Marshall: Questions Remain For Tigers

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at the Auburn football Tigers as the Tigers begin preparations for game two.

Some will see it as a bumpy start that doesn't really say much about where this Auburn football team is headed.

Others will see it as a sign that this Auburn football team, particularly the offense, has problems that won't be fixed in a week, a month or even a season.

The truth is probably somewhere in between.

If Auburn goes on to have a successful season, the clutch drive to the winning touchdown in the waning minutes of a 23-13 victory over Kansas State will be one of the signature moments. No doubt about that. A loss to Kansas State, with another very difficult game ahead against South Florida and the well-documented Southeastern Conference schedule ahead, could have sent this season into a nosedive.

Instead, the Tigers lived to fight another day. A wise coach told me one time that you should never complain about a win, no matter how ugly and no matter who the opponent. There's a lot of truth to that. Auburn is 1-0 today, just as it would have been had it won by 40.

The question on everyone's mind who follows Auburn football is where it goes from here.

First, it should be pointed out that Kansas State is a good football team. It's not like Auburn had to come from behind to beat Louisiana-Monroe. The Wildcats have a good defense, a very talented quarterback and some speedy and shifty wide receivers. They'll make some noise in the Big 12.

There were lots of positives in the game for Auburn. Even with three starters sitting out the second half with injuries, the defense was as good as advertised. The kicking game was far better than most would have expected with a true freshman kicker and a redshirt freshman punter. In both areas, Auburn showed it can play at a championship level.

But on the first night of the 2007 season, the offense did not play at a championship level. Not even close. Senior quarterback Brandon Cox was shaky for most of the game, which had to be a disappointment to Auburn coaches. The rebuilt offensive line, with true freshman Lee Ziemba at right tackle and redshirt freshman Mike Berry at right guard, had problems. Most disappointing, no doubt, was that senior left tackle King Dunlap, the only returning fulltime starter and a preseason All-SEC selection, had the lowest grade of all.

Auburn couldn't run the ball consistently, had problems protecting Cox, was hit-or-miss in the passing game and failed to take advantage of some golden opportunities. Did I leave anything out?

If the offense doesn't improve, the Tigers will have little chance in road games against Florida, LSU, Arkansas and Georgia. But that's jumping way ahead. A repeat performance probably won't be good enough to beat South Florida on Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Far be it from me to say what offensive coordinator Al Borges should do. The stands and the message boards are full of experts, but I'm not one of them. I know beyond any doubt that every play Borges called was the one he thought had the best chance to succeed at the time.

It's obvious that Borges and his staff must figure out why, in the Cotton Bowl against Nebraska and last week against Kansas State, the Tigers could not cope with a defense that put eight or nine in the box and blitzed on almost every snap. It's not like that's a unique defense. Until they figure it out, they are going to see more of it. If they don't find a way to keep Cox from getting beat up, he's not going to finish the season. It doesn't take an expert to know that.

Auburn's offense was dynamic in 2004, Borges' first season as coordinator, finishing off most opponents in the first half en route to a 13-0 season. It led the SEC in total offense in 2005. It hasn't been the same since. Defense and kicking were the driving forces in last season's 11-2 record.

It's sobering to note that in eight of its last 16 games, Auburn has gained fewer than 300 yards total offense. In three of those games, it gained fewer than 200. In five games, the Tigers were held to a single offensive touchdown. Remarkably, they are 13-3 in those same 16 games.

What happened? For starters, Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown, Jason Campbell, Kenny Irons, Devin Aromashodu, Ben Obomanu, Anthony Mix, Courtney Taylor, Marcus McNeil and Ben Grubbs are playing in the NFL instead of at Auburn.

Against Kansas State, Auburn had three offensive linemen and a tailback who had never started a game. The wide receivers, particularly senior Prechae Rodriguez, played solidly. But there are no apparent game-changers, no one on the outside who causes defensive coordinators to lie awake at night.

The three most dangerous tailbacks on the team were watching. Brad Lester was suspended, Tristan Davis was on crutches with a broken toe and Mario Fannin didn't get into the game on offense because he wasn't up to speed on the blitz pickup schemes. That left all the running to Ben Tate and fullback Carl Stewart. Both are good football players. Neither is a home run threat.

Lester's status for the rest of the season is uncertain. Davis will be back after another two or three games. Fannin, one would assume, will at least get some touches Saturday night against South Florida.

When Auburn finally mounted the drive that won the game, Cox got in the shotgun and threw every down. It's to his credit that, when the game was on the line, he was the confident and poised senior he was expected to be.

This offense is not going to become a juggernaut overnight, but it certainly can be better than it was against Kansas State and will be better. How much better? The answer to that question will determine whether this Auburn team will be a championship contender or spend the holidays in some lovely locale like Shreveport, La.

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More copies of Phillip's book, "The Auburn Experience," have become available for purchase at a reduced price. An oversized coffee table book published in December 2004, the book features more than 300 slick pages of stories and photographs of many of Auburn's greatest traditions, teams, players and coaches in every sport. Originally selling for $69, it is available now for just $20, plus $5 shipping and handling. For orders of multiple books, there will be just one $5 charge for shipping and handling. Send check or money order made payable to Phillip Marshall to The Auburn Experience, P.O. Box 968, Auburn, AL 36831.

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