Marshall: AU, SEC Can Make an Early Statement

Phillip Marshall writes about the AU Tigers as they prepare for their opener vs. Washington State.

In 15 days, we'll start to find out the truth about the 2006 Auburn football team. Is it really one of the best in the country, a national championship contender? Or should head coach Tommy Tuberville's griping during preseason camp be interpreted as a sign that disappointment could be around the next corner.

The truth, of course, is that nobody knows.

The first order of business for this football team is Washington State on Sept. 2. There are those, it seems, who believe the opener should be a pushover for a team ranked No. 6 in the nation.

There are signs it will be anything but that.

Not all the matchups in this game favor the home team. National ranking aside, there are questions about this Auburn team that can't be answered until we see what happens on the field.

Washington State returns most of the top players from an offense that averaged more than 33 points per game last season. It has a veteran quarterback in junior Alex Brink. Wide receiver Jason Hill is reputed to be among the nation's best.

The Cougars are going to come to Jordan-Hare Stadium and throw the ball all over the lot. Of that you can be assured. How will Auburn's defense respond? That will be the question of the day.

There is no doubt in my mind that first-year coordinator Will Muschamp is a rising star. But he can't play. An Auburn defense with inexperience in key spots will have to do that.

Auburn will go into the game without three linebackers who would have either been starters or would have played as much as the starters.

As of today, two of the top four safeties--redshirt freshman Aairon Savage and true freshman Zach Etheridge--have never played a down of college football. Sophomore Tristan Davis has played just a handful of plays on defense.

There is depth and talent at defensive end and at cornerback, the strongest positions on the defense going into the season. At noseguard, Josh Thompson will be the regular starter for the first time. Pat Sims is the likely starter at tackle, and he has hardly any playing time under his belt.

Talent isn't really an issue. There's plenty of that. But experience is, in many cases, as important as talent in college football. And Auburn will play a lot of inexperienced players on defense. Those players will be much better at the end of the season. The question is will they be good enough at the beginning.

On the other side of the ball, most of the matchups would seem to favor Auburn. Al Borges will field a veteran offense with star power at quarterback and tailback, on the offensive line and at wide receiver. Washington State, statistically, was one of the weaker defensive teams in Division I-A last season.

Add it all up and what do you get? You get a game that could be lopsided or close, a game that seems likely to be high-scoring, a game in which victory is far from assured for the home team.

Washington State has something of a strange history. The Cougars had losing records seven times in the past 11 seasons. But they won 10 games in each of the other four seasons.

They lost seven of their last eight games last season, but five of those losses were by four points or less. One was in overtime.

Washington State quarterback Alex Brink has put up big numbers for the Cougars.

Some programs have the capability of being national contenders in most any season. Some don't have the capability of being national contenders at all. Washington State is in the middle. It is capable of winning big or losing big in any given season.

Auburn's recent struggles against BCS opponents in early-season games are well-documented. The Cougars will come to town believing they can pull a significant upset to start the season. And if the Auburn isn't on its game, it could happen.

It might be that Auburn could play well and still lose. One of the problems with early-season games is that no one really knows how good anyone is. Washington Sate might be on its way to another losing season or on its way to another 10-win season.

Washington State wide receiver Jason Hill is considered one of the nation's top receivers.

Auburn is one of three teams that will be called on to stand up for the SEC on Sept. 2. Many people--me included--have questioned the strength of the Pac-10 during Southern California's run of recent years.

On the first Saturday of the season, the Pac-10 skeptics could be vindicated or muzzled. Besides Auburn's game against Washington State, Tennessee plays California and Arkansas plays Southern Cal. All three SEC teams play at home. They can make a statement for the SEC, one way or the other.

But whatever happens, three months of football will remain in the regular season, Sept. 2 will be only a step in a long and treacherous journey.

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