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November 17, 2012

Senior sayonara

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AUBURN -- What happened inside Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday afternoon was supposed to be easy.

That's exactly what it was.

What a fine change for the Tigers.

An offense that has spent months trying to find its way amid personnel shortages and a wavering identity suddenly pieced together a commanding performance. A week after Georgia averaged 10 yards per game through the first half here, Auburn exhibited a similar level of excellence and execution.

That it came against a team like Alabama A&M is immaterial really. The Tigers haven't been afforded many opportunities to enjoy a relatively casual Saturday in front of a home crowd.

Senior Day is supposed to work like this.

Tailback Onterio McCalebb, in his final home appearance, again showed the acceleration that made him an important part of Auburn's championship run in 2010. A timid and nervous player upon arrival four years ago, McCalebb has grown into a confident young man who has little trouble speaking his mind in a crowd.

He's also a fine tailback.

Guard John Sullen smiled his way through the game as he's done since arriving from Auburn High in 2009. He enjoys every snap. His happiness is infectious. The same goes for cornerback T'Sharvan Bell, whose dedication to the game through two potentially career-changing injures remains inspiring to many of his teammates.

Linebacker Daren Bates played hard as always. He may go down as one of the most underappreciated four-year starters in school history. He was flanked, as usual, by classmate Johnny Evans.

Wideouts Travante Stallworth and Emory Blake made their final Jordan-Hare appearances as well. Blake's career has been far more prolific - he'll go down as one of the Tigers' 10 best receivers - but both players approached the game with remarkable tenacity from start to finish.

As the team's other seniors jogged to coach Gene Chizik during a pre-game ceremony honoring the seniors, Philip Lutzenkirchen was forced to walk. Hip surgery temporarily has limited his physical ability, but Lutzenkirchen's effect on this program cannot be understated.

He stuck with Auburn after coach Tommy Tuberville was dismissed following the 2008 season. Leaving would have been easy. Proving himself to a new coaching staff that knew almost nothing about him was far more difficult, but it paid off.

Several other members of the senior class - Jamar Travis, Ikeem Means, Anthony Morgan, DeAngelo Benton - made their usual contributions Saturday. None of them are stars, though none of them have complained. They all carved out a niche and filled it.

Linebacker Ashton Richardson had to enjoy the afternoon vicariously. He spent the day in Birmingham interviewing for a Rhodes Scholarship. That's the ultimate excused absence. Auburn's senior class enjoyed perhaps the perfect path. A so-so season in 2009 prefaced perfection in 2010. The program devolved after that, but those struggles surely will sweeten the memories of that championship season.

As for the team, Saturday's game meant almost nothing.

Offensive execution was improved. The opponent was Alabama A&M.

Tacking was much better. The opponent was Alabama A&M.

Everything seemed to make sense. The opponent was Alabama A&M.

Now comes the final and biggest challenge: Accomplish something in Tuscaloosa. Alabama is fighting to get back into the national championship picture and could use a dominating win against its arch-rival to curry favor.

The Tigers' task will be difficult.

Still, that's a column for another day. Auburn generally was outstanding Saturday, showing that its systems can work, these players can thrive, these coaches can coach.

The opponent? You know the rest.



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