Marshall Column: Preseason Picks Still Stand

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at Auburn's season at the halfway point and the match up against Florida this Saturday.

It's the way I saw it in August and what I wrote in this space.

I said 11-1 would be a phenomenal season for this Auburn football team, that 10-2 would be a great season and 9-3 would be a good season. I stand by that today.

Rare is the college football program that can, from one season to the next, plug in replacements for the likes of Marcus McNeill, Troy Reddick, Devin Aromashodu, Ben Obomanu, Anthony Mix, Travis Williams, Antarrious Williams, T.J. Jackson, Jake Slaughter and Cooper Wallace and just keep on rolling.

All those players were not only keys to the 2005 team, but played significant roles in the 13-0 run in 2004.

The reality of life in the Southeastern Conference is that the difference between being at the top and being in the middle is often small. Getting to the top is hard. Staying at the top is harder.

That's why, in any season, it's a good bet that the SEC favorite in August won't be the SEC champion in December. For 12 of the past 14 seasons, it's been that way.

I thought going into the season Auburn would have a chance to beat any team it played. I still think that way. But having a chance to beat anybody on your schedule and beating everybody on your schedule are two very different things.

The criticism in some quarters of Auburn coaches in the wake of last Saturday's 27-10 loss to Arkansas is not surprising. And some criticism is warranted. Sometimes gameplans don't work. Sometimes the other side comes up with a better plan. It happens to every coach at every level of football.

That's why Pat Dye never had a perfect season in his career. That's why Steve Spurrier is still looking for the first perfect season in his career. That's why, when any team runs the table, it is a time to be savored and celebrated, because it might never come again.

The idea that somehow or other Tommy Tuberville or Al Borges or Hugh Nall or Will Muschamp or whatever coach you want to name can't coach as well now as they could two years ago is ridiculous.

The biggest problem with this Auburn football team is that it hasn't progressed from the first game until now like coaches, players and fans would have hoped.

The reasons are easy to see.

First, a lot of outstanding players graduated. Second, a lot of the better players still around are either on the sideline or are less than full-speed.

The loss of center Joe Cope can't be overstated. Jason Bosley did an admirable job in his place against Arkansas, but Cope's leadership can't be replaced. When tight end Cole Bennett went down, he was replaced by two redshirt freshmen.

Sophomore Jason Bosley will have his hands full this weekend against the Florida Gators.

On top of that, quarterback Brandon Cox has been nowhere near full-speed since the 7-3 win over LSU. Neither has tailback Kenny Irons or offensive guard Tim Duckworth.

As a result, the same offensive coordinator who helped Auburn go 13-0 in 2004, who led the SEC in total offense in 2005, hasn't always been able to push the right buttons.

On defense, two defensive tackles are essentially playing for the first time. At linebacker, Merrill Johnson is getting his first significant playing time and Will Herring is playing the position for the first time.

Some outstanding players graduated on that side of the ball, too. There are still growing pains in learning Muschamp's defense. But the defense, for the most part, has been good if not great. Even against Arkansas, two big plays, one a flukish 50-yard touchdown pass, were the difference in a solid performance and a woeful one.

Before Arkansas, Auburn had not given up a rushing touchdown in five games. That remains a pretty impressive statistic.

So what happens now? It's going to be interesting to see.

Florida's visit to Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night presents a significant challenge. It is also a chance for the Tigers to put themselves back into the national spotlight.

It's obvious now that Auburn was never really the No. 2 team in the nation. I might be wrong, but I don't believe Florida is, either.

The Gators struggled with Kentucky at home. They could have as easily lost to Alabama at home as not. They beat LSU at home only because the Bayou Bengals turned the ball over five times.

Urban Meyer's gimmicky offense really hasn't been particularly impressive. Florida has won on defense, and that's the biggest problem facing Auburn on Saturday night.

If Auburn's defense plays a solid game, Florida is not likely to rain touchdowns on Pat Dye Field. But the question is whether Auburn can score enough to win.

Cox and Irons say they are close to 100 percent. They'll need to be. The offensive line will need to play better than it has all season.

If those things happen, Auburn will have a good chance to win. If they don't, it won't.

My guess is that the Tigers will play at a far different level than they did against Arkansas. The night-game atmosphere at Jordan-Hare Stadium will be different than anything Florida players have experienced this season, even at Tennessee.

I'm just not sure that Auburn's offense, without Cope and Bennett, can score enough. That's why my guess is...Florida 21, Auburn 17.

Last week was a bad one for your fearless picker. There's not much to say about a 3-4 record. For the season, the record is 38-9.

Ole Miss (2-4 and 1-2) at Alabama (4-2 and 1-2): Alabama has reason to be frustrated. It should have won at Arkansas. It had its chances at Florida. At the same time, it could have lost to Vanderbilt, Hawaii and even hapless Duke.

Ole Miss is a bad team. The Rebels made all of seven first downs last Saturday but won 17-10 only because Vanderbilt self-destructed as only Vanderbilt can do. Alabama 27, Ole Miss 14.

Kentucky (3-3 and 1-2) at LSU (4-2 and 1-2): If any SEC team ought to feel badly today, it's LSU. There is little doubt LSU is the most talented team in the SEC. The Bayou Bengals have destroyed overmatched teams and have managed one touchdown in eight quarters against Auburn and Florida.

Unfortunately for Kentucky, it is among the overmatched teams. LSU 42, Kentucky 14.

Vanderbilt (2-4 and 0-3) at Georgia (5-1 and 2-1): This could be one of the more interesting games of the day.

Vanderbilt has a typical Vanderbilt record, but the Commodores have been oh so close. They lost to Arkansas because they missed an extra point in the first half and a potential game-winning field goal at the end. They took Alabama to the wire. They literally gave the game away at Ole Miss.

Georgia's defense was exposed last Saturday in a 51-33 loss to Tennessee at home. The Bulldogs weren't so hot on offense either. Two of their touchdowns came on kick returns. The previous two weeks, they were exceptionally fortunate to beat Colorado and Ole Miss, two bad teams.

Quarterback Joe Tereshinki will try to get the Georgia offense cranked up this week.

Vanderbilt has no reason to fear Georgia, but alas, the Commodores always seem to find a way to come up short. Georgia 28, Vanderbilt 20.

Jacksonville State (3-2) Mississippi State (1-5): Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom must be wondering what he did to anger the football gods. The Bulldogs lost their starting quarterback and their backup within minutes of each other against West Virginia. Fortunately, Mike Henig, the starter to begin the season, has returned from a broken collarbone.

Mississippi State is a very bad football team, bad enough that a game against the Division I-AA Gamecocks is no gimme. It might be the Bulldogs' last chance to win before the season finale against Ole Miss. Mississippi State 20, Jacksonville State 14.

Southeast Missouri State (3-2) at Arkansas (4-1): Coming off an emotional win over Auburn, it's probably a good thing the Razorbacks have a I-AA opponent on their schedule. Arkansas 35, SEMO 7.

Until next time...

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