An Unacceptable Performance

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a hard look at the Tigers' failure vs. their archrival.

Auburn had an historic opportunity.

On a day when Alabama athletic officials were appearing before the NCAA Committee on Infractions to answer charges of recruiting violations, Auburn was playing at home against a Crimson Tide team with a 4-5 record. A victory would send Auburn to the SEC Championship Game and Alabama to its second straight losing record and third in five seasons.

It would, in short, give Auburn an opportunity to grab control of the state rivalry like it has not had since Pat Dye won four straight in the late 1980s, to put its foot on Alabama's neck.

Forget it.

Instead, Auburn's football program took a giant step backward. Unless you slept through the weekend, you know the story. Alabama and first-year coach Dennis Franchione went to Jordan-Hare Stadium and handed Auburn a humiliating 31-7 loss. How humiliating? It was the largest margin of victory in the series since Alabama won 48-21 in 1977.

It was the most lopsided Auburn defeat at Jordan-Hare Stadium since the 1982 team fell 41-7 to Nebraska. It was probably the most devastating home loss in Auburn history.

For Auburn fans who had been celebrating razor-thin victories and chuckling about Alabama's problems all season, it was a major disappointment to lose at all. But this wasn't just a loss. There's no way to sugar coat it, no way to say something good could come out of it. Amazingly, some Auburn players tossed it in early. Once Alabama went ahead 21-7 on the second play of the third quarter, the energy, enthusiasm and the effort evaporated.

In a rivalry known for its intensity, known for the gut-busting effort of those who play in it, it was a performance unworthy of Auburn's proud tradition. Auburn people are angry. They have a right to be. Auburn could still win at LSU, win the SEC West and go to the championship game for an ominous rematch with Florida. But nothing--not a win over LSU, not even a win over Florida--will erase what happened on that stunning Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Alabama quarterback Andrew Zow had his way with Auburn's pass defense, and that was bad. But to give up 328 yards rushing, most of it on simple draw plays out of the shotgun formation, was embarrassing.

There have been times when Auburn was overmatched by Alabama. There have been times when Auburn has played poorly against Alabama. There has not been a time in recent memory when Auburn played with such a lack of fire against Alabama.

Why did it happen? That's a question Tommy Tuberville and his staff are still trying to answer.

It didn't help that tailback Carnell Williams went out on the first drive with a broken collarbone. It didn't help that the defense was set to stop the option and never effectively adjusted to defending Zow instead of Tyler Watts. It didn't help that Stanford Simmons, for the second time in three games, turned a receiver loose because he thought the quarterback was running. That resulted in a 45-yard touchdown pass that broke a 7-7 tie late in the second quarter. It didn't help that Auburn has precious few seniors.

But none of that is enough. Even if the game was out of reach, pride should have been enough reason to not give in. But Auburn players, at least some of them, did give in.

What now? Don't be surprised if Auburn goes to LSU and plays one of its better games of the season, win or lose. The Tigers will go to Baton Rouge in search of redemption for Saturday's debacle. But redemption isn't available. Not this season. Nov. 17, 2001, will long be remembered as a dark, dark day in Auburn's football history.

Maybe the darkest ever.

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