Marshall: Ball In Linebacker's Court

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the Auburn football Tigers as they prepare for a game vs. the Wisconsin Badgers.

Orlando, Fla.--Before the rumors even start, let's put some of them to rest.

Linebacker Kevin Sears, who did not make the trip for Auburn's game against Wisconsin in next Monday's Capital One Bowl, does not have academic problems. He did not flunk a drug test. He is not ineligible and is not being investigated by the NCAA or anyone else. Other than his Nov. 6 arrest, when he was charged with DUI, he does not have any legal problems. He has not been kicked off the team.

So why is Sears not here with his teammates? Why will he not play against the Badgers? That's between him and Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville. And, as of Monday night, Tuberville wasn't going any further than to say Sears has some "personal issues" he needs to resolve.

Kevin Sears

I suspect Sears might not agree with this right now, but it's another example of Tuberville putting the right things first. The best thing for Auburn's football team would be for Sears to be here practicing with his teammates, getting ready to play Wisconsin. Tuberville decided that the best thing for Sears, as he goes through the often difficult process of becoming a man, would be to stay at home.

The ball is in Sears' court now. He can do what is being asked of him, put his team first and get ready to shine as a senior. Or he can go the other direction, which eventually would probably lead to his being asked to finish his career somewhere else.

Based on what I know of Sears and the strength of his family, my guess is he'll do what is asked of him and be ready to do all he can to go out in a blaze of glory next season.

But it's not time yet to talk about next season. This season has one game left, and this Auburn team has an opportunity to do something special.

This bowl game isn't about next season's ranking; bowl games rarely have much impact on that. It isn't about standing up for the SEC against the Big Ten. It's about a senior class leaving an indelible stamp on Auburn football.

If the Tigers beat Wisconsin, this year's seniors will have won 40 games over the past four years. That's more than any senior class in Auburn history. If they win, they will become the first Auburn senior class ever to go 4-0 in bowl games. They will finish with 25 wins in 27 games. They will have a chance to finish in the top five for the second consecutive season. Only in 1957 and 1958 has Auburn accomplished that. For all the great things the Tigers did in Pat Dye's 12 seasons as head coach, their only top five finish was No. 3 in 1983.

Nine Auburn players were stuck in traffic Monday because of a 12-car pileup on Interstate 75 in Valdosta, Ga., and did not arrive in time for a 5:30 p.m. team meeting. The rest of the team was on hand and eager to get going.

They were excited about spending a week in Orlando. They were excited about getting ready for one more game together.

If they needed more incentive, at least some of them got some help from Wisconsin defensive line coach Joe Palermo.

In a story in Sunday's Wisconsin State Journal, Palermo's words were rather outlandish, considering Wisconsin's gives up more than 430 yards per game. His statement about Auburn center Joe Cope might have been understandable if it came from a player. Most coaches are smart enough to watch what they say.

"The center, point of attack, I think we can do some things with him," Palermo said.

In his last start vs. Georgia, Joe Cope was named SEC Lineman of the Week.

And don't trouble Palermo with any talk about Brandon Cox and his eight games out of 10 passing for 200 or more yards. Containing tailback Kenny Irons, he said, will be enough.

"Actually, I think we match up good with them," Palermo said. "Physically, we can hold up with them. It's going to come down to tackling that running back."

The Badgers have given up lots of yards and lots of points and Auburn has scored more points and gained more yards than any team in the Southeastern Conference. Maybe that really does add up to a good matchup for Wisconsin, but I'll have to admit I have a hard time seeing it.

If Palermo doesn't have it figured out, then secondary coach Ron Lee does.

"People make their mistakes against Auburn when they don't play a fundamentally sound game," Lee said. "It's not about schemes. It's about being fundamentally sound, making the tackles, being in the right position to make the tackle, being in the right gap to make the tackle.

"They're going to give you a bunch of formations, but they have four core plays they go to. So, you have to realize what the four core plays are and make sure you are strong (against them)."

Dang, if only SEC defensive coordinators had known it was so simple. And if only they'd known they needed to be fundamentally sound.

Leave it to the Big Ten to teach those poor ol' southern boys some lessons.

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