Marshall Column: Reasons for Hope and Concern

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the Auburn Tigers and other SEC football teams.

Some of my pen pals are not happy with me.

They believe, it seems, that I should be criticizing just about everybody involved in Auburn's 23-14 loss last Saturday to Georgia Tech. The word "outcoached" seems to be a favorite, though I'll admit to being more than a little mystified at how so many coaches could suddenly forget how to do their jobs after they won 15 consecutive games.

Even after almost a half century of watching college football, I don't claim to be qualified to say when one team is "outcoached" by another.

I feel very safe in saying that Auburn was outplayed by Georgia Tech. The score tells that story. I can say without hesitation that five turnovers and 11 penalties kept Auburn from winning. I can say that the defense struggled in the first quarter and was pretty darned good after that, especially considering the turnovers. I can say the offense was not as productive as I expected.

I can also say, with a lot of confidence, that every play and every defense that was called was called because the person calling it thought it was the best at the time, not just at Auburn but in every football game played. Why did some things work and some not? Players make mistakes. Coaches make mistakes. And sometimes the opponent just plays better.

Auburn coaches and players, convinced that they beat themselves, seemed more angry than depressed about the turn of events. I don't believe this football team will be sidetracked by an unexpected loss. I think it will go where it was going. The question is just where that is.

Football teams, more than any other, are works in progress. They get worse or they get better over the course of a season. They don't stay the same. With young players in key positions, it figures that this Auburn team will be much better in November than in September. Will that be enough to contend for an SEC championship? Only time will tell, but back-to-back SEC championships are quite rare.

Auburn clearly has the talent to contend again, but that alone is not enough. The 2004 Tigers had a remarkable senior class, and it went deeper than first-round draft picks Jason Campbell, Carlos Rogers, Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams. Bret Eddins, Doug Langenfeld, Junior Rosegreen, Jay Ratliff, Danny Lindsey and Jeremy Ingle, along with those four, had exceptionally strong personalities. In other words, the Tigers had that elusive thing called chemistry.

The 2005 Tigers still must develop that chemistry if they are going to be big winners. Head coach Tommy Tuberville has said that all along. His statement at SEC Media Days about the talent level of his team seems to have become an issue for some in light of the loss to Georgia Tech.

Here is what he said, transcribed verbatim off the tape:

"We start next week defending our title of last year. It is going to be interesting for our football team to regroup and challenge for another title, but I think we have the ability to do that. Can we do it? We'll have to wait and see. After losing so many good players from last year, our coaches are obviously challenged and we have a lot of young players that are stepping into those roles.

"We had a good spring practice. We have a lot of good players coming back. I think that the atmosphere of our team is positive. We probably will have the most talented team we have had since I've been at Auburn, from top to bottom at every position, with depth, with speed and with athletic ability. We don't have the one thing that sometimes you need, and that is experience. Experience is something you can't recruit. You have to build it."

Was that an ill-advised or out-of-line statement? You be the judge. But there you have what he said…

One can find precedent for just about anything in college football. There are reasons for optimistic fans to believe this Auburn team will rebound from a disappointing loss and have a big season and reasons for pessimistic fans to believe it won't. There's something for everybody.

Reasons for hope:

*Brandon Cox isn't the first Auburn quarterback to throw a flurry of interceptions early in his career as a starter. In his second game as Auburn's starting quarterback, Pat Sullivan threw five interceptions and the Tigers were routed 45-19 at Tennessee. He went on to have a pretty decent career.

*Virginia Tech lost its opener to USC last season and went on to win the ACC championship.

*Way back in 1983, Miami was crushed 28-3 by Florida in its opener. The Hurricanes won their next 11 and won the national championship.

*In that same season, Auburn was dominated 20-7 at home by Texas in the second game of the season. The Tigers went on to win 10 straight and the SEC championship.

Reasons for concern:

*Auburn has never won an SEC championship with a quarterback who was not at least a junior.

*The last time Auburn lost its opener and finished with fewer than four losses was 1960, when it lost the opener to Tennessee, won eight straight, and lost to Alabama.

*The last time Auburn lost to Georgia Tech and finished the season with fewer than four losses was 1956. *Tommy Tuberville's record in odd-numbered years at Auburn is 21-17 overall, including last week's loss, and 12-12 in the SEC. His record in even-numbered years is 31-8 overall and 19-5 in the SEC.

Who knows what will happen in the end? The optimists will expect better days and the worriers will worry...

Now comes the time for me to accept my weekly embarrassment. Yes, I picked Auburn to win 31-14. I didn't take five turnovers and 11 penalties into account. If the same two teams played this week, I'd pick it the same way.

I will take some credit for correctly predicting that Georgia would have no trouble with Boise State and that Tennessee would have lots of trouble with UAB. Overall, the record was 7-2.

That brings us to Auburn's game against Mississippi State. Auburn has scored 42 or more points against the Bulldogs for three consecutive seasons, and there are ample reasons to believe this one could be a blowout.

But I don't believe it will.

Mississippi State has speed on defense. It has perhaps the SEC's top tailback in Jerious Norwood. It has a strong-armed, athletic quarterback in Omarr Conner. The Bulldogs, in their second season under Sylvester Croom, also have some confidence.

Will that be enough? It shouldn't, but if Auburn has turnovers and penalties again, it could get testy.

Auburn 27, Mississippi State 13.

In other SEC games:

*Arizona State 24, LSU 21

*Alabama 20, Southern Mississippi 14

*Georgia 28, South Carolina 17

*Kentucky 35, Idaho State 3

*Arkansas 31, Vanderbilt 9.

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