As Auburn finished celebrating its national championship in early 2011, stark reality was about to hit. Two dozen seniors had finished their careers in the BCS Championship Game. Three big-time juniors - Cam Newton, Darvin Adams and Nick Fairley - would leave for the NFL.
In the natural order of things in college football, seniors or fourth-year juniors from the signing class of 2008 and fifth-year seniors from the signing class of 2007 would have been the nucleus of the 2011 team. Only it didn't work out that way.
As Auburn prepared for the 2011 season, four players remained from the Class of 2008 and three from the Class of 2007. Gene Chizik had a team made up of three recruiting classes, one of them being an abbreviated class in 2009 and another being new arrivals from the Class of 2011.
And that's why the building process really began right there. That's why three true freshmen were in the playing rotation at defensive tackle last season, why a redshirt freshman and true freshman started on the offensive line last Saturday against Clemson.
And that's why the Tigers still have some scuffling to do on the road back, why they didn't have quite enough answers for Clemson last Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
It's not because they can only win with Cam Newton, not because they haven't recruited well. It's the situation Chizik inherited, one he recognized from the start. He had two strong upper classes and two that were almost empty. He added critical parts and raced to the top of college football's mountaintop. Then he had to go back and start the climb all over again.
Every situation is different for every coach. And that's why it is useless to compare coaches or their programs until they have had equal opportunities.
The season that started with disappointment last Saturday is far from a lost cause. This Auburn team should get better as it goes. Having a good record against a schedule that includes two teams ranked in the top five, five in the top 10 and six in the top 12 is iffy. It became harder when one got away against Clemson that might have been won.
Regardless, like it or not, this season is about more than winning. It's about continuing to build a program. It's about players getting comfortable and efficient in the complex systems of two new coordinators. It's about developing leaders that will be called on to lead the way back to college football's promised land.
My guess is that, barring a run of injuries, this team will be difficult to deal with down the stretch of this season. And when it's over, when another promising signing class is in the fold, it will be time.
The children who learned hard lessons playing against men in 2011 will be men themselves. The schemes that were hard to learn in the spring of 2012 will come naturally.
Will the right kinds of leaders, those who will show the way for teammates who willingly follow on and off the field, step forward? Will the chemistry it takes to win week after week after week until a championship has been secured grow?
Those are questions for the future.
The Auburn Tigers of 2012 are 0-1 with a very important game looming at Mississippi State. Auburn players say they can speed up the process, that they can be a championship-level team right now.
Who knows? Maybe they can.