Marshall: Tuberville Has Moved AU Program Forward

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the changes in the Auburn football program from when Tommy Tuberville arrived to take over the team for the 1999 season.

Taken as a whole, Tommy Tuberville's accomplishments in almost six seasons as Auburn's head coach have been nothing short of amazing.

Go back to November 1998, when Tuberville was named head coach. He inherited a football program short on talent and even shorter on spirit. Players had seen their coach walk out on them had midseason, had suffered through a 3-8 record and had bonded with interim coach Bill Oliver only to see him passed over.

You could have won a lot of money two days after Thanksgiving in 1998 if you had been willing to bet that, over the next six years, Tuberville would:

*Win or share four Southeastern Conference West Division championships. And, yes, like it or not, the co-championships count. Ole Miss has a sign in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium proclaiming itself West Division champion for last season. Should Georgia end up tied with Tennessee in the East this season, you will see the Bulldogs welcome being called co-champions. The SEC breaks ties only for the purpose of picking the teams that go to Atlanta. Every team that finishes tied first gets a championship trophy.

*Play in two SEC Championship Games, the second to come on Dec. 4.

*Have a winning record against every West Division opponent except Arkansas. And he has a 3-3 record against the Razorbacks.

*Have a winning record against every team he has played in the East Division except Florida. Auburn has not played South Carolina in Tuberville's tenure.

*Win two games over Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium, including one in 2002 when the Tide was a strong favorite and on its way to a 10-win season.

Tommy Tuberville chills out after being drenched by his celebrating players after clinching a victory over Ole Miss.

And now Tuberville, as November arrives, has the Tigers strongly in the hunt for the national championship he said from the beginning was his ultimate goal. And now Tiger players are in uncharted territory. As they get a badly needed open date, they are 9-0 and already on their way to Atlanta. They have won 11 consecutive games dating back to last season. They are No. 3 in the nation, needing to move up just one more spot to have an opportunity to play for the national championship in the Orange Bowl.

Can it happen? Sure it can. Will it happen? That's another question.

In many ways, Auburn's 35-14 victory at Ole Miss last Saturday was one of its most impressive of the season. Playing for the ninth consecutive week without a break, the Tigers were growing weary and certainly weren't at the top of their game--they'd have won by 50-plus if they had been. But when they were challenged, when things that had gone so well for so many weeks didn't go so well, they fought through it and won going away in a hostile environment.

Auburn has already reached its first goal, locking up a spot in the SEC Championship Game earlier than any team ever has. This is a very, very good team. Is it a great one? That will be decided in the weeks ahead.

These players have an opportunity to stamp themselves as the greatest team ever to play at Auburn, a rare opportunity in a program as rich in tradition as Auburn's. A 13-0 record, with or without a national championship, would give them an argument that would be hard to dispute. They also still face the possibility of being labeled a disappointment.

The journey ahead is fraught with peril.

Georgia will dispose of Kentucky next Saturday and will arrive at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 13 with an 8-1 record and a probable top five national ranking. Though the Bulldogs can get to Atlanta only if Tennessee stumbles against Vanderbilt or Kentucky, they will probably still be playing for a BCS bowl.

That game will be a physical, bruising battle that will test the mind, body and soul. For the first time since LSU came to town on Sept. 18, Auburn players will face a game in which they could play at or near their best and still lose.

If the Tigers survive that one, they'll have a week to get ready for a trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium to play Alabama. There is no doubt who will be the best team in that showdown, but it's on the road and Alabama will play inspired football. Win or lose, recovering from the Georgia game physically and mentally won't be easy.

And two weeks after that, there will be a rematch with Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game. The Vols will have revenge on their minds for the 34-10 whipping they took in Knoxville.

For Auburn, the 2004 season has already been a good one. Whether it becomes one for the history books will be decided over the next month.

It should be fun to watch.

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