Marshall: College Football Perception Vs. Reality

Phillip Marshall discusses the major role that perception plays in the game of college football.

In a world in which perception is often even more important than reality, where really is Auburn football?

It seems quite obvious that the reality of last season was that Auburn should have been playing Southern California for the national championship in the Orange Bowl. But the perception of Oklahoma as a powerhouse--and, yes, perception has an impact on those computer rankings, too--put the Sooners there to get waxed instead.

It was perception that led poll voters to punish Auburn for "only" beating Alabama 21-13 and ignore USC's struggle to a 26-24 victory over UCLA, a team with an identical record to Alabama's.

It is perception that leads some who cover college football on a national basis to say USC is the best team ever and that it went through its schedule virtually unchallenged last season. Even before almost losing to UCLA, the Trojans had harrowing escapes against California and Stanford and could have lost to Oregon State.

It was perception that led Auburn to be drawn and quartered for playing The Citadel, a I-AA team, when scarcely a whisper was heard about LSU playing Western Illinois, another I-AA team, on the way to its national championship in 2003. You won't hear a peep about Florida State playing The Citadel this season, but Auburn already has been criticized for playing Western Kentucky.

It is perception that will leave Auburn probably outside of the preseason Top 10 in the coming season, despite going 13-0 and dominating the Southeastern Conference last season.

It is perception that creates the belief that Auburn can't possibly replace four first-round draft choices.

It is perception that creates the belief that Alabama has dominated Auburn over the years, when the truth is only Bear Bryant dominated Auburn. Against Alabama coaches not named Bryant, Auburn has a significant edge.

It is perception that leads ESPN to include a vote on the greatest Alabama player of all-time and not Auburn on an web site poll about football in the state of Alabama.

The burning question is why those perceptions exist. There are some answers, though some of them will not sit well with some Auburn supporters.

*In the past 20 years, the only schools that did not include the name of a state in the names of their universities to win national championships were Notre Dame and Miami. Notre Dame, of course, occupies a unique place in college football history. The city of Miami is better-known than some states and certainly has a stronger talent base than some states. Schools called the University of (name the state) have an advantage. Like it or not, believe it or not, it's a fact.

*Auburn has often been its own worst enemy. Two of its three perfect seasons came while on NCAA probation. All too often, good times have been quickly followed by scandals of one kind or another.

*From 1958 through 1982, Bryant was the dominant figure in college football. Though Auburn has won more than it has lost against Alabama since Bryant left, that shadow remains to this day. It results in an attitude among some Auburn fans that makes it hard to enjoy the good times for fear that bad times must surely be coming.

*This one won't go down well with some, but it's true. Many Auburn supporters are quick to turn on their own program. There is no better example of that, of course, than the disastrous trip to talk to Bobby Petrino in 2003.

What can Auburn can do about it? What can it do to thrust itself into that relatively small group of schools that always seem to get the benefit of the doubt?

The most obvious answer, of course, is to win so much that there is no question. Pat Dye did that for much of the 1980s, but along came Eric Ramsey. Shug Jordan did it in the mid-late 1950s, but along came Bear Bryant.

Pat Dye (left) watches preactice with Tommy Tuberville.

The problem these days is that staying consistently at the top of the SEC is difficult if not impossible. In the past seven seasons, six teams have won SEC championships. LSU has won two. Between those two was a five-loss season that included a 31-7 blowout at Auburn and a 31-0 blowout at home against Alabama. Nick Saban, for all the plaudits he received, had just one season in five at LSU in which he lost fewer than three games.

Senior middle linebacker Travis Williams admits there is frustration in finding it so difficult to convince the masses.

"We went 13-0 last year and a lot of people aren't talking about us," Williams said. "You get to point where you get tired of saying, ‘We are going to make them respect us.' What else have we got to show them? We went 13-0. That is just more fuel in our fire, more to push us."

Tommy Tuberville has the Auburn program in position to win its share of championships, but it won't happen every year or even every other year, not for Auburn or any other SEC team. Alabama will eventually be good again. LSU, Georgia and Tennessee are already good. Florida will be again.

What Tuberville has done is all any Auburn coach can do. He has steadily built the talent base. He has recruited the kinds of young men that should make Auburn people proud. He has been to the SEC Championship Game twice in six years and narrowly missed going in two other years.

The only answer for Auburn and others in the same situation is consistency, being good almost every year, great some years and doing it the right way with the right kinds of people.

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