Auburn's Fade Route

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at the football Tigers.

Three weeks ago, things couldn't have been much better for Auburn's football team. Georgia had been beaten in Athens. Alabama would surely follow and the Tigers would be on their way to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.

Oh, how things have changed.

Alabama won 31-7 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. LSU won 27-14 at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. How did it happen? How did it go so bad so fast?

Here it is, how a 9-2 season turned into a 7-4 season.

*Who's the quarterback? Daniel Cobb started against Georgia, sat out a couple of series in the second half, then played at the top of his game. He struggled against Alabama. Jason Campbell started against LSU. Cobb didn't play at all. Auburn coaches, it would seem, sent an unmistakable signal to Cobb when they put Jeff Klein, who had not played a snap all season, into the game in the second half. The future belongs to Campbell.

*.When freshman tailback Carnell Williams went out on the sixth play of the Alabama game with a broken collarbone, he seemed to take the Auburn offense and much of its enthusiasm to the sideline with him. The enthusiasm returned against LSU, but the offense still struggled against a defense that gave up 38 points to Arkansas just a week earlier.

*Who's the tailback? Ronnie Brown played virtually the entire game against Alabama after Williams was hurt. He started against LSU. Casinious Moore got his shot. Chris Butler was terrific, but he didn't get a real chance until the outcome was decided. It's all rather puzzling, considering Williams didn't really become a force in the offense until the second half of the season. It is possible Williams could be back for a bowl game.

*A season-long lack of leadership became more obvious than ever. With one of the smaller senior classes in school history, there weren't enough outspoken and respected veterans to keep things together when times were tough. Alex Lincoln, Ben Leard, Heath Evans, Colin Sears, Rodney Crayton and friends did as much to help last season's team with their leadership as they did with their abilities on the field.

*Youth in key positions and a short-handed defensive line were exposed. The defensive front has struggled much of the season, particularly at tackle. DeMarco McNeil fought injuries all season and never got close to the form that made him a freshman All-American in 2000.

*Damon Duval went into a deep slump. Duval was the toast of the nation earlier in the season after making game-winning field goals against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Florida. Suddenly, he had problems kicking and punting. He made just two of his last seven field goal tries. His punts were consistently low and very returnable.

*Against Alabama, Auburn prepared for Tyler Watts and the option, even though Watts had missed most of the previous game with a groin injury. When Andrew Zow went the distance at quarterback, the defense never seemed to adequately adjust to the change.

There are, no doubt, other reasons why things went so bad so quickly, things known to coaches and players. If Duval had been kicking earlier in the season the way he kicked late, the record might have been closer to 4-7. It was a frustrating season for Auburn coaches, players and supporters, ironically made more frustrating by the monumental 23-20 victory over Florida in October. The loss to Alabama, which brought a 4-5 record to Jordan-Hare Stadium, will sting for a long, long time.

Things could have been better and they could have been worse, but in the end, Auburn's 7-4 record was probably about what it deserved.

BOWL TALK: Auburn is probably headed for the Peach Bowl to play North Carolina on Dec. 31, but nothing can be finalized until after Saturday's SEC Championship Game between LSU and Tennessee. Should LSU beat Tennessee, everything would change. Tennessee or Florida would almost certainly go to the BCS, with the other going to the Citrus Bowl. The dominoes would fall from there.

There seems to be little if any chance that Auburn could be left out altogether. Ole Miss still appears to be the odd team out and could be home for the holidays unless the SEC office can find another bowl that wants Eli Manning and friends. The real drama will be who gets to Pasadena to play Miami for the national championship. Tennessee has a great shot if it beats LSU. Nebraska, at 10-1, could end up in playing for the national championship despite not making the Big 12 Championship Game. And there is Oregon, which finished 10-1. The guess here is it will be Tennessee if the Vols beat LSU.

Copyright 2001 Inside the Auburn Tigers Magazine.

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