Tigers Really Need To Win This Week

Phillip Marshall looks at the struggling Auburn football Tigers and their prospects for turning things around after an 0-2 start.

First, let's make one thing clear. Georgia Tech is a bad football team. The Yellow Jackets will win no more than a handful of games this season. For a team with the weapons Auburn has at its disposal to lose to such a team, much less by such a score as 17-3, defies rational explanation.

How did it happen? An overthrown pass here, a missed block there, a dropped pass here, a blown coverage there. As the game went on, Georgia Tech's confidence grew and Auburn's waned. When it was over, Georgia Tech students tore down the goal posts. Auburn was 0-2, humiliated and facing a future that is uncertain at best.

No, I didn't mention play-calling. I'm no expert and I don't know whether the plays called were good or bad. The Tigers still seemed to be an offense without personality, without an obvious sense of just what they were trying to accomplish. I don't know why it's that way. I just know they are not getting it done. And I know if Auburn doesn't make dramatic improvement, it will lose again Saturday at Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt has a better football team than Georgia Tech. You can book that. A similar Auburn performance will result in similar outcome.

There is no defending the level of Auburn's performance in losing 23-0 to Southern California and to Georgia Tech. Call it bad coaching or bad playing and you'll be right on both counts. The fall has been hard and painful for Auburn fans everywhere. It is difficult not to draw comparisons between this Auburn season and Alabama in 2000, when the Crimson Tide had a similar offensive setup. Neil Callaway was offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Charlie Stubbs was the quarterbacks coach and play-caller. The Tide went 3-8 and Mike DuBose lost his job. This Auburn team might be headed in the same direction. But as one who spends many hours around the young men who play and the men who coach, I feel compelled to try (probably fruitlessly) to dispel some serious misconceptions.

There is no name-calling or serious dissension between players and other players, between coaches or between players and coaches. Anyone who stands on the outside and says there is doesn't know. Auburn players and coaches are as shocked and frustrated as are the fans. Will those things eventually happen if things don't turn around? Probably. That's human nature. Are some players unhappy with their playing time or lack of it? Of course they are. But for now, this team--players and coaches--is still unified. Auburn players dismissed talk that there has been bickering on the field in the offensive huddle, saying it simply has not happened.

In the load of emails and even telephone calls I have received from unhappy fans, the most ridiculous notion is that somehow the coaches on Auburn's staff aren't doing all they can. It's clear they haven't always made the right decisions, but to question their motivation or their determination is way, way off base. They work as hard as any and harder than most staffs I've been around. And I've been around a lot of staffs.

All hope is not lost for this football team. The same weapons that make it so puzzling for the Tigers to play so poorly also make it possible for them to make a major turnaround. You only have to look back two years to find a very similar situation. LSU lost at home to lowly UAB. LSU fans were loudly and angrily calling for Nick Saban's head. A couple of months later they were celebrating the SEC championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. I'm certainly not predicting that will happen for this team, only that it is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Those screaming that Tommy Tuberville should be fired are truly wasting their time and energy. Tuberville has a long-term contract. He has a $3 million buyout that goes up by $250,000 every year. He has the support of those in power. The men whose jobs are on the line are the assistant coaches, men with families to feed. If, in the end, the offensive setup with Hugh Nall as coordinator and Steve Ensminger as quarterbacks coach proves unworkable, changes will be made. But there will not be a change at the top.

As disappointing as the first two games have been for fans, they have been far, far more disappointing for players and coaches. The time and effort that is put into preparing for a college football season is truly remarkable--not just at Auburn but any big-time program. Auburn players are hurting. Auburn coaches are hurting. They are hurting far worse than any fan.

Ten games remain in the 2003 regular season. Whether Auburn's coaches and players can find the answer to their problems remains to be seen. They are certainly trying. If they can beat Vanderbilt on Saturday, they will have an open date and then a game against Division I-AA Western Kentucky before they have an opportunity to turn their season around against Tennessee at Jordan-Hare Stadium. But first they must beat Vanderbilt, a team that no doubt smells blood. If Auburn doesn't win in Nashville, this season that started with such high hopes and expectations will be all but over.


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