Football Tigers Have Tough Act to Follow

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the Auburn football team as the Tigers open spring training.

The question has been posed to me many times since Auburn finished the first 13-0 season in school history. "Was this the best Auburn team you've seen?"

I maintain--though some disagree--it was not only the best Auburn team I've seen, but the best Auburn team ever, better even than the remarkable team that was voted national champion in 1957 after giving up just three defensive touchdowns in going 10-0.

That the 2004 Tigers didn't have a chance to play for a national championship will always be a disappointment to the players who gave so much.

But life goes on, and another Auburn football team takes the field for spring practice today with one tough act to follow.

Players will talk about doing it again, about winning them all and getting into the national championship game. But the truth is 13-0 seasons are rare, especially in the SEC. Steve Spurrier never got through a bowl game undefeated. Neither did Pat Dye. Phillip Fulmer has done it once. Nick Saban, for all the praise that was showered on him, never did it, though he won a national championship.

Though some would have you believe Auburn's schedule is easy, it's not. Road games at LSU, at Georgia and at Arkansas and a non-conference home game against Georgia Tech make another perfect record unlikely.

That being said, there is no reason this Auburn team, winner of 15 straight games, can't contend again for the SEC championship. And if you win the SEC championship, even with a loss, you might find yourself playing for the big prize.

The questions that must be answered, starting today, are obvious. Can Brandon Cox step in for Jason Campbell at quarterback and lead his team?

If he can, it will be one of the more heartwarming stories I can remember. Cox's career seemed all but over two years ago when he went home with physical problems. He hasn't won the job yet. Redshirt freshmen Calvin Booker and Blake Field are going to have something to say about who the quarterback is against Georgia Tech next September.

Can Tre Smith, Kenny Irons, Brad Lester and Carl Stewart fill the huge shoes of Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown?

You don't just replace two guys who will be picked high in the first round of the NFL draft. The returning foursome can probably match Williams' and Brown's yards. Matching their leadership could be a bigger challenge.

How will the defense adjust to new coordinator David Gibbs?

There really is no way to know. Gibbs will keep the same overall scheme in place, but when the man running the show changes, other things are going to change. He has plenty of veteran players who should make the transition smoother.

Who will step forward in the secondary?

You don't just replace cornerback Carlos Rogers, the Jim Thorpe Award winner, either. David Irons, if he is healthy, certainly has the talent and the mentality to be a big-time SEC cornerback.

Sophomore Tony Bell will get the first crack at taking over for Junior Rosegreen at strong safety. He has more pure talent, but Rosegreen's leadership and physical nature will be missed.

Sophomore Montae Pitts returns at one cornerback and junior Will Herring at free safety. Both struggled at times last season. If Auburn's defense is to play at a championship level, they'll need to be better this season.

Who will replace Jay Ratliff at defensive tackle?

Ratliff was truly one of the unsung heroes of last season's team, a far more dominant player than most realize. Senior Wayne Dickens gets his chance to be a starter, but don't be surprised if he is pushed hard by sophomore Neil Brown. Redshirt freshman Pat Sims and sophomore Tez Doolittle have all the physical tools necessary to be big-time defensive linemen.

Tommy "T.J." Jackson will be one of the experienced leaders of the Auburn defense.

There is plenty to look forward to for this Auburn football team. The 2005 linebackers, led by Travis Williams in the middle, look to me to be the SEC's best. The wide receivers, led by Courtney Taylor, might be the SEC's best and Auburn's best as a group in many, many years. Same goes for the offensive line. Auburn has seldom if ever been more pure talent at defensive end than there is with Stanley McClover, Quentin Groves, Marquies Gunn, Christopher Browder and Octavius Balkcom. T.J. Jackson is a big-time player and a big-time leader at noseguard, as is Josh Thompson.

The offensive line will miss center Jeremy Ingle and guard Danny Lindsey, but Marcus McNeill and friends have a chance to dominate. And dominating up front is the No.1 goal of any offense.

The Tigers will field a team with championship-level talent next season. But so will Georgia, LSU, Florida, Tennessee and maybe others. Who is left standing at the end will depend, as it always, on injury luck, schedule luck and who comes together and plays with one heartbeat.

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