Satisfying Finish To UnSatisfying Season

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at Auburn's victory over Wisconsin and the entire football season.

It was the Auburn team I expected to see last August---solid on offense and overpowering on defense.

Auburn's 28-14 Music City Bowl victory over Wisconsin was, in my mind, its most impressive of the season. The Badgers were 7-5, but four of those games were quite close. And they were healthy Wednesday for the first time since the first two games of the season.

The Tigers gave quarterback Jim Sorgi a beating he won't soon forget. They held tailback Anthony Davis in check. Every time they needed a big play on offense, they made one.

It was a satisfying day for 13 seniors, nine of whom have already graduated. They didn't set out to go 8-5, but they beat Alabama for the third time in four years and won their bowl game for the second straight time. Their last season wasn't what they wanted, but they left the program in far better shape than they found it.

It was a satisfying day for head coach Tommy Tuberville and his staff. They overcame the distractions and the heartache of one of the more bizarre situations I've witnessed in more three decades of covering college football.

It was a satisfying day for quarterback Jason Campbell, who made big plays with his legs and his arm and yet again answered his critics with actions instead of words.

It was a satisfying day for tailback Ronnie Brown, who shared the spotlight with Carnell Williams and took full advantage. His spectacular 29-yard run sent Auburn driving toward its first touchdown. He scored twice himself.

It was a satisfying day for Karlos Dansby, Reggie Torbor, DeMarco McNeil, Dontarrious Thomas and Spencer Johnson. Those five seniors were the heart and soul of a really good defense that played like a great one against Wisconsin.

When it was over, when the trophy had been hoisted, when Auburn had become the first Southeastern Conference team to win the Music City Bowl, it was time to look to the future.

Tuberville has some difficult decisions to make. He said any coaching changes will likely not happen before recruiting is over. Will there be any coaching changes? What will they be? If Tuberville knows, he's not saying.

As with all head coaches, those decisions will have a major impact on his own future. He is as secure as most head coaches. He has a five-year contract with a hefty buyout. But another disappointing season would put his future in doubt again.

Expectations won't be as high next season as they were this season, but the truth is they ought to be pretty high. Most of the offense returns. Though five big-time players and big-time leaders will be lost on defense, they will be replaced by players with similar or, in some cases, more raw talent. The schedule is much less demanding than was this season, which included the current No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the polls.

Even as they celebrated, nobody at Auburn was claiming this season as a whole was satisfying. An 8-5 record isn't bad, but it isn't close to what Auburn players, coaches and fans expected when the season started on Aug. 30 against Southern California.

I don't know of anyone who could have expected what eventually happened--the losses, the struggles on offense, the clandestine trip to Louisville, the lies. What happened after the season was far worse than anything on the field during the season.

But Auburn's football players overcame those things and played with heart and dedication. Their coaches overcame those things--and questions about their own futures--and got their team ready to play. On the last day of 2003, they could all be proud.

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