Back To The SEC Race

Veteran sportswriter Phillip Marshall makes his debut as a columnist for <i>Inside the Auburn Tigers</i>, which is a bonus feature for <i>Tiger Ticket</i> subscribers.

In the end, it was a victory.

It wasn't a particularly satisfying victory. It certainly wasn't a particularly impressive victory. It didn't have to be.

Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville warned all who would listen that high-scoring Louisiana Tech was dangerous. He warned his team again at halftime, when the Tigers seemed comfortably in control with a 31-13 lead.

But a week after a monumental 23-20 victory over Florida, it was just hard to get excited about playing Louisiana Tech. The students were so excited that most of them left for homecoming parties at halftime. The same players who doggedly covered some of the better receivers in the country when Florida was in town, who wouldn't let the Gators run the ball a lick, seemed sometimes a step behind and sometimes confused against Louisiana Tech.

"Intensity and concentration," Tuberville said. "That's what that is."

The result was a harrowing escape. Auburn let a 41-27 lead get away in the final 5:12 and had to win it 48-41 in overtime after Damon Duval couldn't connect on a fourth consecutive game-winning field goal, this one from just 37 yards away.

It really didn't matter that it was close. Auburn moved up three spots in the Associated Press poll and four in the coaches' poll to No. 17. What mattered is how it happened.

There were some very good things and some very bad things on homecoming Saturday. Daniel Cobb's school record five touchdown passes and 381 yards passing were very good. He made throws redshirt freshman Jason Campbell hasn't been willing to make, throwing the ball downfield. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said he did a good job of changing plays at the line of scrimmage, getting his team out of good plays and into bad ones. He led the drive to what would have been the winning field goal and threw a five-yard touchdown to Deandre Green, who had his best game as a Tiger, in overtime for the winning touchdown.

That's encouraging for the Tigers as they head into a critical stretch of playing three of their final four games on the road.

He also threw four interceptions. His receivers should have caught two of them. It's not the number that was troubling as much as the timing. With 1:27 left in regulation, on third-and-nine at his own 21, Cobb threw into coverage. It was intercepted by Jason Olford, setting up Louisiana Tech's final touchdown. He threw a pass that could have been even more disastrous on Auburn's final possession in regulation. The ball went straight to Olford on the sideline. He had a clear path to the winning touchdown, but he couldn't hang on.

That's not so encouraging.

Freshman tailback Carnell Williams made a powerful statement with 78 yards on 16 carries and scored what seemed to be the clinching touchdown on an 11-yard run after gaining 33 on the previous play. Williams, rest assured, is on his way to stardom. The offensive line blocked well as usual. Auburn averaged 4.3 yards per rush and Cobb was not sacked.

About the only bright spot for the defense was five interceptions of Luke McCown passes, including one by linebacker Dontarrious Thomas in overtime to end the game. Without those interceptions, the outcome surely would have been different.

Louisiana Tech, averaging fewer than 100 yards per game rushing, ran for 152. Tailback Joe Smith gained 129, the third runner to break the 100-yard barrier against Auburn this season. That's not a good thing.

Auburn won't face another offense as powerful as Louisiana Tech's this season, unless it gets a rematch with Florida in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. Certainly, next Saturday at Arkansas, the Auburn defense won't face anything like the passing attack the Bulldogs brought to Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Picked to finish last in the SEC West by some and to finish first by none, Auburn has moved to 6-1 overall and 4-0 in the SEC by making big plays at the most crucial times. Four straight times the Tigers have won on their final offensive possession. If they can take that same show on the road, they'll go to Atlanta to play for a championship for the second consecutive season.

The race is essentially down to three teams--Auburn, twice-beaten LSU and once-beaten Ole Miss. It will become a two-team race Saturday between Auburn and the winner of Ole Miss' game at LSU. If Ole Miss wins, which would seem unlikely, Auburn would probably have to win just two of its final four conference games at Arkansas, at Georgia, at Alabama and at LSU. Because Auburn handed Ole Miss its only loss, the only way that wouldn't be enough would be if Ole Miss does not lose again.

If LSU, which has losses to Florida and Tennessee, wins, it's a different scenario. If Ole Miss doesn't pull the upset, LSU isn't likely to lose again before the final showdown with Auburn. If LSU has two losses and Auburn has one or two losses, the Auburn-LSU winner would go to Atlanta.


*It would appear Mississippi State has mailed it in for the season. It's hard to imagine two more embarrassing Saturdays than the Bulldogs have endured the past two weeks. First, they were soundly beaten by Troy State 21-9. Last Saturday night, on ESPN2, it was even worse. LSU went to Starkville and pounded Jackie Sherrill's team 42-0. The Bulldogs are 1-5 and seem to be getting worse. Sherrill is probably safe for now as Mississippi State's head coach, but offensive coordinator Sparky Woods might ought to be looking into employment opportunities elsewhere.

*It's hard to know just what to make of this Georgia team. The Bulldogs won a huge victory at Tennessee. The past two weeks, they've beaten Vanderbilt and Kentucky, but they've given up all kinds of yardage. One of four East Division teams with one loss, Georgia has the unhappy duty this week of going to Jacksonville to play Florida. The Gators had the weekend off to stew about their 23-20 loss at Auburn. I don't think I'd want to be a Georgia Bulldog on this Saturday.

*Vanderbilt is another team that seems to have gone south for the winter. The Commodores had the luxury of playing their first six games at home. They went 1-5. They went on the road for the first time Saturday to South Carolina. The Gamecocks, no offensive juggernaut, gained more than 600 yards in that rout. It doesn't look good for head coach Woody Widenhofer, though it should be obvious by now that it simply can't be done at Vanderbilt.

*It might be hard to believe these days, but the now widespread practice of players raising four fingers into the air as the fourth quarter begins started at Alabama. The great Bear Bryant called it "the man's quarter." It's been the nightmare quarter for Alabama so far this season. The Tide has led in the fourth quarter in each of its last three SEC games. Its lost all three, blowing a 12-point lead at South Carolina, a 10-point lead at Ole Miss and a three-point lead at home last Saturday against Tennessee.

There's starting to be some grumbling about first-year head coach Dennis Franchione, but he really can't be blamed. The truth is he inherited far less talent than he and many others realized. It's impossible to guess just how long it's going to take Alabama, which staggered to a 3-8 record last season in Mike DuBose's final year, to come back. More than by any game this season, that will be determined by the NCAA's Committee on Infractions in November.

Until next time...

Editor's Note: Veteran sportswriter Phillip Marshall's columns will be a regular feature for Tiger Ticket subscribers to enjoy. Marshall covers the Tigers for the Huntsville Times and his columns are exclusive to the web site.

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