Why the 2003 Tigers Will Or Won't Be Champions

Columnist Phillip Marshall analyzes the probable strengths and weaknesses of the Auburn football team as the favorites in the 2003 SEC race.

The ongoing debates about who is good, who isn't, who will win and who won't are part of the fun as college football season approaches each year. Auburn is the favorite of most to win the SEC championship, but there are those who ridicule that thought. The Sporting News even picked the Tigers to win the national championship. The truth, of course, is that no one knows who is going to win anything.

There are good reasons to pick Auburn to win a championship. And there are good reasons to wonder if this is the year. Today we're going to look at both sides.

FIVE REASONS AUBURN WILL WIN THE SEC TITLE:

1. Impact players. The four-headed monster at tailback and the mighty linebacker corps of Dontarrious Thomas and Karlos Dansby are well-documented, but there's plenty more. Fullback Brandon Johnson is one of the better players in the SEC. Offensive guard Monreko Crittenden and offensive tackle Mark Pera will be in the NFL next season. Offensive tackle Marcus McNeill has the potential to be as good as any offensive lineman ever to play for Auburn. The wide receivers are often overlooked, but that's a big mistake. Ben Obomanu and Devin Aromashodu are sophomores who could have gone almost anywhere. And Courtney Taylor may be better than either one of them.

Defensive end Reggie Torbor is one of the nation's best. The same can be said for defensive tackles Demarco McNeil and Spencer Johnson. And there are others, like defensive end Jay Ratliff, who have could blossom into stars at any time.

2. Experience. The Tigers don't have a lot of seniors, but the ones they have are serious football players and leaders. Safety is the only position on either side of the ball, outside of kickers, where the Tigers don't have battle-tested players. Six Auburn players already have college degrees. Championships in any sport are usually won by experienced teams.

Quarterback Jason Campell is the unquestioned starter this season.

3. Jason Campbell. Those who don't know better insist on viewing the Auburn quarterback as a question mark. They choose to overlook the fact that he led the Tigers to a 5-1 record down the stretch last season and would have led the SEC in passing efficiency, but was five passes short of having enough to qualify. It's hard to win a championship without an outstanding quarterback and impossible to win one without a solid one. Campbell might just be a great one.

4. The line of scrimmage. Skill players are exciting, but it's really the men up front who make championship teams. Auburn has what it takes on both sides of the line of scrimmage. There is talent and ample depth. Eventually, all five of the starters on the offensive line could be in the NFL. Johnson, McNeil, Torbor and Bret Eddins are an imposing front four, and the guys behind them would start a lot of places.

5. Chemistry. Talk to the players on this Auburn team and they'll tell you it's the closest team they've been on, that they look at each other like brothers. Coach Tommy Tuberville says he's never seen players enjoy each other so much during two-a-days. That kind of chemistry took the 2000 team, one with far less talent than this one, to the SEC Championship Game.

FIVE REASONS AUBURN'S WON'T WIN THE SEC CHAMPIONSHIP:

1. The schedule. It's brutal. Though the opener against Southern California doesn't have anything to do with the SEC, there is a potential in such a game for getting players beaten and bruised. Thomas was hurt at USC last season and didn't really recover until late in the season. But the real problem is in the SEC. The three contenders in the West are Auburn, LSU and Arkansas. Auburn must play both on the road. Plus, Auburn plays probably the top two teams in the East in Tennessee and Georgia. Auburn has what it takes for a championship, but those teams do, too.

2. The secondary. As many as three redshirt freshmen could be in the playing rotation. Karibi Dede will start at free safety and be backed up by Will Herring, another redshirt freshman. Montae Pitts will probably be a backup at one cornerback. Young players can make mistakes at other positions and give up a 10-yard gain. In the secondary, a mistake often means a touchdown. Only junior cornerback Carlos Rogers and junior strong safety Donnay Young have significant experience at the positions they are playing.

Karlos Dansby (11) hopes to end his senior season as a winner.

3. High expectations. This team has never carried the burden it carries this season. Players have been on the covers of national magazines. They've been besieged with interview requests. At SEC Media Days, the Tigers were the overwhelming choice to win the championship. How will they react? Nobody knows for sure, but that burden has proved too heavy for many a college football team.

4. Replacing Bobby Petrino Hugh Nall is in his first season as offensive coordinator. Steve Ensminger, in his first season as quarterbacks coach, will call the plays on gameday. Together, they are replacing Bobby Petrino, who left after one season as offensive coordinator to become head coach at Louisville. How difficult will Petrino be to replace? Said one Auburn assistant: "He's the best I've ever been on the field with." It would seem logical that there would be some growing pains with a new coordinator and a new play caller. Nall and Ensminger insist it won't be a problem. We'll know soon.

5. The kicking game. Tuberville says he believes it could be the best since he's been at Auburn, but the kicker and the punter will probably both be playing college football for the first time. Can John Vaughn be as deadly accurate as a freshman as he was in high school? Can Michael Gibson or Kody Bliss be consistent punting? If they can, Tuberville will be right. If they can't, the Tigers could face problems similar to what they faced last season when missed field goals and short, line-drive punts in crucial games might have kept them out of the SEC Championship Game.

So that's it. Take your pick. There are reasons to believe Auburn will win the SEC championship and reasons to believe it won't. That's why they play the games.


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