Marshall: Football Success Formula Elusive

Phillip Marshall takes a look at the 2005 Tigers and this week's slate of SEC football games.

As much as some would like to, you can't measure a college football team by size and speed and strength and certainly not by the number of five-star recruits signed.

The dynamics that separate great teams from good ones grow from within, which is why every team is a work in progress from the first game until the last. The best of coaches can't win without enough talent (see Steve Spurrier), but even the best ones can lose with plenty of talent.

Coaches can teach. Coaches can preach. Coaches can scream. Coaches can praise. But in the end, it is about a bunch of 18-22-year-olds dedicating themselves to a common goal and pursuing that goal together. There are still no guarantees. The football gods love to play tricks. It takes some luck to win a championship.

The remarkable chemistry that characterized Auburn's 2004 Southeastern Conference champions was obvious from the start, and it grew stronger as the season wore on. It was just as obvious going into this season that the 2005 Tigers were searching for that chemistry, not always successfully.

A lot of them believe they found it last Friday night at their weekly prayer meeting at the team hotel in LaGrange, Ga. There they came together, they say, in a way they had not come together all season. They took the field arm-in-arm to play South Carolina. And when they had won 48-7, they sang "Hard Fighting Solider" in the locker room for the first time this season.

Though it was the Tigers' fourth consecutive lopsided victory, coaches and players say it was, by far, their best performance of the season. There was more enthusiasm and there were fewer mistakes. No one else has so thoroughly dominated the Gamecocks and probably no one else will.

What will it mean in the difficult days ahead? That story can only be told on the field. The Tigers play four of their next five on the road. They might be united but still not good enough to beat LSU or Georgia or Alabama. They might be united but someone might make a mistake at a crucial time and they might lose one they're not supposed to lose. They might be united and lose vital players to injury.

But Auburn players are firmly convinced they are going in the right direction and they are going with the kind of togetherness and unity of purpose that makes greatness possible.

Moving on...

Even six weeks out, it's easy to predict that this season's Iron Bowl will be the most significant in several seasons.

LSU's loss to Tennessee opened the door wide in the West for Auburn and Alabama, both unbeaten in Southeastern Conference play. If both play well--they don't have to play great--the game at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 19 is likely to decide who represents the West Division in the SEC Championship Game.

Certainly, LSU is not out of it. But, after Saturday night's game at Vanderbilt, the Bayou Bengals play Florida and Auburn at home and Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Maybe they are good enough to win all three, but I've seen no sign of it.

If Auburn and Alabama get to the game with no more than one conference loss apiece, it's a good bet they'll be playing for the prize. It could happen if one of them has two losses and the other has one. It could even happen if each of them has two losses.

Auburn's Oct. 22 visit to LSU will clearly be important, but before the Tigers get there, they face danger lurking in Fayetteville on Oct. 15. The first two Auburn teams Tommy Tuberville took to Fayetteville lost lopsided games. In 2003, the Tigers won 10-3. It is never easy for Auburn in Fayetteville, and it's not likely to be easy this time. The Razorbacks make no secret that they view Auburn's visit as an opportunity to turn their season.

You won't find any Auburn coaches paying much attention to Arkansas' 70-17 loss to Southern California. They believe the Razorbacks to be talented and dangerous, and they seem to have convinced the players.

Losing at LSU would be a disappointment. Losing at Arkansas would be far worse.

And now to this weekend's games...

Your fearless forecaster wasn't too sporty last weekend. After much debate, I picked Florida over Alabama. Big mistake. Vanderbilt reverted to being Vanderbilt and lost to Middle Tennessee State. Add it up and the record was 3-2. That's nothing to brag about. Maybe this weekend will be better.

Georgia (4-0, 2-0) at Tennessee (3-1, 2-1): The Bulldogs have won three consecutive times in the fearsome arena called Neyland Stadium. In fact, Georgia head coach Mark Richt has never lost there. Of course, he's never lost much anywhere on the road. His 16-2 record in opponents' home stadiums is truly remarkable.

This one is difficult to call. Tennessee's offense has played one good half of football in four games. I watched last Saturday's win over Ole Miss and was unimpressed. Georgia has played four overmatched opponents but has had its struggles. The Bulldogs managed only a 17-15 win over South Carolina at home.

Tennessee, it would seem, has the edge on defense. Georgia clearly has the edge on offense. The Vols must win to stay in the race for the East Division championship. I'm going with Richt, the road warrior.

Georgia 23, Tennessee 20.

Mississippi State (2-3, 0-3) at Florida (4-1, 2-1): Poor Mississippi State. The Bulldogs caught LSU coming off a loss to Tennessee and got smoked 37-7 at home. Now they catch Florida coming off a 31-3 loss at Alabama. In the Swamp.

Urban Meyer's gimmicky offense got little done against Tennessee and nothing done against Alabama. Offenses like the one Meyer runs often look unstoppable against weaker opposition, only to be hit hard by reality against teams of equal talent. The Gators got plenty done on offense against outmanned Kentucky, scoring 35 points in the second quarter and cruising to a 49-35 victory. Mississippi State is better than Kentucky, but not a lot better.

Florida 34, Mississippi State 14.

Kentucky (1-3, 0-1) at South Carolina (2-3, 0-3): Hey, don't laugh. It's a big game. The loser almost certainly will finish last in the East.

Coach Rich Brooks

Steve Spurrier

Neither team has a lot going for it, but Blake Mitchell is expected to be back as South Carolina's starting quarterback. And I just can't quite accept the thought of Spurrier losing to Rich Brooks.

South Carolina 24, Kentucky 17.

LSU (2-1, 1-1) at Vanderbilt (4-1, 2-1): If LSU doesn't cover receivers better than it did against Arizona State and Tennessee, the Commodores might actually have a chance. Really.

The big questions for the Commodores are if they can protect quarterback Jay Cutler and if they can keep LSU from picking up large chunks of yards on the ground.

The answer to both questions is probably no.

LSU 38, Vanderbilt 24.

The Citadel (2-2) at Ole Miss (1-3, 0-2): Ol' Ed Orgeron shouldn't even have to rip his shirt off or throw any chairs to get the Rebels ready for this one.

Ole Miss 31, The Citadel 7.

Louisiana-Monroe (2-2) at Arkansas (1-3, 0-2): The Razorbacks will deny it, but they certainly are casting a glance ahead to Auburn's visit next Saturday. ULM, I'm told, is better than in years past, but it won't matter.

Arkansas 35, Louisiana-Monroe 17.

Until next time...


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