Marshall: Stretch Run Will Answer Questions

Phillip Marshall takes a look at the challenges that lie ahead for AU in the final five games of the season and more.

People can question the strength of Auburn's schedule through six games, and they have. But down the stretch, no one can argue that Auburn plays what is probably the toughest schedule in college football.

In the next five weeks, the Tigers play three teams currently ranked No. 7 or higher. Two of them are on the road. When that gauntlet has been run, there will be no more questions about this Auburn football team. They will have been answered, one way or another.

It starts Saturday night against No. 7 LSU in Baton Rouge. Then, after a home game against Ole Miss and a trip to Kentucky, there will be a trip to No. 4 Georgia and the regular-season finale against No. 5 Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The Tigers have already proved themselves to be a good team. If they are up to it, they have an opportunity now to prove themselves to be a great one.

Winning all three of those games, frankly, would probably be too much to expect of almost any team. The real goal is to win enough to get to Atlanta for a shot at a second consecutive Southeastern Conference championship.

Georgia is all but locked in as the East Division champion. The Bulldogs have SEC games left against Arkansas at home, Florida in Jacksonville, Auburn at home and Kentucky at home. To be left out, the Bulldogs would have to lose to two of those teams, including Florida, and Florida would have to win out. So, while the East race isn't over, it's close.

Thomas Brown and the Georiga Bulldogs already have a leg up on the competition in the race for the SEC East.

The West is another matter entirely. Auburn, Alabama and LSU all control their own destinies. Any of the three could land in the Georgiadome on Dec. 3.

If there are no upset losses among the top three to the likes of Ole Miss, Mississippi State or Kentucky, five games will determine who plays for the championship. Auburn at LSU, Tennessee at Alabama, Auburn at Georgia, LSU at Alabama and Alabama at Auburn will tell the story.

LSU starts at a disadvantage because it already has a loss. But it also has only two "big" games remaining. Alabama has an advantage because two of its three are at home. Auburn's only advantage is that its last one is at home.

Auburn's game at LSU on Saturday is certainly important, but it is not a make-or-break situation. If Auburn wins, LSU will be tottering on the brink. But even with a loss, Auburn would remain very much in the race for Atlanta.

If Auburn or Alabama beats LSU, the likelihood that the Iron Bowl will settle the issue is very high. If LSU beats Auburn and Alabama, then it will almost certainly be a Georgia-LSU showdown for the championship.

Moving on...

Auburn's second-half performance in a 34-17 win at Arkansas was the most physically dominant I have seen in several years from an Auburn team against legitimate opponent.

The Razorbacks made no secret that they viewed that game as a season-maker or season-breaker. They led 10-6 at halftime and were feeling good, but they weren't up to the challenge in the second half.

The boos started early, even while Arkansas was ahead. Razorback coach Houston Nutt is catching it from the fans, but those in the know say his job is not in danger, at least not this season. Some of his assistants might not be so fortunate...

Do losses not count for Notre Dame? The Fighting Irish were hardly punished in the polls for last Saturday's 31-28 loss to USC, and I guess that's understandable. But even before the game, the fact they had lost to Michigan State at home seemed to have been totally dismissed.

They are in the top 10 in the Associated Press poll with two losses, and the best opponent they have beaten is a three-loss Michigan team. Once again, I guess I'm just not bright enough to figure some things out...

Ole Miss blew a golden opportunity for an upset against Alabama. Two yards away from taking the lead in the fourth quarter, the Rebels had back-to-back delay of game penalties. I don't believe I've ever seen that. After that, with the game tied 10-10, they recovered a fumble at midfield and did nothing.

Without the big-play threat of Tyrone Prothro, Alabama's offense sputtered badly. Was that a one-game blip or a sign of things to come? We'll see Saturday when Tennessee goes to Tuscaloosa …

Don't pay much attention when the first BCS rankings come out this week. Oklahoma was No. 5 in the first BCS standings released last season. Those silly computer rankings don't really start to take shape until the season is almost over...

A prediction: If Alabama or Georgia finishes 12-0, it will be good enough for a trip to the Rose Bowl for the national championship game. Why? Because, as has been the case every year of the BCS except 2004, there will be no more than two unbeaten teams when all is said and done. USC will not be one of them...

Until next time...


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