Auburn and LSU swapped blows at Tiger Stadium on Saturday night in a battle of Southeastern Conference heavyweights. It was fitting that it ended in overtime. In the old days, it would have been a tie. And that probably would have been more fitting, because there's not a dime's worth of difference between the two teams.
From Auburn's perspective, John Vaughn's five missed field goals stand out. From LSU's perspective, there were two dropped touchdown passes – one that would have made the score 21-10 and another in overtime. Both teams made mistakes and left points on the field. That's usually the way it is in a game as intense and fiercely fought as was LSU's 20-17 victory.
In such a game, the team that ends up on the short end is always going to see all sorts of ways it could have won. Auburn players were crushed, but no more crushed than LSU players were after their 10-9 loss at Jordan-Hare Stadium last season. When you put forth so much energy and emotion and play with such intensity and dogged determination, coming up short is painful.
That's life at the top of the SEC.
Auburn will need help now, along with victories in huge showdowns against Georgia on the road and Alabama at home, to make a second consecutive trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. LSU will have to lose to Alabama, Ole Miss or Arkansas and Auburn will have to win out. Will it happen? The odds are against it, but it's far from impossible.
As I watched Saturday night's game, I couldn't help but think back to 1999, Tommy Tuberville's first season. I remember sitting at Neyland Stadium and remembering some of the battles Auburn and Tennessee had staged not many years earlier. Yet, on that night, the talent difference was striking. Auburn had no more than a handful of players who could have played for that Tennessee team. Not surprisingly, Tennessee won 24-0.
What does that have to do with last Saturday night? It's this:
Auburn was playing a team universally proclaimed as the SEC's most talented. From my perspective, there were just as many superior athletes wearing blue as there were wearing white.
Tuberville has built his program one block at a time. Today, Auburn can look any team in college football in the eye and know it has a chance to win. That's a far cry from the mess Tuberville inherited when he arrived in November 1998.
The difficulty of competing in the SEC is that LSU, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama can usually do the same thing. Special seasons like the one Auburn had in 2004 are hard to come by. That's why only three SEC teams have gone unbeaten in the last 13 years and why there probably won't be an undefeated SEC team when this season is done.
From what I see of the top teams today – I saw Alabama and Georgia on television Saturday – the SEC's top two teams went at it Saturday night in Baton Rouge. Yes, Georgia and Alabama have perfect records, but injuries have done both great damage. The Georgia team I saw barely escape Arkansas at home will have trouble beating Florida next Saturday, not to mention Auburn on Nov. 12. Without Tyrone Prothro, Alabama doesn't look to have enough offense to handle LSU or Auburn.
Alabama's offense has struggled since playmaker Tyrone Prothro went down with a broken leg agasint Florida.
We shall see.
Nobody around Auburn felt good in the aftermath of one that got away, but there were plenty of positives.
* Sophomore quarterback Brandon Cox showed great poise in the most difficult of situations. He took his team on an 87-yard drive to the go-ahead touchdown and on a race against the clock to a shot at a game-winning field goal.
* Kenny Irons' 74-yard run was remarkable. He ran for 218 yards against a team giving up just 69 yards per game. He was the first back to break the 200-yard barrier against LSU since 1996 and proved once and for all that Auburn's tailback position is in good hands.
* The offensive line, maligned early in the season, showed it is one of the nation's best.
Center Joe Cope and the rest of the Tigers' offensive line played well against a big and physical LSU defensive front.
* Defensive coordinator David Gibbs had a masterful plan. Instead of pressuring quarterback JaMarcus Russell, Auburn dropped 7-8 into pass coverage. Russell was often confused. Holding LSU, which had no turnovers and few penalties, to 10 offensive points in regulation was more than anyone could have expected.
* If there is a better defensive football player in the SEC than Travis Williams, I haven't seen him.
There were also some things that weren't so good, and those things proved costly in the end.
* Special teams, reliable all season, were a disaster. Vaughn's missed field goal tries were costly, but so was Skyler Green's 66-yard touchdown return off a line-drive Kody Bliss punt. It didn't help that Montae Pitts was literally tackled as he tried to get downfield in coverage.
* On eight trips inside the 40-yard line, Auburn managed just two touchdowns and a field goal. The result was that 451 yards offense didn't result in as many points as it could have.
* Strong safety Eric Brock was twice fooled by play-action fakes. One resulted in LSU's only offensive touchdown and the other in a long pass that set up the game-tying field goal. He'll have to fight off redshirt freshman Steve Gandy this week to keep his starting job.
* Auburn's receivers were often terrific, but coaches say they dropped seven passes. That's too many.
In the end, both teams made enough big plays to win and enough mistakes to lose. LSU escaped with a memorable win. Now the season moves on.
Regardless of whether the Tigers get back to Atlanta, they can have a great season by winning four more games, a good one by winning three more or a disappointing one by winning less than three.
The temptation will be to take Saturday's game against Ole Miss at Jordan-Hare Stadium for granted. That would be a mistake. The Rebels are playing outstanding defense. Head coach Ed Orgeron, who coached with Tuberville at Miami, and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, fired by Tuberville in 2001, will have plenty of incentive. They'll, no doubt, pass that on to their players.
Clearly, the Tigers should win, but if they are caught looking back at LSU instead of focusing on the task at hand, things could get a bit dicey.
It would be surprising to see that happen. There is still much this team can accomplish, despite an unhappy night in Baton Rouge.
Until next time …