AU's Recent Woes Vs. Razorbacks Not A Mystery

Columnist Phillip Marshall previews Auburn's road trip to Arkansas and writes about SEC football officiating.

On the surface, Arkansas' domination of Auburn in recent years seems difficult to understand. You know the numbers by now--38-17 last season, 42-17 in 2001, 34-10 in 1999. Even in 2000, an Auburn team on its way to the SEC Championship Game hung on for dear life to beat Arkansas 21-19 at home.

As mystifying as that seems, it really isn't so mystifying. There are reasons for them all. Last season, Auburn's defensive line was decimated by injuries. Tackle Spencer Johnson went out early. Linebacker Dontarrious Thomas was playing at about 70 percent. The result was 426 rushing yards for Arkansas. Even with that, it would have been anybody's game without three Auburn turnovers and a blocked punt.

In 2001 in Fayetteville, Auburn had 492 yards offense. But an interception was returned for a touchdown and another interception on Daniel Cobb's infamous screen pass in the final seconds of the first half set up another. Tim Carter just dropped the ball while running toward an apparent touchdown. Casinious Moore fumbled as Auburn drove toward the lead in the second half.

In 1999, the Tigers just weren't a good team. When quarterback Ben Leard went out early with a concussion, they had no chance.

Turn the ball over and give up large amounts of rushing yards and you will almost always lose. The Tigers have done that against Arkansas, and they have lost. If they do it again Saturday at Razorback Stadium, they will lose again. Call it a hunch, call it whatever you want, but something tells me this is Auburn's year to take out the Razorbacks. The reason is simple. I believe Arkansas is an overrated football team. I don't believe it is close to being the No. 7 team in the country.

On offense, the Razorbacks are big and physical and have their share of playmakers. Their defense is suspect, ordinary at best. Giving up 31 points to Alabama in a little more than three quarters says a lot. And that's why I expect Auburn to win. Arkansas' offense is probably better than Auburn's offense, but I believe Auburn's defense is substantially better than Arkansas' defense. Quarterback Jason Campbell improves with every game and doesn't have a tendency to turn the ball over. The running backs fumble rarely. I don't believe the Tigers will give it away this time.

SETTING IT STRAIGHT

If you are going to state opinions in a public forum, you should be willing to take the heat that goes with those opinions. You should also be willing to admit when you are wrong. I was wrong.

Writing in this space Monday, I indicated that Bobby Gaston, the SEC supervisor of officials, should be pushed into retirement because of what I see as subpar and even incompetent performances by some of the men he supervises. I stand by what I wrote about the performance of many SEC officials, but I should not have written Gaston needed to retire. Who am I to make such a suggestion? I was guilty of something I have tried very hard to avoid over the years--making a statement that I have neither the knowledge nor the expertise to back up. No one asked me to write this today. No one has complained to me about what I wrote Monday. This comes from my heart and nowhere else.

Bobby Gaston is a good man and a nice man. I believe he has a big problem on his hands, but evaluating his job performance is not up to me. As I have written here many times, I rarely question play-calling by coaches because I'm no expert, and it's easy to criticize after you first get to see if the play worked. Anyone who has read many of the thousands of columns and stories I've written in more than 34 years in this business knows I try to look for the best in people. I have been criticized far more often for being too soft than I have for being too harsh.

My opinion of the level of officiating in the SEC was reached after talking to numerous coaches and former officials. If you talk to coaches who have been around a long time, they will tell you privately that it is a shadow of what it once was. There is no question in their minds that calls are being missed, phantom calls are being made and poor judgment displayed at an alarming rate all across the SEC landscape. Had a flag not been dropped on Alabama's celebration in the end zone in overtime against Arkansas, how different would the SEC West Division race look today? How different would Alabama's outlook be if it had celebrated a victory over Arkansas instead of a double overtime loss? Those kinds of things shouldn't happen. Of that I am convinced. But why they seem to happen with growing frequency in the SEC is beyond my level of expertise.

Monday, I placed the blame on Gaston, and that was wrong. He says SEC officials miss fewer calls than ever. I believe he is mistaken about that, but does that mean he needs to be replaced? I am not qualified to say that today and wasn't qualified to say that Monday. And I was wrong to write it.


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