Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Tigers stared adversity in the face and didn't flinch. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong for Auburn against Syracuse. Instead of throwing up their hands in frustration, the Tigers kept on playing, kept on fighting and finally won a game they might easily have lost. It would have been easier on players and fans if those things hadn't gone wrong, if the Tigers had grabbed the lead early and beaten the Orangemen the way they could have. But in a long and demanding season, winning 37-34 in overtime will prove much more valuable.
It started early. Auburn had the ball at the Syracuse 26 on its first possession when quarterback Daniel Cobb and tailback Carnell Williams ran together. The ball popped loose, and just like that, Syracuse had the ball at the Auburn 17. You know the rest--an 85-yard punt return, a 68-yard touchdown run, a pass thrown wildly over the head of a wide-open receiver in the end zone.
It all resulted in a 17-0 deficit, 17-3 at halftime. The strange and the bizarre continued into the second half and even into overtime. With the game all but over, an Auburn defensive tackle was called for roughing the passer for a shove that didn't even knock the quarterback down. To make it worse, it was tacked on to the end of a pass play that was called a completion when the receiver clearly caught the ball on the bounce. Moments later, an apparent interception was ruled out of bounds.
Through it all, the Tigers persevered.
Sophomore quarterback Jason Campbell was ready when his time came and brought his team marching from behind, making the kinds of plays that made him one of the nation's top quarterbacks prospects when he was at Taylorsville (Miss.) High School. Sophomore tailback Carnell "Cadillac" Williams once again put his heart on display for all to see, running 40 times for 202 yards. If there's a better back in America I haven't seen him.
The offensive line got better and stronger as the game wore on, taking control when it mattered most. The defense shut Syracuse down for most of the second half, rattling quarterback R.J. Anderson into three interceptions.
Carnell Williams set a personal record with hyis 202 rushing yards.
Finally, in the third overtime, Williams made a spectacular eight-yard run and it was over. Syracuse is not a great team, but it is a good team. Much has been made of its defense being ranked No. 114 in the country, but it will not be close to No. 114 when it's all said and done. That really doesn't matter anyway. The Orangemen came to win and played with great heart and determination. What matters most is that Auburn matched that heart and determination and got it done when the pressure was heavy in the air.
Campbell's second-half performance raised the predictable question. Who will start at quarterback when Arkansas comes calling on Oct. 12? Campbell got his chance because Cobb suffered a sprained ankle. We'll never know if Cobb would have done the same thing. My guess--and it's just a guess--is that Cobb will be back under center against Arkansas, but that the leash might be a bit shorter.
Cobb struggled in the first quarter against Mississippi State and for the entire first half against Syracuse. In many of the games to come, that might prove too much to overcome. Having seen Campbell have success under pressure, offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino might to be willing to make a switch quicker in the future than in the past.
The race for the SEC West Division championship has barely begun, but it's probably already down to two, at most three, teams.
Alabama is no factor because it's ineligible. Mississippi State is no factor because it's no good. Ole Miss can't play enough defense to be a real threat. Unless Alabama is just on a different level than the rest of the division, Arkansas was exposed in a 30-13 loss at home on Saturday night.
That leaves Auburn and LSU as the favorites. Arkansas could still get into the picture if it can upset the troubled Tennessee Vols in Knoxville next weekend. A 6-2 record will probably be good enough to get it done.
Until next time...