Marshall: Tide Playing Catch Up to Tigers

Phillip Marshall writes about the Auburn football program after its fifth straight victory over its archrival.

Who could have seen this coming on the night of Nov. 17, 2001?

As Auburn players trudged off the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium, routed 31-7 by an Alabama team that had won just four games, it seemed clear that the Crimson Tide had regained the upper hand in the state.

Who would have believed that, over the next five years, Auburn would:

*Have a record of 49-14?

*Have a perfect season?

*Have four players chosen in the first round of the NFL draft in the same season?

*Lose just nine games against Southeastern Conference teams and win 22 out of 25 over the past three seasons?

*Beat Alabama five consecutive times and win four straight at Bryant-Denny Stadium?

There is no doubt today that Auburn is the dominant football program in the state. The only question is how long it will stay that way.

And, really, there is no end in sight.

It's difficult to see an Iron Bowl in the near future in which Alabama will have a better shot than it had against a wounded Auburn football team last Saturday. And Auburn persevered in a hostile atmosphere, 22-15.

That doesn't mean Alabama can't win a game in the series. It doesn't mean Alabama won't win next season at Jordan-Hare Stadium, though a rational look at the two programs makes that seem unlikely.

But it's going to take more than winning one game, breaking one streak, for Alabama to catch up with Auburn.

As Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville and his players left the field, dodging missiles flung from the Alabama student section, they could be proud of what they had done and the way they had done it.

Tiger sophomore tailback Brad Lester scores a touchdown vs. Bama.

Tuberville, the only coach ever to beat Alabama four times at Bryant-Denny, has established a program that is strong from top to bottom, on the field and off. Eleven of the players who celebrated Saturday are already Auburn graduates. More will join them next month.

Perhaps no players in the Auburn locker room personified what the program Tuberville has built is all about than linebackers Kevin Sears and Tray Blackmon.

You know their stories. Sears, a senior, was convicted of DUI after an incident last summer. Blackmon, a redshirt freshman, was arrested for underage drinking. Auburn's defense needed both badly, but Tuberville suspended them for six games apiece.

Both took their medicine and didn't complain. Blackmon became a star almost from the moment he stepped onto the field. Sears played maybe the best game of his career last Saturday against Alabama.

On the opposite side of that spectrum, to say Alabama head coach Mike Shula's response in similar situations has been lacking would be a kind description.

On the field, Auburn's strength is growing.

The 2006 team certainly is not Tuberville's best. Injuries to key players made life difficult for most of the season. Yet, when the regular season ended Saturday, the Tigers were 10-2, a terrific season by any valid measure.

And help is on the way.

Most of Auburn's championship-level talent is in the lower classes. Another stellar recruiting class is already secured.

At Alabama, there are more questions than answers. Shula's future as head coach is at stake. It appears likely that at least some of his assistants have no future at Alabama.

Shula is a good man who came to Alabama in dark times. His only coaching experience was in the NFL. After four seasons, his decision-making remains often puzzling and sometimes maddening to Alabama supporters.

The powers-that-be at Alabama have a problem. They recognize the need for continuity. But if Shula isn't the answer, the sooner they act the sooner they can move on. It'll be interesting to watch that drama unfold.

There are whispers that Auburn has an opportunity now to match Bear Bryant's nine-game winning streak in the series now known as the Iron Bowl.

Will it happen? Not likely.

But it's a lot more likely than Auburn winning five straight would have seemed when Alabama celebrated at Jordan-Hare in November 2001.

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