Marshall Column: Anybody's Guess on Bowl Trip

Phillip Marshall writes about the Auburn football team as the Tigers prepare for game nine vs. Ole Miss.

Auburn could win out and have one of the best seasons in school history.

Or it could lose at Ole Miss next Saturday.

Auburn could win the Southeastern Conference championship, maybe even make a run at the BCS championship game.

Or it could end up in the Music City Bowl.

Such is the reality of 2006 for Auburn football.

That Auburn can play with the nation's best is beyond dispute. Victories over LSU and Florida are testament to that.

That Auburn can play far below the level of the nation's best is also beyond dispute. Shaky performances against Buffalo and Tulane, particularly on defense, and a 27-10 loss at home to Arkansas are testament to that.

Like all college football teams, this Auburn team has a personality all its own. It seldom does things the easy way.

Life is a lot easier for coaches, players and fans when a team is dominant, blowing out opponents week after week. Auburn got a taste of that in 2004. Ohio State is getting a taste of it this season.

But the truth is, those seasons are rare.

Other than special teams, the Tigers aren't really dominant in any area. They are good but not great running the ball. They are good but not great throwing the ball. Their defense sometimes looks dominant and sometimes looks very vulnerable.

The consistency head coach Tommy Tuberville craves hasn't been achieved, at least not yet. And with the wear and tear of 12 consecutive games without an open date, it's an open question whether it can be achieved or not.

It says a lot for the program Tuberville has built that Saturday's 38-13 victory over Tulane seems to have caused more angst than joy. Of course, several thousand only saw half of it before heading for the exits at the end of the second quarter.

A homecoming tradition, I guess.

Anyway, when I left Jordan-Hare Stadium several hours after the game, I was still trying to understand the meaning of the game I had just seen.

I saw Brandon Cox have clearly his best game of the season at quarterback. I saw a freshman tailback who looks like a star in the making. I saw an offense that was a dropped pass here or a fumble there away from scoring 50 points.

I saw a defense that bent and bent and bent, but in the end, gave up just one touchdown to a Tulane offense that, believe it or not, is good and getting better. I saw a defense that missed redshirt freshman safety Aairon Savage more than I would have imagined.

The natural reaction to such a performance is to think what would have happened if that had been a more talented team on the other side of the ball. But Auburn doesn't play the same way against those more talented teams. It's that personality thing again.

Without an open date, Tuberville and his coaches have little choice but to use games like Saturday's to allow players to heal injuries and catch their breath. Four starters sat out the game. Tailback Brad Lester played just two series.

The Tigers played without emotion, and they're not good enough to do that and play impressively. They are, however, good enough to do that and still win handily against a team like Tulane.

The bottom line:

Auburn is 7-1 overall, 4-1 in the SEC and ranked in the Top 10. It has wins over two Top 10 teams, the two that most people would say are the most talented in the SEC. Nobody could have realistically expected more than that at this point.

The offense has had its struggles but has scored enough to win in every game but one, despite dealing with injury problems that still haven't gone away.

The defense has given up enough yards to make a lot of folks uncomfortable, but it has given up more than two touchdowns in a game just once. It held LSU without a touchdown, a feat almost certain not to be repeated by any other team.

This Auburn team has lots of good players, more than most. It does not have a lot of dominant players. It has some who will be, but they are young and still learning.

Where these Tigers are going is anybody's guess. Maybe it will be to Atlanta, maybe to a big bowl, maybe to Nashville, maybe somewhere in between.

Ole Miss could be a problem Saturday. Georgia, regardless of its struggles, and Alabama could be really big problems.

But, really, where in the SEC is it any different? Arkansas, Auburn and LSU in the West and Florida and Tennessee in the East are the remaining contenders. They all have strengths and they all have issues.

Things will sort themselves out over the next five weeks. It should be fun to watch.

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