Time To Add Tougher Opponents

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at Tiger basketball and football.

I have to be there, but I won't have much company. Auburn's basketball team will play UNC-Asheville tonight at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. The box score will list the attendance at 9,300, the number of season tickets sold. The actual number of bodies in the seats will be closer to 93 than 9300.

What will Auburn get out of this game. Well, it will get a win over a team with a 1-9 record. It will probably achieve rare dominance on the boards, since UNCA's tallest starter is 6-6. And that's about it. At tournament time, the NCAA selection committee won't view a win over UNCA as much better than a day off.

Cliff Ellis has done remarkable things in his eight seasons as Auburn's head coach, winning an SEC championship in 1999. But the call is growing louder for a schedule with more meat. A loss to a Top 10 team would be more valuable at tournament time than a win over UNCA, High Point or Jacksonville State. And it would certainly enhance Auburn's image.

The Tigers have played one nationally ranked team this season, losing a 77-72 to Virginia in Birmingham. But that's not enough. If it means going on the road, so be it. It's not like a home game against a bad team while the students are gone is going to generate much energy.

Auburn assistant head coach Shannon Weaver, who handles most of Auburn's scheduling under Ellis' direction, says the Tigers are willing to play the best, but not always on the road. "We have a very hard time getting traditionally big names in a game with us," Weaver says. "I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we really one have had recent success and tradition. Schools looking at their fan base feel it is better to play an Indiana or UCLA or Syracuse. Our program is right there with those, but that traditional name seems to be a better lure. Schools like to travel to big recruiting markets, and Auburn, Ala., is not a big recruiting market.

"You could probably play one time at Duke or at North Carolina, but that's not a good deal when they won't return the game."

Why not?

If Auburn is going to become a team with a national reputation, it is going to have to play teams with national reputations. Could Auburn go to Duke and win? Probably not. But what if it did win? And even a loss at Duke looks good come selection Sunday.

Give Alabama coach Mark Gottfried credit. The Tide was left out of the NCAA Tournament last season because of a nonconference schedule of mostly lightweights. That won't happen this season. Georgia got into the tournament with 12 losses last season because of its nonconference schedule. With Auburn's nonconference schedule, it will probably have to win nine, maybe even 10, SEC games to get into the big show. That's a tall order.

PEPPER TALK

Julius Peppers, North Carolina's all-everything defensive end, doesn't waste any time being humble. Asked Wednesday about his upcoming matchup with Auburn left tackle Kendall Simmons, Peppers said: "I think people get fired up to play against me. I don't get fired up to play against other people."

Peppers also made it clear he doesn't particularly like the SEC and wants to make a point in the Peach Bowl. "I think it could get us a little bit of the respect we've been trying to get this year, beating a team from the almighty SEC," Peppers said. "I think it could be something big for us."

Asked if he disliked the SEC, Peppers laughed. "I mean, they've got good football teams down there, but we've also got good teams here that I think are overlooked sometimes," Peppers said. "I think this is a great matchup for us to go down there and show people we play football a little bit here, too."

RECRUITING MYTHS

My least favorite part of college football will be heating up again soon. At no time are so many myths so widely spread as during recruiting season. So-called "recruiting analysts" make heroes out of high school kids before they ever arrive in college. Some don't handle themselves well (see Willie Northern) and don't make it. Others never were nearly as good as advertised to begin with (see Tyler Watts).

There is no doubt that recruiting is crucial. The team with the heavy artillery will win most of the time. But signing the most five-star players as determined by a fan who decided to publish a magazine or start a website is meaningless. Auburn had a supposed top five recruiting class in 1995. It didn't matter, because most of them were long gone by the time they would have been seniors. Ronnie Cottrell schmoozed the "analysts" and got class after class at Alabama ranked among the nation's best. Results on the field showed otherwise.

If Dontarrious Thomas had not signed with Auburn, he would be playing at a Division I-AA school. Tim Carter was a late signee, offered a scholarship after others turned it down. Roderick Hood was a walk-on. Alabama coaches got Andrew Zow away from Auburn by promising him he'd get a real shot at quarterback, but secretly never expected him to be anything but a defensive back. The list goes on and on and on.

Who had the best recruiting class last year? Check back in a couple of years and we'll know.


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