Fri Jan 14 12:25pm EST
To the surprise of no one who has paid the slightest attention to Auburn, college football or the increasingly ubiquitous mock drafts springing up in the new year, Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley officially threw his hat into the NFL Draft today, on the heels of a dominant performance in Monday night's 22-19 BCS Championship triumph over Oregon. An obscure Tommy Tuberville signee in 2007 who took a detour through junior college in Mississippi, Fairley goes out with consensus All-American honors, the Lombardi Award as the nation's best interior lineman and a ticket into the top 10 in April, all after just one season as a full-time starter.
With quarterback Cam Newton's inevitable departure on Thursday night, Fairley's announcement is also the official curtain call for Auburn's brief stint as a national power. Well, it was some show while it lasted.
Newton's exit alone is a dream killer for any distant hopes of a rematch: He accounted for 62 percent of the Tigers' total yards, 71 percent of their offensive touchdowns and roughly 100 percent of the difference between last year's Outback Bowl champions and this year's national champions. In the biggest games, against LSU, Alabama and Oregon, Fairley seemed to carry roughly the same share of the defense. Even aside from the breakout junior stars, though, most of the cast was in its final performance – seven offensive starters against Oregon were seniors playing their final game, along with seven more starters on defense. That number includes four-fifths of the offensive line and five members of the defensive front seven (not including Fairley), leaving exactly one returning starter on each line: Right tackle Brandon Mosley on offense and defensive end Nosa Eguae on defense.
Altogether, the Tigers will defend their championship in 2011 minus their leading passer, leading rusher, two of their top four receivers, four starting offensive linemen, their top two pass rushers and four of their top five tacklers – an unprecedented exodus in the BCS era. No defending BCS champion has ever opened the following outside of the top 10 in the preseason polls; the closest, in fact, was Auburn in 2005, which dropped all the way to 16th in the preseason Associated Press poll after losing the core of its uncrowned, 13-0 team in 2004. As far as actual results, only two defending BCS champs, Florida in 2007 and LSU a year later, have dropped more than three games the year after winning the title, and only the '08 Tigers fell out of the polls.
Like the 2004 team, the 2010 edition of Auburn came from nowhere – their preseason rank, No. 22 in the AP poll, No. 23 in the Coaches', is the lowest ever for an eventual BCS champ – and by all rights, it's to nowhere that the 2011 edition should return, relatively speaking. As spectacular as Gene Chizik's second season on the Plains turned out to be, it's his third will define the larger trajectory of his tenure: If the Tigers don't plummet back to fringe top-25 territory, as everyone will (justifiably) expect, then he's got himself a certifiable powerhouse here. In the meantime, the SEC West – now home to four different division champions in five years – is reopened for business.
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.