Tigers Lose To Ordinary Opponent

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at the football Tigers following their loss to North Carolina in the Peach Bowl.

Atlanta, Ga.--It would be nice to say here that Auburn's football team took a step forward in Monday night's Peach Bowl. It would be nice to say that Jason Campbell clearly had grown as a quarterback. It would be nice to say that Auburn had a great plan but lost to a superior foe.

It would be nice. It would not be true.

The truth is that the 16-10 loss to North Carolina was, in many ways, like the 27-14 loss to LSU, like the 31-7 loss to Alabama. In some ways it was worse. North Carolina has a tremendous defensive line. Everywhere else, the Tar Heels are no better than ordinary. Yet, they were in control of this game almost from the start.

Campbell, playing the final game of his redshirt freshman year, didn't look a lot different than he did two months ago. He rarely threw the ball downfield, didn't get rid of it when he could have and simply didn't respond well to the pressure of North Carolina's defense. By the time Auburn coaches went to Daniel Cobb, it was too late. Cobb looked much more comfortable and much more in control. Would it have been different if he had played earlier? We'll never know.

What we do know is that the end of three quarters, Auburn had a paltry 90 yards offense. Sure, North Carolina's defense was ranked No. 15 in the nation. That defense also gave up 32 points to Wake Forest at home.

The defense played an admirable game, played well enough to win. The first North Carolina touchdown was the result of a Tim Carter fumble. One long run, one long pass and a 62-yard scramble by Ronald Curry accounted for the rest of North Carolina's points and most of its offense.

I said earlier in this space that I didn't believe this was a must win for Auburn. I still feel that way. I don't think what happened Monday night will stick with anybody for long. It was a loss in a bowl game, an unhappy end to what became an unhappy season.

The real question now is what will happen next. Will there be staff changes? If there are, it won't be based on one game. Head coach Tommy Tuberville said recruiting will be the top priority for now. He said he will evaluate his staff after that, as he does every year.

I'm not qualified to give Tuberville advice on whether staff changes or needed. I'll stick to he facts, and they are grim.

*Auburn lost four of its last five games and its last three straight. Three of those four were by double digits. Monday's final score would have been 16-3 had it not been for a bad snap on a punt with less than two minutes left.

*Auburn scored just four touchdowns in its last three games. Certainly, the loss of tailback Carnell Williams hurt. But before Williams became an integral part of the offense, Auburn played much better than it has of late.

*The defense played well against North Carolina, but it had its meltdowns, too. The 2001 Auburn team stands alone as the only one in school history to give up 40 or more points in back to back games. It was atrocious in a 31-7 loss to Alabama.

*Auburn was clearly a team with shaky confidence Monday night.

*Even before Deandre Green was suspended, Auburn's wide receivers were suspect. That position needs much attention in recruiting.

*The offensive line was the most battle-tested, strongest part of this team. Yet, against North Carolina, the running game was inept and quarterbacks were running for their lives.

The bottom line is this: Auburn was not as good at the end of the season as it was early in the season. The most mystifying question of all is where did it all go so fast. Against Georgia, in the ninth game of the season, Auburn looked like a Top 10 team. It hasn't looked like a top 50 team since.

Is it a bump in the road or a sign of the troubling future? Based on the talented young players on the field against North Carolina, I believe it is a bump in the road. I think Auburn will be better next season. I think by 2003 the Tigers should be good enough to stand up against any team in America.

But questions must be answered. There was no reason to expect this team to win a championship, but there was no reason to expect a late-season meltdown either.

Copyright 2002, Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine/football newsletter and AUTigers.com

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