Phillip Marshall: A Look at the 5-0 Tigers

Philip Marshall analyzes how the 2006 Auburn football team is developing as the Tigers near the halfway point of the regular season.

Is it possible? Can Auburn go unbeaten for the second time in three seasons?

Of course it's possible. The Tigers are almost halfway home in the regular season, and they haven't lost yet.

But is it likely? That's another question.

The 2006 team is not the overwhelming force that the 2004 team was and is not going to be. That doesn't mean it can't, in the end, equal the accomplishments of the 2004 team.

There are reasons to believe it could happen and reasons to believe it won't happen.

The schedule sets up nicely. The Tigers, who have already beaten probably the strongest team they will play in LSU, have games remaining against two nationally ranked teams--Florida and Georgia. Both must come to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Based on the way Georgia has played the past two weeks, without dramatic improvement it might not even be a nationally ranked team by Nov. 11.

But anyone who thinks those are the only two threats remaining on the schedule isn't being realistic. Arkansas, coming off an open date, will be a challenge Saturday, though the Tigers certainly should win if they are on top of their game.

The toughest regular-season game of all might be the last one. Alabama isn't bad now and should get better as the season goes on. Winning in Tuscaloosa will be hard, very hard. More than any time in recent memory, Alabama could make its season with a victory over Auburn, regardless of what happens in the weeks ahead.

And even if the Tigers get to 12-0, they'll have to turn around and win the SEC Championship Game. That would probably mean a rematch with Florida, though the possibility of Tennessee getting around the Gators in the end shouldn't be discounted.

Auburn, like all college football teams, continues to evolve. The Tigers have proved they are very good. They have yet to prove they are great.

And, in the SEC, it takes greatness to be a champion.

Offensively, things seem to be going in the right direction.

Cox played his best game of the season in last Thursday's 24-17 victory over South Carolina. He completed passes to nine different receivers. Tailback Kenny Irons, coming back from being beaten up by LSU, ran like he's supposed to run.

Going back to the final possession of first half against Buffalo, the Tigers have scored on nine of their last 12 full possessions. In five games, the offense has turned the ball over just twice. And the importance of that statistic can't be overstated.

The defense clearly didn't have its best game against South Carolina, but it's hard to argue with giving up a total of two touchdowns in three SEC games. LSU has scored at least 42 points in four of its five games. It scored three against Auburn.

The return of Jonathan Wilhite at cornerback against Arkansas should bolster the secondary. No opponent is likely to be able to simply line up and run the ball consistently against Auburn's defense.

Outside linebackers Karibi Dede and Will Herring have played at an All-SEC level all season. They'll soon get some help from suspended redshirt freshman Tray Blackmon.

A kicking game that is perhaps the nation's best, a defense that is hard to run against and an offense that doesn't turn the ball over is a combination that will give any team a chance to win on any Saturday.

But for all the good things there are to say about the 2006 Tigers, there are areas of concern.

No one knows for sure how Jason Bosley is going to do as the starting center. Losing Joe Cope was a big blow, as much emotionally as physically. No player on the team is more respected. Add that to the loss of tight end Cole Bennett, and two key components in the running game are on the sideline.

Wide receivers have been good but not spectacular. The game could come when good isn't enough.

Sometimes it's been because he held the ball too long, sometimes it's been because of the offensive line and sometimes it's been because running backs missed blocks, but Cox has been sacked 13 times in five games. Auburn gave up just 18 sacks all of last season.

Offensive tackles King Dunlap and Jonathan Palmer, in their first season as starters, are still growing. Auburn coaches say they've improved steadily, but they'll need to keep improving.

Auburn players got a chance for a little rest over the weekend. They went back to work Sunday. Is this team good or is it great?

We'll know in two months.

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