Marshall: Tigers Have Plenty to Prove

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at the Auburn football team as the Tigers try to recover from their first loss of the season.

First, the obvious: Great teams don't get dominated at home. If Auburn's embarrassing 27-10 loss to Arkansas says nothing else, it says Auburn is not a great team.

So, if the Tigers aren't great, just what are they? That's the burning question today, five days before an ominous visit from red-hot Florida.

Are the Tigers a really good team that played a really bad game? Or are they an ordinary team that finally faced reality?

I don't know the answer. I'm not sure anyone does. What I do know is that, at least on one Saturday, Auburn wasn't nearly as good as Arkansas. And that's an Arkansas team that should have lost to Alabama at home, could easily have lost to Vanderbilt on the road and was blown out 50-14 by a Southern California team that appears a bit shaky itself.

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville put the blame squarely on himself and his staff after Saturday's game, which is what he should have done. But it's really not that simple.

Perhaps we all should have seen it coming.

In the aftermath of a 7-3 win over LSU, it was easy to ignore the fact that the offense didn't even gain 200 yards. Struggles in a 38-7 win over Buffalo were easy to write off as the product of playing without emotion against an overmatched team. A near upset at South Carolina? Well, there was the Spurrier factor and the game was on the road.

But looking back, perhaps those games should have been viewed with more concern. The fact is that, in seven games going back to the Capital One Bowl, Auburn's offense has scored 10 or fewer points three times.

This time, there is no debate. Arkansas won, not because it has superior athletes, but because it won the physical battle at the line of scrimmage. And it really wasn't close, on either side of the ball.

The Arkansas game was of great importance. A win would have put the Tigers in commanding position in the West. Instead, it is Arkansas that finds itself alone atop the standings.

Tuberville said himself in the week leading up to Arkansas that the Tigers had not yet played a game in which they were sharp on offense and defense. They certainly haven't now. I don't know exactly what they were against Arkansas, but it certainly wasn't sharp. Even the special teams, a strength from the season's beginning, were shaky at best.

It was a dreadful showing, starting at the top and rolling downhill from there. Gone are the dreams of a second unbeaten season in three years. A trip to the SEC Championship Game went from being almost a given in the minds of many to a long shot.

Maybe, when coaches watch it all on tape, they'll find something positive to hold onto. I'll have to say that, other than a 90-yard drive in the second quarter, I didn't see anything positive.

There are actually some things that make what happened on offense at least somewhat understandable.

Center Joe Cope, out 4-6 weeks with a knee injury, was badly missed. The center, most coaches will tell you, is the second only to the quarterback in importance. Offensive tackle has been a problem all season and it was even more of a problem against Arkansas.

The loss of tight end Cole Bennett showed up, too. In a physical game like that one, there is no way two redshirt freshmen could do what Bennett could have done in the running game.

Quarterback Brandon Cox is clearly not full-speed and is a virtual statue in the pocket. The beating he took in being sacked five times against Arkansas isn't going to help.

But beyond those things, the offense seems devoid of personality. It excels at nothing.

There were no injury problems on defense, but there wasn't a lot of production either. The defensive line, which has seemed to be a strength for most of the season, was dominated, particularly in the first half. Linebackers made precious few plays. Against a running team, Auburn got not a single tackle from the middle linebacker spot.

Freshman Arkansas quarterback Mitch Mustain threw just 10 passes because that's all he needed to throw. One of those passes went 50 yards for a touchdown.

The Razorbacks, as more than one Auburn player aptly described it after the game, ran the ball down the Tigers' collective throats. That hasn't happened to such an extent since another group of Razorbacks rushed for more than 400 yards against Gene Chizik's defense in a 38-17 victory in 2002. It wasn't that bad Saturday, but it certainly wasn't pretty.

Why? How? I'm not expert enough to know.

The question now is what happens from here. Even as Auburn's national championship dream died, Florida's took on new life. The Gators weren't supposed to be able to stand up to LSU's physical play. They not only stood up to it, they won going away.

And next Saturday they'll be at Jordan-Hare Stadium as the nation's No. 2 team in the Associated Press poll.

If the Tigers are going to win, or even be in the game, they'll have to play at a very different level than where they were against Arkansas. They'll try. Anyone who has been around them knows that. But I have no doubt that they tried against Arkansas.

When things are going well, it's easy to overlook flaws. Arkansas, with an open week to get ready, showed those flaws to everyone who watched. Perhaps some of them can be corrected in a week, but it's not realistic to believe all of them can.

Tuberville had it right after the game when he said these Tigers aren't good enough to win if they don't play as a team. They have good players, but they're not going to overwhelm good teams with talent.

An unbeaten season was never likely for this team. But few expected Arkansas to be the stumbling block. And fewer still expected it to be so one-sided.

This season could still turn out to be worth celebrating. Or it could turn into a disappointment on the level of 2003, when an Auburn team picked by some to win the national championship instead lost five games. If some things aren't fixed in a hurry, the latter might be more likely than the former.

Saturday night's game against Florida should give a good indication of where things are headed. One thing is for sure: There's no need fretting about who will make it to the BCS championship game. It won't be Auburn.

Arkansas saw to that.


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