Despite Success, Tigers Must Be On Guard

Phillip Marshall writes about Auburn's football program, the bowl situation and matchups around the SEC this week.

When Auburn has played its bowl game and the 2005 season is over, Coach Tommy Tuberville and his program will face a new and different kind of challenge.

Tuberville has done a remarkable job over the past seven years. He took over a troubled and dispirited program when he arrived November of 1998 and made it a national power.

In the raucous celebration at Jordan-Hare Stadium last Saturday, when Alabama had been dominated like few Alabama teams have, when the Tigers had beaten the Tide for the fourth consecutive time, it was obvious that Auburn was king of this state's college football domain.

Winning four consecutive Iron Bowls is a rare accomplishment. It doesn't happen by accident. Auburn dominated Alabama last Saturday because Auburn is more talented than Alabama at most positions and deeper at every position. Looking ahead to next season, the difference could be even more pronounced. Auburn will go into next season as a legitimate contender for the national championship.

Rewind to December 1989. Alabama had played at Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time. It had come to town undefeated and left a 30-20 loser. It was Auburn's fourth consecutive win in the series.

Auburn lost the next three times it played Alabama. By the time it won again, Pat Dye had resigned and been replaced by Terry Bowden.

Complacency is a natural human trait. I've been told by more than one coach who was on the Auburn staff in 1989 that the sense of urgency that had marked the 1980s began to wane after 1989.

And that's what Tuberville, his staff and his players must avoid if they are to remain among the nation's elite.

As for this season, there is much to still be decided. Auburn's bowl situation should come into sharper focus after this weekend. Obviously, there can be no serious movement until after Arkansas plays at LSU on Friday. Should Arkansas pull of an upset, Auburn will be on its way to the SEC Championship Game and a rematch with Georgia.

Assuming that doesn't happen, the Tigers will probably play Ohio State or Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on Jan. 2. But don't rule out the possibility of an invitation from the Fiesta Bowl.

Oregon, which finished its season 10-1, is campaigning like crazy for a Fiesta Bowl invitation. Fiesta officials are lukewarm at best about the Ducks, but they are in a Pac-10 state and the pressure could become too great. They're also not overwhelmed at the thought of Big Ten co-champion Ohio State returning to their game for the third time in five years. Auburn is next in line. The probable opponent for whoever chosen will be Notre Dame.

For a BCS game against Notre Dame, there is little question Auburn would sell as many tickets as it could get. Will Auburn get the call? Probably not, but it could.

Of course, upsets over the next two weekends could change the landscape. Notre Dame must win at Stanford on Saturday or it won't qualify for a BCS bid. Before you take that as a given, look at a few facts:

Notre Dame (8-2) has played just two teams this season with as many as seven wins. It lost at home to a Michigan State team that has a losing record. Its signature win is over four-time loser Michigan. Only Notre Dame would have such a lofty ranking based mostly on playing the No. 1 team close. Auburn, by contrast, beat Top 10 teams in each of its last two games. It has played five teams with seven or more wins and has won six of its last seven games against Top 10 teams. By any objective measure, both Auburn and Ohio State should be ranked higher than Notre Dame, but that's another story for another day.

The bottom line is, if all goes as expected, the Tigers are likely to spend the holidays in Orlando.

On to the SEC weekend…

Those loveable Vanderbilt Commodores finally did me right. I predicted they'd beat floundering Tennessee and they did. The record last week was 5-1.

Arkansas (4-6 and 1-5) at LSU (9-1 and 6-1): Arkansas could hand Auburn the outright West Division title with an upset. The Razorbacks certainly have been playing better of late. The surprising decision to insert true freshman Casey Dick into the starting lineup at quarterback has paid off with impressive wins over Ole Miss in Oxford and Mississippi State in Little Rock.

But, alas, LSU is a different animal. It's not that LSU is a juggernaut. In fact, the Bayou Bengals have had to win two of three overtime games and have some kind bounces to get to this point with such a gaudy record. But they got here, and they have too much for Arkansas. LSU 28, Arkansas 17.

Florida State (7-3) at Florida State (7-3 and 5-3): Neither team has lived up to expectations, though the Seminoles will play in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game. Both teams limp into the game off disappointing losses and both are plagued by injuries.

There's not much to recommend either one, so I'll go with home team. Florida 20, Florida State 16.

Georgia (8-2 and 6-2) at Georgia Tech (7-3): Two teams in college football have won twice against teams currently in the Top 10. One is No. 1 Southern California, a winner over Notre Dame and Oregon. The other is Georgia Tech, a winner at Auburn in the season-opener and at Miami last Saturday.

Tech coach Chan Gailey

Georgia is in the SEC Championship Game but lost back-to-back decisions to Florida and Auburn before routing Kentucky last Saturday. This one is no gimme for the Bulldogs.

In fact, chalk up another big one for Coach Chan Gailey and the Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech 21, Georgia 20.

Tennessee (4-6 and 2-5) at Kentucky (3-7 and 2-5): The Vols were ranked No. 3 nationally in the preseason polls. Saturday, they will try to avoid finishing last in the East Division.

Kentucky will be excited about this game. The dysfunctional, undisciplined Vols will not. The Wildcats can't come close to matching the talent Tennessee will put on the field at Commonwealth Stadium, but it won't matter. Kentucky 27, Tennessee 24.

Ole Miss (3-7 and 1-6) at Mississippi State (2-8 and 0-7): The Egg Bowl has seldom had implications far beyond the borders of Mississippi, but this one is even more rotten than usual. You could combine these two teams and not come up with a team that could have a winning record.

Two bad teams might actually make for an entertaining game, or at least a close game. Mississippi State 13, Ole Miss 10.

Until next time...

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