The Sporting News picked the Tigers to win the national championship. Others pick them to finish in the top five. They are a consensus pick to finish in the Top 10 and will certainly be picked to win the Southeastern Conference championship. Can Auburn win its first widely recognized national championship since 1957 and its first of any kind since the 1983 team was crowned by The New York Times? I believe there are several keys to that question.
1. Talent. Auburn certainly has enough to win a national championship. There are issues that must be addressed, but there are issues on every college football team.
2. Coaching. Auburn has that, too. As I've said here before, I believe game day coaching is often given too much credit and too much blame, but the impact of a coach in building a program that can contend for a championship can't be underestimated. Tommy Tuberville has patiently rebuilt the talent base. He's been a part of three national championship teams. He knows what it takes. The only real question is if it will take some time for offensive coordinator Hugh Nall and quarterbacks coach/play-caller Steve Ensminger to mesh.
3. Leadership. It is the reason most championship teams have plenty of seniors, but a player doesn't have to be a senior to be a leader. In the likes of Karlos Dansby, Jason Campbell, DeMarco McNeil, Reggie Torbor, Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, Auburn has an ample supply of leaders.
4. Injury luck. It is critical in a championship run by any team. When Auburn went 11-0 in 1993, essentially the same group started the last game as started the first game. The Tigers have more depth than they have had in some time, but the first-teamers are first-teamers for a reason.
5. Schedule luck. Looking ahead, it doesn't seem there will be a lot of that. Auburn has championship talent, but so do Southern California, Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and possibly Alabama. Others might.
6. Defense. Plenty of teams have won championships with ordinary offenses. Few have won championships with ordinary defenses. There should be nothing ordinary about Auburn's defense.
Ronnie Brown should be a key player for the Tigers.
There are other factors, of course, but I see those as the main ones. That brings us to the burning question: Can Auburn win a national championship in 2003? Absolutely. Will Auburn win a national championship in 2003? Probably not.
There is no single team I would say is "probable" to win the national championship. Any bookie would give great odds to a bettor who wanted to take one team against the field--be it Miami, Oklahoma or whoever. So many things have to fall into place. Ohio State won half a dozen games in the final minutes last season. That doesn't happen often.
The Tigers clearly should beat Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Western Kentucky, Mississippi State, Louisiana-Monroe and Ole Miss. By most measures they should win at Arkansas, but we all know that's not something to be taken for granted. Games against USC, Tennessee, Georgia, LSU and Alabama will probably tell the story of 2003. USC will be perhaps the most talented nonconference team to play at Jordan-Hare Stadium since Texas came calling in 1983. Don't be deceived by Tennessee's five losses last season or by Georgia's losses to graduation and the NFL. The Vols and the Bulldogs will have plenty of firepower. Alabama can't match up player for player with the top teams in the SEC, but we've all seen for years that strange things can and often do happen with the Tigers and the Tide get together.
If Auburn is to win a national championship, somewhere along the way the ball is simply going to have to bounce its way. In almost any championship season, especially these days and especially in the SEC, it has to happen. Georgia won at least three games last season it could as easily have lost and won an SEC championship. Auburn lost three games it could have won and came up short. The mark of a championship team is one that is ready to pounce when the opportunity arises. By all appearances, Auburn should be that kind of team. A national championship? It's possible. It's not probable.