Marshall: Looking at AU Football Big Picture

Phillip Marshall takes a look at Auburn football in his latest column.

In life and in college football, reality is often not as one would like it to be.

Every college football program would like to do what Texas did last Wednesday. Every college football program would like to do what Southern California has done the past three seasons.

There are 119 Division I-A college football programs whose fondest dreams are to win a national championship. There are probably 30 with a decent chance of doing it sooner or later, some with better chances than others. Beyond those, any team in a BCS conference can win one if everything falls into place in a given year.

There are numerous factors at work. One is how difficult, top to bottom, the conference is in which a team plays. It has certainly worked to USC's advantage that it plays in the Pac-10, a league in which no team even approaches its talent level. In recent years, only Oklahoma has been able to challenge Texas in the Big 12. It's more difficult in general for SEC teams and Big Ten teams because they have more opportunities to lose.

So where is Auburn in the national mix?

It certainly is in the 30 or so programs with realistic chances, probably in the Top 20. All of the SEC's big six--Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU and Tennessee--are in that group.

But Auburn, as much as some people would like it to be different, has challenges some don't have.

When it comes to fan support, resources and facilities, Auburn stacks up favorably with most of them. But in perhaps most important area, Auburn can't match the likes of USC, Texas, Florida, Miami, Florida State, LSU and Georgia. Those schools have massive talent pools in their own states.

Winning championships takes good coaching, obviously. But the No. 1 key to winning championships is having championship-level talent. That, in most cases, relates directly to a school's recruiting base.

Running back Kenny Irons will be back for the 2006 season as a returning All-SEC tailback.

Geographically, Auburn is in a good place. There are athletes in areas of Alabama, Georgia and Florida who live closer to Auburn than any other Division I-A school. All three states produce significant numbers, particularly Florida and Georgia. But the problem is that Auburn is not the dominant recruiting power in any of those states.

It's harder at Auburn. That's just a fact. That's why it was so maddening for everyone involved when the Tigers went 13-0 last season and didn't get an opportunity to play for it all.

Realistically, Auburn can outrecruit Georgia and the Florida schools for some players from their states at times, but usually not. That doesn't mean, of course, that Auburn can't get significant talent from those states, and it does on an annual basis. More players in Alabama grow up wanting to play for Alabama than for Auburn, though that gap has been reduced greatly in recent years. Auburn starts out behind on many players. Sometimes it can catch up and sometimes not.

Auburn coaches have to evaluate a little better and work a little harder at recruiting than some. Intangible things are more important. And usually, it's more of a building process.

So the question becomes, what is fair to expect from Auburn and other similarly situated programs?

In the big picture, to expect more than what has happened since 2000, when Tommy Tuberville got his program up and running, would be wildly unrealistic. The Tigers have won nine or more games four out of six seasons. They have had the first 13-0 record in school history, won an SEC championship, played twice in the SEC Championship Game and shared the West Division championship three other times. They have won 24 of their last 27 games and 17 of their last 18 against SEC opponents. Four nine-win seasons out of six is a feat that has happened just once before in Auburn history.

While Tuberville, his staff and his players have been doing those things, there hasn't been a hint of an NCAA scandal. Players are graduating at an impressive rate and rarely get into trouble.

There have been glitches--a 31-7 loss in 2001 to an Alabama team with a losing record, two losses to Georgia Tech, last Monday's loss to Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl.

All those were terribly frustrating for Auburn supporters and even more frustrating for the coaches and players. No one could see any of them coming and, to this day, it's difficult to know what happened. What didn't happen in any of them--despite what you might hear--is lack of interest or lack of preparation. Auburn certainly prepared hard for the Capital One Bowl, though the coaches would agree no one could tell it on game day.

There have been some other lopsided Auburn losses, but most SEC teams suffer through those. In Nick Saban's five seasons, LSU had as many of them as anybody, to go along with two SEC championships and a national championship.

Auburn is not and will not likely ever be the most talented team in the country, top to bottom. But given the right mixture of impact players, leadership, chemistry, injury luck and a few good bounces, Auburn might win a national championship. And it might not.

Already, Tuberville has built a stronger program than almost anyone would have expected when he arrived to take over a terribly dysfunctional situation in November 1998. If he can solve the problem of the occasional meltdown like last Monday, he will have built a program and a legacy that will stand the test of history.

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