Marshall: November a Make or Break Month

Columnist Phillip Mashall takes looks at the Auburn Tigers as well as the SEC and national football scene.

Could this be the best job Tommy Tuberville and his staff have done at Auburn? If the Tigers win their last three, or even two of their last three, I'd have to say it could.


On offense, the season started with new starters at tackle and just one wide receiver who had significant experience. Injuries have been a significant problem. The tight end position is manned by two redshirt freshmen. Quarterback Brandon Cox has played hurt for most of the season. Tailback Kenny Irons, who led the Southeastern Conference in rushing last season, hasn't been full-speed since the first game and has missed two games. Joe Cope, the starting center and emotional leader of the offensive line, has missed four games.

Redshirt freshman Tommy Trott has stepped up at tight end along with another redshirt freshman, Gabe McKenzie, with senior Cole Bennett sidelined with a broken bone in his foot.

Yet, the offense is clearly getting better with each passing week. If coordinator Al Borges can find more consistency in the red zone, the offense has a chance to be very good when all is said and done.

On defense, at least three of the linebackers in the playing rotation never played the position in college before this season. At defensive tackle, Pat Sims had played in one game and Sen'Derrick Marks had played bit parts in three games before this season. Noseguard Josh Thompson had played but not a lot. A redshirt freshman is the starter at free safety.

Through it all, the Tigers are 8-1 overall, 5-1 in the SEC and still in the running for all sorts of postseason goodies. They have beaten two teams ranked in the Top 10 at the time they played and have beaten three teams ranked in the current Top 25.

First-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp has been frustrated at times by his unit's propensity to give up big plays. Yet, the Tigers are in the nation's Top 10 in scoring defense. They have given up as many as 20 points in a game just one time, a pretty remarkable feat.

If this defense can cut down on the long plays, it also has a chance to be very good by season's end.

But the real heroes of 2006 might be the special teams. In that area, this Auburn team might be as good as any in school history.

Kody Bliss has consistently flipped field position. Vaughn is second in the nation in made field goals. Kickoff man Matt Clark consistently sails the ball through the end zone. Tristan Davis is a threat to go the distance on any kickoff return.

Pretty or not, if a team consistently holds opponents to fewer than 20 points and plays special teams the way Auburn does, that team will usually win.

And that's what Auburn has done.

Now we head toward November, the make or break month in college football. After Saturday's warmup against Arkansas State, the Tigers will face the two games that define most Auburn seasons.

Anyone who believes Georgia and Alabama won't severely test this Auburn football team isn't a student of history.

If Auburn wins them both, this will go down as one of the great seasons in school history, regardless of whether it ends with a trip to the SEC Championship Game.

As for the national picture, it is murky at best. There are a lot of one-loss teams that are a lot like Auburn.

Texas has survived on little more than luck and a couple of fortuitous officials' calls the past two weeks against Nebraska and Texas Tech. Urban Meyer's Florida offense isn't consistent enough to make the Gators a sure bet even at Vanderbilt on Saturday. USC has flirted with losing all season and finally did lose to Oregon State, a team that was routed 42-14 by Boise State and 41-13 by California.

Tennessee has won five straight but has back-to-back games against LSU at home and Arkansas on the road dead ahead. If the Vols win those two, they'll have a claim as good as anybody's.

Truly, the best of the one-loss teams might be the loser of the Ohio State-Michigan game. Though it's unlikely, it's not impossible those two teams could play a rematch for the BCS championship.

What's really going to be interesting, of course, is what happens if the winner of Thursday night's West Virginia-Louisville game goes unbeaten and the SEC champion--Auburn, Florida, Arkansas or Tennessee--emerges with a 12-1 record.

Should one of those teams at 12-1 be ranked head of West Virginia or Louisville at 12-0? That's a very tough call, one I'm glad I don't have to make. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the winner of that game will automatically go 12-0. It might happen. It just as well might not.

Rightly or wrongly, the other two unbeatens--Boise State and Rutgers--simply are not part of the national championship debate.

It'll all be settled over the next five Saturdays, culminating with the SEC Championship Game.

It should be fun to watch.

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