Marshall: Picking Tigers vs. Tide and the SEC

Columnist Phillip Marshall picks this week's Southeastern Conference football games including the Iron Bowl.

Perhaps the most unloved, disrespected, ridiculed nine-win team in Auburn history plays its final regular-season game against Alabama in Saturday's Iron Bowl at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Even when these Tigers were ranked in the top five, even when they knocked off two Top 10 teams, they couldn't seem to please anyone.

And that was before they were routed 37-15 by Georgia last Saturday.

The problem, or part of it, is that this team has seldom been dominant. Style points have been rare. It has played close games against ordinary teams and has looked less than stellar in blowing out overmatched teams.

Why has it been that way?

Really, it isn't difficult to find the answer. This is a team with lots of good players, few great players, even fewer emotional leaders and few dynamic playmakers. It is a team that can beat just about anybody when things are in sync and can be beaten badly when things aren't in sync.

None of that means, as some have speculated, that this team doesn't play hard or doesn't care or isn't motivated. What it does mean is there are things most great teams have that this team doesn't have.

The most complete game the Tigers have played all season was probably first one, a 40-14 victory over Washington State. That's also the last time they were completely healthy.

That's why they are a team that can beat LSU and Florida and lose by lopsided margins to Arkansas and Georgia.

It might be hard to swallow, considering the lofty preseason expectations, but looking at the season as a whole, Auburn's coaches have milked about all anyone could reasonably expect out of this team.

And now it's down to the last one, the big one.

You've heard it all by now. Alabama players are seemingly working themselves into frenzy over slights real and imagined. They are vowing retribution for Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville holding up four fingers in the final seconds of a 28-18 victory last season. They claim to be angry because Tuberville wore a "Fear the Thumb" T-shirt on a family outing in Orlando last season.

But if Auburn wins its fifth straight, it will win because it blocks, tackles and executes better. If Alabama puts an end to Auburn's winning streak, it will be for the same reasons.

All the manufactured anger won't matter on the field once the hitting starts. I can't imagine any player in any season in this game not playing as hard as he can play. All the jabbering will, however, have the fans in the stands eager to do their part to help the home team.

Tradition says I have to pick a winner in this space. That's a tall order, because it's almost impossible to make a reasonable guess at how the Tigers will play in what could be one of the more hostile atmospheres ever faced by Auburn football team.

If the Tigers play like they played last Saturday against Georgia, there'll probably be a similar outcome. I would be shocked if they played that poorly.

It's just as difficult to guess how Alabama will play. I'm not sure I've ever seen an Alabama team take such great comfort in losing "only" 28-14 at LSU. And let's face it. Alabama has beaten no team of consequence. Two of its victims--Duke and Florida International--have yet to win a game. Louisiana-Monroe has won two games, and one of those was over Florida International. Duke actually led Alabama in the fourth quarter.

From here, it seems the key for Auburn is to play like it played through the first eight games. In those games, Auburn had just seven turnovers. In the last three games, it has had 10. Brandon Cox's four interceptions were the single biggest factor in the loss to Georgia.

Auburn won games for most of the season because it rarely turned the ball over, the offense kept the ball, the defense was at its best in the red zone and the kicking game was dominant. The two games in which those things didn't happen, Auburn lost.

Certainly, upsets have happened in the Iron Bowl. But most of the time, the better team wins. Over the course of this season, Auburn has been the better team.

Auburn 21, Alabama 16.

Your fearless picker was just 3-2 last week, though I barely missed on my upset pick of South Carolina over Florida. For the season, the record is 61-15.

Arkansas (9-1, 6-0) at Mississippi State (3-7, 1-5): On the surface, it looks like a mismatch. But something tells me it won't be.

Arkansas has BCS dreams dancing in its head, but Mississippi State is coming off an open date and invigorated by its 24-16 win at Alabama. The Bulldogs are tough against the run, which is how the Razorbacks make their living.

I wouldn't be shocked if Mississippi State pulls off the season's biggest SEC upset, but...Arkansas 27, Mississippi State 20.

Ole Miss (3-7, 1-5) at LSU (8-2, 4-2): The Rebels are better than they were early in the season, but LSU is as talented as any team in college football. LSU 38, Ole Miss 10.

Tennessee (7-3, 3-3) at Vanderbilt (4-7, 1-6): Tennessee hasn't forgotten what happened against the Commodores last season. Don't look for it to happen again. Tennessee 28, Vanderbilt 14.

As for the cupcake games: Florida 56, Western Carolina 7; South Carolina 35, Middle Tennessee State 14; Kentucky 42, Louisiana-Monroe 20.

Until next time...


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