After Saturday's game against dangerous but outmanned Western Kentucky, the Tigers play three of their next four against teams currently ranked in the Top 10. When they come out of that stretch, we'll all know if they are contenders are pretenders. The key to success isn't, believe it or not, play-calling. It's not Jason Campbell or the running backs or the receivers or even the defense. It's the offensive line. If the offensive line plays like it did against Southern California and Georgia Tech, it won't matter what plays are called. Neither Campbell nor the running backs nor the wide receivers will have any chance to succeed.
Nobody at Auburn anticipated in the preseason just how badly Ben Nowland would be missed. He was a terrific college center and left a hole that proved difficult to fill. Danny Lindsey is a talented, hard-working, dedicated football player. He will get it done, but the transition wasn't as seamless as he and his coaches had hoped. But it's not all about the center. For whatever reason, tackle Mark Pera and guard Monreko Crittenden, the two seniors on the offensive line, have not played as well as they have played in the past. Sophomore guard Troy Reddick is still learning. Sophomore tackle Marcus McNeill has been the most consistent player up front, but his lower back problems have kept him from returning to the level of late last season.
The offensive line wasn't dominant last season, but it was good enough and hard-nosed enough to get the job done when it mattered. If Auburn is to make a real run at the SEC championship, it must be that way again this season. There were signs of improvement against Vanderbilt. Though Western Kentucky's moving, slanting defense will likely cause some problems, the Tigers ought to be able to physically take over the game by the second half Saturday.
The real test will come a week later when Tennessee comes to town. If the offensive line plays no better than it did the first two games, the outcome will be no better for Auburn.
There is no rational way to call Auburn the favorite to win the SEC West, and that would be true even if the Tigers were 3-0 instead of 1-2. There are three eligible teams in the West with championship level talent. They are Auburn, LSU and Arkansas. Georgia, Tennessee and Florida have enough talent to win the East.
Auburn plays four of the other five. More importantly, it plays both West Division rivals and Georgia on the road. As of today, it would be considered an underdog in all four road games. To win the West, the Tigers will need to win at least two of those four games and not lose at home. That might or might not be enough.
The Tigers' fate is in their own hands, of course. They could win out and be a Top 10 team when it's all over, but I don't know if there's a team in America that could expect to win out against that schedule. In August, I would have said Auburn could have a successful season without getting to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. But after the two early losses--one that never should have happened--it's difficult to imagine players, coaches or fans feeling good about this season if the Tigers don't at least make it to the big show.
The Terry Bowden story that has dominated sports news in the state for more than a week has resulted in a flood of questions. I'll try to answer the ones I can.
Q: Why did Auburn pay Bowden four years salary if he resigned?
A: Bowden made it clear he wanted out midway through the 1998 season. Had Auburn officials refused to pay him his severance, he would probably have stayed on against his will and made them fire him and they would have had to pay him anyway.
Q: Could the NCAA penalize Auburn if what Bowden says is true?
A: The NCAA can do just about anything it wants to do, but an infractions case against Auburn is unlikely. The four-year statute of limitations has expired. The NCAA can't reopen the case that led to Auburn getting sanctions in 1993. For an investigation to go back beyond four years, a pattern of violations must be established or the violations must be "blatant." Making such a case at this point would be extremely difficult. The NCAA operates on fear and intimidation, frequently getting players to talk by threatening them with loss of eligibility. It would have no way of using that tactic in this case.
Q: Is Bowden telling the truth?
A: That's a question that might never be answered. For years, Bowden talked proudly about running a clean program. Now he says he didn't follow the rules, at least for a while, and that he clearly violated the rules by signing affidavits saying he knew of no unreported violations in the program. I have no proof either way. I have had private conversations with some who were around at the time, and they say the accusation that players were being paid $12,000-$15,000 signing bonuses is preposterous.
Q: Does Bowden owe Auburn $620,000?
A: The agreements he signed would seem to indicate that he does, though I'm sure his lawyers would have arguments why he doesn't. It is probably a moot point, because Auburn is unlikely to seek payment.
Until next time…
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