Marshall: Baseball Tigers a Few Bounces Away

As Auburn heads into this weekend's series against Ole Miss, the Tigers find themselves in a hole at 0-6 even though they could easily be 4-2. If Tom Slater's team is to make the SEC and NCAA Tournament, they must start chipping away starting with the Rebels.

In observing how close Auburn's baseball team is to being in the heat of the West Division race instead of off to an 0-6 start, it struck me how many times the bounce of the ball has altered the course of history in college athletics.

Some examples:

* If Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner had not stumbled and inexplicably dropped the ball while running out the clock, Arkansas would have beaten Tennessee in Knoxville in 1998 and the Vols would not have won the national championship.

* Had an official not made a highly questionable illegal motion call against South Carolina on a play that carried inside the Florida 10-yard line last November, the Gators probably never would have had the chance to blow out Ohio State in the BCS championship game. Even after that play was called back, South Carolina missed a field goal that would have won it.

Had officials not missed an obvious walk by Georgetown's Jeff Green on the game-winning shot last week, the Hoyas would have lost to Vanderbilt in the Sweet 16 and wouldn't be playing Ohio State in the Final Four on Saturday.

Had Xavier's Justin Cage not missed a free throw with 9.3 seconds left, Ron Lewis would have had no opportunity to send the game into overtime with a 3-pointer and the Buckeyes would be at home this weekend instead of in Atlanta.

The common thread here is that teams benefited from turns of events that weren't caused by anything they did. In every case, they deserve credit for taking advantage of the opportunities offered.

But nobody laid a hand on Stoerner, and all he had to do was fall down and not drop the ball. Florida did nothing to stop the big play that wasn't and the so-called infraction had nothing to do with it. Green should have been called for walking and the ball given to Vanderbilt with two seconds left. Ohio State could only watch and hope as Cage missed the free throw.

There are, for sure, many more examples than these.

The line between success and failure, between being a champion and being a footnote, is very thin.

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville does not have a recognized national championship on his resume. Florida's Urban Meyer has one from last season. Nick Saban has one from 2003 at LSU.

Yet, Tuberville and Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer are the only current SEC coaches who have gone through a season unbeaten at an SEC school (Meyer did it at Utah). Tuberville did it in 2004, of course. He and Auburn were unlucky in that it turned out to be the only season in the BCS era when three teams from BCS conferences finished with perfect records. Someone had to be left out, and USC and Oklahoma had been 1-2 from the start.

Meyer and Saban were lucky. Both lost games during the season and made it to the championship game anyway because of the outcomes of other games in which they weren't involved.

Coaches can do only so much in any sport. They can prepare their teams. They can provide motivation, though I believe most college athletes are plenty motivated on their own. They can recruit players with the talent to win.

But it's often the bounce of the ball or a twist of fate that decides who is a hero and who is an afterthought, that decides who becomes wealthy and famous and who gets fired.

Slater changed the pitching line-up and Taylor Thompson will get his first weekend start on Sunday.

Moving on...

Speaking of Auburn baseball, this weekend's series could scarcely be any bigger. At 0-6 in the SEC, the Tigers are on the verge of being out of the race before it even really gets started.

What's maddening for coach Tom Slater and his players is that they look at those six losses and believe they had every opportunity to win at least four of those games. They didn't do it.

They could still climb back into the race to make the SEC Tournament in Hoover and an NCAA regional. But it must start this weekend against Ole Miss at Plainsman Park.

The bottom line: If the Tigers go 15-9 in their last 24 SEC games, they'll almost certainly play in Hoover and go on to an NCAA regional. Even 14-10 and a 14-16 SEC record, might be good enough. It won't be easy, but it's at least possible if pitchers will go back to throwing strikes consistently and there are no more defensive lapses like last Saturday's seven-error meltdown.

Slater has shuffled his pitching rotation and his lineup in the field. He says he believes his players are ready to make a big push. It should be an interesting weekend.

Until next time...

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