Marshall: Down Year for Many Auburn Teams

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about a variety of Auburn sports teams.

It's the spring of discontent for Auburn athletics.

Oh, there are some good things happening. The men's and women's swimming teams are ranked No. 2 in their respective polls. The women will go after their fourth national championship in five years this week in Athens and the men will go after their fourth straight next week in Atlanta. The women's golf team is ranked No. 6 nationally and won the Lady Gamecock Invitational over the weekend. The softball team is ranked No. 20 and swept Kentucky. Though the gymnastics team isn't a championship contender, it is ranked No. 13 nationally. The men's and women's track teams did well indoors and look to promising outdoor seasons.

But in the sports that most people care the most about, these are not the best of times.

The men's and women's basketball teams recently finished their seasons with losing records. And now the baseball team is struggling mightily. For the first time since 1991, the Tigers will go into the SEC season without a winning record. They'll be 10-10 if they beat Appalachian State on Tuesday night and 9-11 if they don't.

Rasheem Barrett, a freshman All-SEC pick, will be counted on to make the men's basketball team more competitive next season.

Some of the baseball team's struggles can be attributed to a difficult schedule, but that isn't near all of it. Series losses to VMI, Elon and, most recently, Birmingham-Southern have left the Tigers in serious danger of finishing the season with an overall losing record for the first time since 1983. To avoid that, they'd have to at least break even in 30 SEC games, a prospect that seems extremely unlikely at the moment.

For all three sports, the disappointment of 2006 is part of a painful process that started in the spring of 2004.

Basketball coach Jeff Lebo said at the press conference the day he was hired that the second year would be the most difficult. It is often that way, and his words have proved prophetic in all three sports.

Lebo, women's basketball coach Nell Fortner and baseball coach Tom Slater faced remarkably similar circumstances. All had veteran players in their first seasons--though many of Lebo's left--and had to start almost from scratch in their second seasons.

As hard as it might be to swallow, what has happened was entirely predictable. Large numbers of first-year players playing key roles and winning in the SEC do not mix.

The baseball team still has time to turn it around, of course. The SEC season is what matters most, but to have any chance, the Tigers must find some consistency they haven't been able to find yet.

Call it growing pains. Call it what you wish. But for any of the three teams to have had big seasons this year would have been a surprise.

It is a year from now that the direction of all three sports will be more clear. All three coaches have recruited well. It would be unfair and unrealistic to expect championships in 2007, but there should be dramatic improvement.

If there isn't, it will be fair to ask some hard questions about what's going on. But for now, there is nothing to do but frown and bear it.

A little of this and a little of that...

Tez Doolittle could play a major role for the 2006 football Tigers.

I'm no expert evaluator of talent, but the 2006 football team might have more speed and athleticism than any I've seen at Auburn...I wouldn't be surprised if the growth and maturation of defensive tackles Pat Sims and Tez Doolittle aren't among the more heartwarming stories of the coming season...Freshman running back Benjamin Tate might or might not make an impact in the coming season, but he has the look of a guy that's going to make a name for himself before he leaves Auburn...Speaking of running backs, senior Tre Smith looks quicker than at any time since his sophomore season and might play a much larger role than most imagine...Florida's razor-thin victory over South Carolina in the SEC Tournament might well have saved Alabama from being exiled to the NIT...For the life of me, I can't understand how Tennessee could be a No. 2 seed and SEC champion LSU drops down to a No. 4.

Until next time...

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