton decided that a Heisman Trophy, SEC Championship and national title amounted to the most anybody could reasonably expect to do over the course of a career, much less a season, and wasted almost no time saying he was headed for the pros. It took another day for Fairley to say that he would also accept millions of dollars to take his punishing brand of defense to the next level.
Minus those two players, Auburn struggled through a 7-5 season that included losses of at least four touchdowns to Georgia, LSU and Alabama. South Carolina, Utah State and Samford were the only teams that would lose to Auburn and finish with a winning record -- and both the Utah State and South Carolina victories were extraordinarily close calls.
That's when the spinning apart of the team went into overdrive. Roof left for the same job at Central Florida in the kind of move that seemed to many like getting out of town while the getting was good. Malzahn left for the head-coaching gig that many expected him to land -- but the choice of Arkansas State as his destination raised more than a few eyebrows.
None of that wipes out Auburn's national championship -- the only thing that could have done that was an NCAA investigation that has finally and officially closed its doors. And it by no means implies that Auburn's chances in 2012 are done; if nothing else, Newton proved that a few shifts in the college football landscape can dramatically boost a team's chances at a championship.
But it won't be easy for Auburn to recover from having lost basically every piece of its last title team save the head coach. Every team that wins the championship has to eventually deal with the hangover, but Auburn's seems like it could last for quite a while.