Marshall: Can AU Overcome Offensive Issues?

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the Auburn football Tigers.

For a football player or coach, for any competitive athlete, few things are as maddening as losing a game that you know in your heart you should have won.

Auburn should have beaten South Florida last Saturday. Without five turnovers, chances are it would have been a big day for the offense and a relatively one-sided victory. But Auburn turned it over, South Florida didn't turn it over and, because of that, South Florida deserved to win. On another day, it probably would have been different. But only in golf can you take a mulligan.

That game is in the books. It was a great day for South Florida and an unhappy day for Auburn. All sorts of questions have been raised about the play of quarterback Brandon Cox, about Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville's decision to let the final 20 seconds tick away in regulation play, about play-calling and various other things.

But nothing really matters now except where Auburn's football team goes from here. And I have no idea what the answer is to that question.

If the offense comes around and establishes some consistency, there is still an opportunity for this team to do good things. If it doesn't, it's going to be a long and disappointing season. The defense is good, very good. The performance in the second half, against almost impossible odds, was remarkable. But the defense isn't good enough to carry this team.

The offense clearly has issues. Can they be solved in time to keep a season from going into a nosedive? That's the question of the month.

No matter how much progress is made, winning in Baton Rouge or Gainesville will be very, very difficult. But there is no other game on the schedule that Auburn couldn't win. On the flip side, there are only a couple of games that Auburn couldn't lose.

Don't think for a second that Saturday's game against Mississippi State is a foregone conclusion. It isn't. The Bulldogs will visit Jordan-Hare Stadium believing they can win. For whatever reason, Auburn has not played well at home in early games. Crowds are usually smallish and pretty much devoid of energy. That's why coaches love early games on the road and love night games at home.

Auburn should win. But that doesn't mean Auburn will win. A repeat of last Saturday's performance would probably bring a repeat of last Saturday's results. South Florida might be better than Mississippi State, but I don't think it's a lot better.

This season has the look of one that is going to be stressful for Auburn supporters, regardless of how it ends up. This Auburn team is not going to suddenly start blowing other teams out.

The loss to South Florida and the struggle against Kansas State in the opener have spawned some hysteria in some quarters, some of it no doubt fueled by the endless hype surrounding Nick Saban's first season at Alabama. It seems a little early to be in panic mode.

This season could still be good. It could be ordinary. It could be bad. But whatever happens, the program will continue on the course Tuberville set when he arrived in November 1998. The future, frankly, looks brighter than the present. There are a lot of players with championship-level talent in the lower classes. Many of them are playing now. Their days will come.

In the SEC, tough times come sooner or later for everyone. LSU was 8-5 in 2002, was blown out by both Auburn and Alabama, and won the national championship a year later. Auburn was 8-5 in 2003 and went 13-0 in 2004. Georgia won SEC championships in 2002 and 2005, but the Bulldogs lost four games last season and have lost five straight to East Division opponents. They couldn't score a touchdown in losing to South Carolina last Saturday. LSU and Florida have it rolling right now, but their times of disappointment will come again, too.

It's easy to see where Auburn's program has been under Tuberville and where it is going. The Tigers have won big before and there is every reason to believe they will win big again.

It's not so easy to see where the 2007 team is headed. Is it up? Is it down? We'll find out over the next three months.

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