Is Any Team Playing Better Than the Tigers?

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the 8-0 Auburn football Tigers and other teams around the Southeastern Conference.

Jason Campbell's 16-yard touchdown pass to Courtney Taylor in the waning moments against LSU on Sept. 18 at Jordan-Hare Stadium did more than bring down the defending national champion.

It transformed a football team.

Since beating LSU 10-9, the 2004 Tigers have been perhaps the most dominant team in Auburn history. They have won by 30, 24, 45, 18 and 32 points in the five games since. They put up 31 points against Tennessee, unbeaten and ranked No. 10 at the time and unbeaten since. They put up 30 against old nemesis Arkansas, not a great team but a good one. They went four games without having to punt in the first half. Since LSU, no game has been in question after the second quarter.

The talking heads on ESPN are right when they say Auburn has played the best football in America over that stretch. It's amusing to hear grumbling about Saturday's 42-10 rout of Kentucky. If Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville had wanted to score 70 points, he could have done it. Once the score was 21-0, the game was over. Simple as that.

This Auburn team displayed a lot of confidence from the start, but after the victory over LSU that confidence grew to a new level. It's not arrogance. It's an uncommon belief in each other and in their coaches.

Add that to talent and a remarkable willingness to put aside individual glory for team goals and you have a team on the verge of a championship season.

In some quarters, Auburn's 8-0 record and 10 straight wins dating back to last season have been at least partly attributed to the SEC being "down" this season. So I decided to look back a year and see just how down the SEC is.

Truth is, the SEC isn't down at all compared to a year ago. In fact, eight Saturdays into the season, six SEC teams--Auburn, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and even Vanderbilt--have better records this season than last. Only Ole Miss is more than one game worse than at the same time last season.

The idea that the bottom of the league is worse doesn't hold water, either. Here's the team by team comparison:

Alabama: 3-5 in 2004, 5-3 in 2004; Arkansas: 3-4 in 2004, 4-3 in 2003; Auburn: 8-0 in 2004, 5-3 in 2003; Florida: 5-3 in 2004, 4-3 in 2003; Georgia: 6-1 in 2004, 7-1 in 2003; Kentucky; 1-6 in 2004, 2-5 in 2003; LSU: 5-2 in 2004, 6-1 in 2003; Mississippi State: 2-5 in 2004, 2-5 in 2003; Ole Miss: 3-4 in 2004, 5-2 in 2003; South Carolina: 5-2 in 2004, 4-3 in 2003; Tennessee: 6-1 in 2004, 4-2 in 2003; Vanderbilt: 2-5 in 2004, 1-6 in 2003.

Three SEC teams--Auburn, Georgia and Tennessee--stand good to very good chances of winning 10 or more games in the regular season. LSU could get there, too, if a bowl game is included. Auburn is very much in the race for the national championship and Georgia could get there with some help.

Auburn faces what, in many ways, must be viewed as its biggest game so far this season Saturday. If the Tigers win at Ole Miss, they will clinch the West Division championship and a spot in the SEC Championship Game with two games left to play. They can then concentrate on their two biggest rivals and on making a serious run at the biggest prize of all.

Ole Miss could be a formidable opponent, but only if the Tigers are off their game. The oddsmakers don't see much of a contest. Auburn is a 17-point favorite.

Moving on…

There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding the Bowl Championship Series. Though Miami was No. 3 in one poll and No. 4 in the other, it was No. 2 in the first BCS standings last week. That came about because Oklahoma, No. 2 in both polls, was No. 5 in the computer rankings.

It is much ado about very little.

Computer rankings, which factor in strength of schedule, rely only on games that have been played. When all is said and done, if the same two teams are 1-2 in both polls, they will play in the Orange Bowl for the national championship. Count on it.

Would a 12-0 Auburn be one of those teams? It's hard to imagine it wouldn't, but I'm sure Oklahoma, USC and Miami say the same thing. My guess is that things will work themselves out and that no more than two of those teams will have perfect records when all is said and done.

We shall see...

Ron Zook is apparently out as Florida football coach at season's end. Losing 38-31 at Mississippi State, combined with two previous five-loss seasons and the absurdity of having a confrontation with a bunch of fraternity boys, apparently finished off whatever support Zook had left.

Athletic director Jeremy Foley, who made the puzzling decision to hire Zook when Steve Spurrier retired after the 2001 season, might be trying to make sure he doesn't get swept out the door with the same broom that gets Zook.

Most people close to the situation don't believe Spurrier, currently out of coaching after failing miserably as coach of the Washington Redskins, will return. There has been talk of Louisville's Bobby Petrino, but it would be very difficult to get him out of the contract he signed last year. A name to remember in the search for Florida's next coach: Purdue's Joe Tiller.

UAB's moment in the sun didn't last long. The Blazers were giddy after being No. 24 in the first BCS standings. Then they went to New Orleans and lost 59-55 to a team that is bad even by Tulane standards.

Tuberville was quite kind to Kentucky coach Rich Brooks on Saturday, but I can't say I blame Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops for tacking on a late touchdown against Kansas. Stoops admitted he had an eye on the BCS. Hey, it was two Big 12 teams playing each other. If the Jayhawks didn't want the Sooners to score again, they should have stopped them.

A lot of folks are assuming Tennessee will be in the SEC Championship Game, but the Vols still have some work to do. They need to win at South Carolina on Saturday, and that won't be easy. Tennessee's offense isn't exactly a juggernaut, and the Gamecocks can play some salty defense. They've also had a week off to heal up and get ready.

The Vols should win, but it wouldn't be a big shock if they didn't. If they lose and if Georgia beats Florida for the first time in seven years, the Bulldogs will be back in the driver's seat in the East. Of course, they'll fall right back out of it if they lose at Auburn on Nov. 13.

Until next time…

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