Marshall: Statement Year For AU Football

Phillip Marshall writes about the initial preseason football rankings done by the coaches.

The preseason coaches' poll is out, and it's a cold slap in the face to Auburn's football program.

The Tigers, defending SEC champions and riding a 15-game winning streak, are ranked No. 15. There might have been another team that finished No. 2 and fell all the way to No. 15 in the preseason polls the following year, but I don't remember it.

Maybe No. 7 Virginia Tech, No. 8 Miami, No. 10 Iowa and No. 12 Florida State, to name a few, really are better than Auburn, but I'll have to be convinced.

It's that perception thing again.

Auburn is penalized because it lost four first-round draft choices off a championship team. Florida State lost three games last season, will play a redshirt freshman quarterback this season and is ranked No. 12. Oklahoma lost more than a dozen starters, including a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, and is No. 5. Miami at No. 8? There is no good reason for that other than it's Miami.

Eight of the teams ranked ahead of Auburn lost three or more games last season. The rankings bear out Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville's contention that the poll really shouldn't start until a month into the season.

Tommy Tuberville is shown at Toomer's Corner celebrating the 2004 SEC Championship season.

But as maddening as it might be to Auburn coaches, players and fans, it is highly unlikely that the poll released in today's editions of USA Today will make any difference in the end.

To contend for a national championship again, Auburn will have to go 12-0 again in the regular season, or at least 11-1. How likely is that? Not very.

The only other two SEC teams to go 13-0 – Alabama in 1992 and Tennessee in 1998 – each lost three games the following season.

If the Tigers manage to repeat last season's run, they'll almost certainly be playing for the national championship in the Rose Bowl.

I know. I know. They did it last year and it didn't happen. But last season was the first since the formation of the BCS in which three teams from BCS conferences had perfect records. It might be years before that happens again.

National perception and preseason polls were certainly issues that loomed large during the 2004 season.

But why Auburn would fall so far still bears examination.

Obviously, the loss of quarterback Jason Campbell, running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown and cornerback Carlos Rogers weighs heavily on voters' minds. Brandon Cox, the new starter at quarterback, was a marquee recruit in 2002, but that has faded from memory

. I wonder how many of the voters realize how strong Auburn is on both sides of the line of scrimmage, where most games are won and lost, or at wide receiver.

There is a new defensive coordinator in David Gibbs, though I'm not sure why that would outweigh the depth of talent Auburn returns on defense.

Tuberville, a voter in the poll, said earlier he would vote the Tigers in the Top 10. Certainly, with a dozen players named to various preseason All-SEC teams, they deserve to be there.

The hard truth is that certain teams – USC, Texas, Tennessee, Michigan, Oklahoma, LSU, Miami, Ohio State – are going to be in the preseason Top10 most seasons, regardless of what they lose from the year before. They are going to be there because they are usually in the Top 10 at the end.

Auburn's mission now is to crash that exclusive party. That's why this is a statement year.

Auburn has not finished in the Top 10 in back-to-back seasons since 1993-94. It has not won consecutive SEC championships since 1988-89, sharing the 1988 title with LSU and the 1989 title with Alabama and Tennessee.

The Tigers have an opportunity, starting with their Sept. 3 opener against Georgia Tech, to show the college football world that they are ready to demand their place among the elite programs in the game.

Obviously, they don't have to go undefeated again and almost certainly won't. They don't even have to win another SEC championship. Winning 10 games and faring well against ranked teams again will probably do the trick.

Are the Tigers good enough to do it? There are ample reasons to believe they are, but that question will only be answered in the sound and fury of autumn Saturdays.

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