Searching For The Truth

Columnist Phillip Marshall analyzes Saturday night's important SEC West game as Auburn travels to Baton Rouge to play LSU.

In all my years in this business, I don't believe I've witnessed as much hostility as I have this week. Not even Auburn-Alabama seems to stir this much anger and downright hate among fans.

Alabama-Tennessee, once a rivalry of mutual respect, has degenerated into a grudge match to end grudge matches. Tommy Gallion, the lawyer representing former Alabama coaches Ivy Williams and Ronnie Cottrell, has accused Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer and his program of all sort of heinous deeds. Alabama fans, Gallion included, are convinced that Tennessee was behind the NCAA investigation that led to program-crushing sanctions.

Auburn's visit to Bryant-Denny Stadium last season was a tea party compared to the reception that will await the Vols.

And then there is Auburn-LSU. Neither school is trying to ruin the other like Alabama and Tennessee are, but there's plenty of hostility. I have had the pleasure of reading more than 50 emails from LSU fans in the past week, some rational and some not. There seems to be a remarkable amount of angst among both Auburn and LSU fans over some incidents that are viewed through different eyes.

Let's take a look at them:

*Incident No. 1: In 1999, after Auburn had crushed LSU 41-7 for its first SEC victory in Tommy Tuberville's first season as head coach, Auburn players smoked cigars when the game was over. It was not an issue in the days immediately after the game, but became an issue the following year.

The Truth: Before the NCAA outlawed it, Tuberville designated games each season as "cigar games." He started that when he was at Ole Miss. It was a sign that the games were among the biggest on the schedule. The notion of "cigar games" actually started when Alabama players would light up when they beat Tennessee. It was not meant to rub anything in on anybody. Not many LSU fans were offended that night because most of them were long gone.

*Incident No. 2: In the 2000 game at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn scored the final touchdown on a two-yard run by Rudi Johnson in the final seconds to close out a 34-17 victory. LSU fans and others were incensed, accusing Auburn of running up the score.

The Truth: Give me a break. No SEC team should be offended by any other team scoring what it can. If LSU players didn't want Johnson to score, they should have tackled him. To me, in modern college football, beating someone by 17 points can't be construed as running up the score. What difference does it make anyway? What's the difference in 27-17 and 34-17?

*Incident No. 3: When Auburn's team arrived for the 2001 game at Tiger Stadium, LSU fans threw objects at the bus, rocked the bus, shouted vulgar words and made vulgar signs.

The Truth: Big deal. Baton Rouge isn't the only place stuff like that happens. Alabama players tell some pretty colorful stories about what it's like riding into Auburn.

*Incident No. 4: Before the 2001 game, a handful of Auburn players jumped up and down on the LSU logo.

The Truth: It was dumb. It cost Auburn a 15-yard penalty on the opening kickoff. LSU kicked onsides, got it and scored a touchdown. The idea that Tuberville told his players to do it or sanctioned it in any way is laughable.

*Incident No. 5: At halftime of that game, Auburn kickers came out to warm up. The LSU band was still on the field. There was a brief shoving match between a band member and kicker Damon Duval.

*The Truth: It shouldn't have happened. Duval and friends should have gotten out of the way when they realized the band was coming. Neither should have engaged in the shoving match.

*Incident No. 6: After LSU had won 27-13, there was a mob scene outside the Auburn locker room. The late Tommy Williams, the Tiger Walk coordinator, was hit in the head by a plastic football and knocked down. Tuberville and his wife and children were under serious duress. If other Auburn coaches had not kept the players on the buses, there could have been a really ugly incident.

*The Truth: It happened. Though numerous LSU fans have told me it is an "urban legend," they are wrong. I saw it all. It was frightening.

There are other incidents reported, the setting afire of the "Tiger Tail Van" among them, but I didn't see those and can't comment on them.

What does all this have to do with Saturday night's game between the 17th-ranked Tigers and the ninth-ranked Bayou Bengals at Tiger Stadium? On the field, not much. In the stands and outside the stadium, I hope there's plenty of security. When you combine bad feelings with ample amounts of alcohol, there is potential for a lot of trouble.

It should be a memorable football game. It's big for Auburn, even bigger for LSU. If Auburn wins, it will probably need only a victory over Ole Miss to lock up the West Division championship. If Auburn loses, chances are it could still get to Atlanta by winning the rest of its games. LSU, which has a conference loss to Florida, will be hanging by a thread if it loses.

My prediction? It's a game between two evenly matched teams. I have to give the edge to the home team. LSU 19, Auburn 17.

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