Marshall Column: Friendships Put On Hold

Columnist Phillip Marshall gives his take on personal battles that will be fought in Auburn's upcoming game against LSU.

It started in 2000 when Auburn shocked almost everyone by advancing to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in Tommy Tuberville's second season as head coach.

And it continues today.

Auburn and LSU are virtually unchallenged as the class of the West Division. In five of the past six seasons, the winner in what has become an intense and memorable rivalry has gone on to play for the championship.

The streak was broken in 2002. Even in that season, it took Damon Duval missing an extra-point length field goal that would have beaten Florida and a miracle pass by Georgia's David Greene to keep Auburn out of Atlanta.

But it's more than the high stakes that make it special when Auburn plays LSU. Always, there seems to be unique storylines.

This season, Auburn safety Lorenzo Ferguson will play against the school with which he once signed. Cornerback Jonathan Wilhite, from Monroe, La., will play against the school for which he dreamed of playing as a high school star. Cornerback David Irons will play head-to-head against one of his closest friends, wide receiver Dwayne Bowe.

But the most compelling game within the game Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium will be the matchup between Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher.

So close are they that Carol Muschamp says "It's kind of like we're all one family."

And that's why this weekend will be memorable but difficult for two families who have celebrated together and cried together.

Muschamp was defensive coordinator at LSU for four seasons before moving with Nick Saban to the Miami Dolphins and then to Auburn. Fisher has been offensive coordinator since joining Saban's first staff in 2000.

Muschamp and Fisher own a beach house together. Their wives and children plan on spending much of the weekend together. But only one family will rejoice in what happens at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

"It will be interesting, but it will be sad because one person will end up not happy at the end of the night," Candi Fisher says. "Either our offense plays well or their defense plays well."

Fisher uses a healthy running back rotation which includes Alley Broussard, above, Justin Vincent, Jacob Hester and Charles Scott.

Adding to the uniqueness of it all is that both are intimately familiar with both schools. Fisher spent five seasons as Auburn's quarterbacks coach. That's where he met Muschamp, who was a graduate assistant in 1995 and 1996. Fisher's wife, Candi, graduated from Auburn.

Muschamp has broken Fisher's heart before. As a senior defensive back at Georgia in 1994, it was his interception of a Patrick Nix pass that started a Georgia comeback. The game ended in a 23-23 tie, ending Auburn's 20-game winning streak. But Saturday will be the first time Fisher and Muschamp have been on opposite sides as coaches.

And they'll do it in a game of great significance, the biggest game on a day of big games in college football.

"If you win, it's a lot of fun," Muschamp says. "If you don't, it's not. If you look at the Western side of the SEC, Auburn and LSU have dominated since 2000. The kids and coaches and fans understand this is an important game, but there are going to be other important games down the road, too. It's another big SEC weekend. In this conference, that's the way it is."

Fisher says he doesn't remember a situation quite like the one he'll face Saturday. But in the end, he says, it won't be about him or Muschamp. It'll be about what the players do on the field.

"The thing is, you do what your players can do," Fisher says. "That's what good coaches do. There might be something he'd like to do against our offense that he can't do because he doesn't have a certain kind of player or they haven't learned it yet. There might be something we'd like to do that we can't do for the same reason. That's just part of it. Good coaches do what their players can do."

Muschamp will see more familiar faces than just Fisher's on the LSU sideline. He recruited many of LSU's players on both sides of the ball. He coached many of LSU's defensive players. There will, no doubt, be handshakes and hugs when it's over.

But at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, when it's time to kick off, all the friendships and the memories will be put aside. It'll be time to play. By nightfall, one team will be a bona fide national championship contender and the heavy favorite to win the West.

That doesn't mean the season is over for the loser, far from it. There are no guarantees that things will go as expected in the nine games that follow for each team. There could well be a one-loss team playing for the national championship come January.

Whatever happens, it will be a day that two families won't soon forget.

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