AU Football: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about previous Auburn football seasons, the current group of Tigers and takes a look at other SEC teams on the eve of the 2004 season for the conference.

Auburn's season-opener in 2003 was a lot more fun. Its season-opener in 2004 makes a lot more sense.

For a Southeastern Conference team to load up its nonconference schedule is dangerous at best, foolhardy at worst. Sure, it's more fun for the fans, but it's not better for the football team. Nonconference games against nationally ranked teams can result in season-damaging losses. They can also result in injuries and bruises that make it more difficult to win conference games down the road. And an eight-game SEC schedule (nine with the championship game) is more than enough for any team to prove its worth.

The Tigers never fully recovered from last season's 23-0 loss to Southern California. It led directly to the 17-3 loss at Georgia Tech the next week and the season was a disappointment before it ever really got started.

Even without such a game, Auburn's schedule is plenty challenging.

If the rankings hold, Auburn will play the No. 2 team in the nation (Georgia) and No. 4 team (LSU). There's also a road test against No. 14 Tennessee, and don't be surprised if Ole Miss is ranked by the time the Tigers get to Oxford on Oct. 30.

On the way to an 11-0 season in 1993, the Tigers played just two ranked teams. The 1988 SEC champions didn't play a ranked team until the regular-season finale against No. 17 Alabama. There are exceptions, of course, but exceptionally difficult schedules and championships usually don't go together.

Last season's Tigers and the 1983 SEC champions played probably the toughest schedules in school history, each taking on five nationally ranked teams. The results of last season, when the schedule included a remarkable five 10-win teams, are well-known. If last season's Tigers had played an easy opener, they probably would also have beaten Georgia Tech. Who knows what would have happened then? If the 1983 team, which took on three top five teams, had played Louisiana-Monroe instead of Texas, all those players would be wearing national championship rings today.

Even if championships aren't an issue, bowl bids are often based on the overall number of wins. In that respect, a win over Louisiana-Monroe counts just as much as a win over Southern California.

But it's time now to look ahead. Another season is upon us.

With a new offense and a rebuilt defense, Saturday's game could be just what Auburn needs. But it's not likely to be as easy as many seem to expect.

ULM had no chance to compete in last season's 73-7 loss at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Quarterback Steven Jyles didn't make the trip. Coach Charlie Weatherbie had taken over only the previous May. Auburn blocked three punts and once scored four touchdowns while running just two plays on offense.

Al Borges (left) will put his new offensive system on display. Graduate assistant coach Patrick Moore, who works with the offensive line, is pictured on the right.

My guess is this one will be a game for a while, maybe well into the second quarter. Auburn should win comfortably in the end, but it isn't likely to be anything like the blowout of last season.

I learned a long time ago that the only thing that really matters, even in games like this one, is winning and losing. If the Tigers struggle against Louisiana-Monroe, it will be quickly forgotten if they beat LSU. If they blow Louisiana-Monroe out, that won't lessen the sting if they are upset by Mississippi State or are blown out by LSU.

There will be a lot of interesting things to watch Saturday, even against an overmatched opponent. Most interesting will be Al Borges' West Coast offense. It will certainly be different than anything Auburn teams have done in the past. As Borges points out every chance he gets, the West Coast offense is not the passing circus many believe it to be. He says the goal will be to throw 28-32 passes per game.

All 12 SEC teams were scheduled to play over the weekend, but Florida's game against Middle Tennessee State was postponed until Oct. 16 because of Hurricane Frances. That means the Gators will play 11 consecutive games without an open date, a daunting task.

There is an SEC game between South Carolina and Vanderbilt in Nashville and a significant game between Ole Miss and Memphis in Oxford. But one of the more significant games in SEC history will kick off at 5 p.m. in Starkville. Sylvester Croom will become the first African-American to serve as a head coach for an SEC team when Mississippi State plays Tulane.

Sylvester Croom

It's long overdue, and it couldn't have happened to a more deserving man. I've known Croom since his playing days at Alabama, and he's a heck of a coach and even better human being. I suspect the day will come when Alabama officials wonder how in the world they could have passed up the opportunity to call him home.

This week's SEC predictions: Auburn 38, ULM 10; Alabama 31, Utah State 16; Arkansas 34, New Mexico State 20; Georgia 45, Georgia Southern 13; Louisville 38, Kentucky 28; LSU 20, Oregon State 10; Ole Miss 27, Memphis 24; Mississippi State 22, Tulane 17; Vanderbilt 21, South Carolina 20; Tennessee 28, UNLV 14.

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