Where We Stop Nobody Knows

Columnist Phillip Marshall analyzes the SEC race and how the Auburn Tigers fit into the picture.

Around, around and around we go. Where we stop nobody knows. That old childhood saying could apply to the Southeastern Conference this football season. Just when things seem to clear up in the race for Atlanta and the championship game, things get murkier.

A week ago, Auburn's praises were being sung far and wide. The talking heads on ESPN said they were playing the best football in the country. Carnell Williams was being touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate. A balmy night in Baton Rouge changed all that. LSU, playing like a national championship contender, humbled the Tigers 31-7. It was another bizarre turn of events in a bizarre SEC football season.

It was just two weeks earlier that LSU was helpless against a Florida defense that had been embarrassed by Tennessee, Ole Miss and even Kentucky. That night, LSU was shut out on offense and lost 19-7. Its only touchdown came on a punt return.

Go with me back to the last Saturday in September. Arkansas had beaten Texas and Alabama over a three-week period and had climbed to No. 7 in the nation. It hasn't won since, losing to Auburn and Florida at home and Ole Miss on the road. Tennessee looked like a world-beater in handling Florida 24-10 in Gainesville, then barely got by South Carolina at home, took a physical pounding and lost 28-21 at Auburn and folded like a cheap cardboard box and was blown out 41-14 by Georgia at home.

Ole Miss could have and probably should have lost to Vanderbilt in its opener. Its defense was a laughingstock after a 49-45 loss to Texas Tech. The Rebels haven't lost since and find themselves in the rather shocking position of leading the SEC West. Alabama took mighty Oklahoma deep into the fourth quarter with a chance to win the game, then promptly lost three in a row and five of its next six.

If you think things are confusing now, just wait and see what happens if Florida beats Georgia next Saturday. And considering the way the injury-plagued Bulldogs are scraping by in recent weeks, that might just happen. They'll certainly have to raise their game several levels from last Saturday, when they barely escaped an upset bid by UAB.

Going into next weekend, three teams are in total control of their own destiny. Ole Miss, LSU and Georgia can punch tickets to Atlanta by winning the rest of their games. If Auburn wins the rest of its games, it needs one LSU loss. If Florida wins the rest of its games, it needs one Tennessee loss. The one thing I know is that very little that happens in the final five weeks of the regular season will surprise me. Around and around and around we go, where we stop nobody knows.

Auburn had an opportunity at LSU to leap toward the Top 10 and make itself the heavy favorite in the West. Most of us expected a ferocious battle between two SEC heavyweights. Instead, it was as good as over 10 minutes into the first quarter. An Auburn season that started with predictions of a national championship now could come completely unraveled.

On Sunday, Auburn players and coaches were still trying to come to grips with what happened to them. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong in the first quarter and they were never able to dig out of it. LSU quarterback Matt Mauck, who looked helpless in the loss to Florida two weeks earlier, looked like an All-American. The LSU defensive line that was knocked around badly by Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium last season knocked Auburn's offensive line around at Tiger Stadium. So what does a troubling night in Baton Rouge mean for this Auburn football team? There's no way to say at this point. The Tigers will beat hapless Louisiana-Monroe as badly as they want to next Saturday. After that, they could beat Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama and end up in Atlanta. They could lose to any one or all of those three. This could still be a very good season or one of the bigger disappointments in recent Auburn history. There are good signs and there are bad signs.

The defense wasn't as bad Saturday as 31 points might seem to indicate. LSU got its first touchdown on a blown coverage. It got the next one after Tommy Tuberville's decision to gamble on fourth-and-one backfired and its third one after a 44-yard punt return. The defense actually gave the Tigers a chance to get back in it in the second quarter, holding LSU to 25 yards and just one first down. The offense couldn't get it done. When a 14-play drive ended in a missed 35-yard field goal try by Philip Yost, the issue was effectively decided.

There are troubling trends on offense. In four of eight games this season, the Tigers have scored 10 points or less. Only against Tennessee has Auburn been effective and efficient on offense against a team with similar athletic ability. The running game struggled against LSU, partly because the deficit got so large so quickly. And when it did, there was no answer in the passing game. Auburn can be a very effective passing team (see Tennessee) when its running game is working. It has not shown the ability to simply line up and move the ball by throwing it.

I don't expect LSU to get through the rest of its schedule unscathed. If the Tigers can establish the run against the remainder of their opponents or improve their passing game enough so they can turn to it in time of trouble, they could still emerge as the SEC West Division champion. If they continue to struggle on offense, they could also end up 6-6. The most likely scenario is something between those two extremes. Around and around and around we go, where we stop nobody knows.

Losing to LSU was a bitter enough pill, but losing by such a margin made it even worse for Auburn players, coaches and fans. But in modern college football, lopsided losses, even by good teams, just aren't as rare as they once were. Last season, LSU lost by the same score at Auburn and lost 31-0 to Alabama at home. It's a rather remarkable statistic that Georgia is the only team in the SEC that hasn't lost by double digits this season. Nick Saban, viewed by many as one of the top if not the top coach in the SEC, has lost by double digits 10 times in three-plus seasons. In four-plus seasons at Auburn, Tuberville has lost by double digits 12 times. Clearly, one lopsided loss does not mean another is to necessarily follow. And one impressive win doesn't mean that a lopsided loss is not around the next corner. "Just look at this league," Tuberville said. "There's not a lot of difference. You can't play to the level they played (Saturday night) every week. You can't play to the level we played against Tennessee every week. You are going to have times when you are going to make mistakes.

"Look at how they played Florida. Their quarterback looked totally different than what he looked against us. It's a game of week in and week out, and the one that is most consistent will get there."

So who will be in Atlanta? If I had to bet, I'd bet on Georgia and LSU. But I wouldn't bet much.

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