Marshall Column: Tigers vs. Tide, SEC Picks

Columnist Phillip Marshall gives his pick on the Iron Bowl and other SEC football games.

My friend Clyde Bolton, a talented columnist for The Birmingham News before he retired, came up with one of my favorite lines about the Auburn-Alabama series.

"If you throw the record book out the window," Bolton wrote, "you'll just lose your record book."

The point he was making was that the idea that records don't matter in the Iron Bowl really doesn't hold water. The favorite wins the vast majority of the time. And many of the upsets turn out not to be upsets at all in retrospect. In Auburn's current five-game winning streak in the series, it was an underdog only in 2002. And looking back, Auburn won 17-7 at Bryant-Denny Stadium that season mainly because it had the better team.

In the last 50 years, the outcomes of only four Iron Bowls--1972, 1984, 2001 and 2002--have been significant upsets. Auburn won 17-16 in 1972 and won in 2002 despite missing its top three tailbacks. Alabama teams with losing records won 17-15 in 1984 and 31-7 in 2001.

No. 25 Auburn (7-4, 4-3) will go into Saturday's game at Jordan-Hare Stadium as a one-touchdown favorite over Alabama (6-5, 4-3). Auburn is favored because it is playing at home, because it has been slightly more impressive over the course of the season and because Alabama suffered one of the most embarrassing losses in its history last Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe.

But we might not know until we look back on the season who really has the stronger team.

Alabama, clearly, is more explosive on offense. Auburn, just as clearly, is significantly stronger on defense. Special teams are probably a push, especially since dynamic Alabama kick returned Javier Arenas is out with a high ankle sprain.

Neither team has any momentum to speak of. Alabama has lost three straight. Auburn, in its last game on Nov. 10, collapsed in the second half and fell 45-20 at Georgia. Both teams have flaws. It could be a harrowingly close game or either team could win by a comfortable margin.

In other words, there's no good way to predict who will win this game. But predict I must.

Despite changes over the years in the way the game is played, one truth has always remained: The team that is stronger on the line of scrimmage usually wins. I believe Auburn's offensive line is better than Alabama's defensive line and that Auburn's defensive line is better than Alabama's offensive line.

And that's why I say Auburn wins a school-record sixth straight Iron Bowl.

Auburn 20, Alabama 14.

Only Alabama's loss to Louisiana-Monroe kept your fearless picker from a perfect record last week. The record was 5-1. For the season, the record is 60-23.

This weekend's SEC games start today with Ole Miss at Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl and Arkansas at LSU.

OLE MISS (3-8, 0-7) at MISS. STATE (6-5, 3-4): Ole Miss needs to win to avoid the embarrassment of finishing 0-8 to go along with the embarrassment that 20 players who were caught stealing items from hotels will be allowed to play. Mississippi State needs to win to assure itself a bowl bid.

Ole Miss has thrown scares into some good teams at home, but it hasn't lost an SEC game by less than two touchdowns on the road. No reason to break that trend now. Mississippi State 27, Ole Miss 13.

ARKANSAS (7-4, 3-4) at LSU (10-1, 6-1): Arkansas has made a nice comeback from an 0-3 start to SEC play. LSU is ranked No. 1, has clinched the West Division championship and is trying to move a step closer to playing for the national championship.

Arkansas, with tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, is a threat to put big offensive numbers against anybody. But the Razorbacks have given up 34 or more points in five of seven SEC games. That kind of defense isn't going to beat LSU at Tiger Stadium, even in a dreaded daytime game. LSU 38, Arkansas 24.

FLORIDA STATE (7-4) at FLORIDA (7-3): The Seminoles have gotten steadily better over the course of the season. Florida has lots of talent, the possible Heisman Trophy winner in Tim Tebow and has still lost three games.

Make it four in this week's Upset Special. Florida State 23, Florida 21.

GEORGIA TECH (7-4) at GEORGIA (9-2): Georgia might be playing better than anybody in the SEC. Georgia Tech is probably playing out the string for coach Chan Gailey. Georgia 34, Georgia Tech 17.

TENNESSEE (8-3, 5-2) at KENTUCKY (7-4, 3-4): Tennessee seemed dead in the water five weeks ago. The Vols had just lost 41-17 at Alabama. Earlier, they'd lost 59-20 at Florida. But, amazingly, if they win Saturday, they'll play in the SEC Championship Game.

The football gods have smiled on the Vols. They beat both South Carolina and Vanderbilt because of missed field goals--in overtime by South Carolina and as time expired by Vanderbilt. But by hook or crook, they've gotten it done.

Six weeks ago, Kentucky stunned LSU. The Wildcats suddenly found themselves ranked in the Top 10. The Wildcats have gone 1-3 since then. And they haven't beaten Tennessee since 1984. That's a bad combination.

Tennessee becomes the most unlikely SEC Championship Game participant since the game's inception in 1992. Tennessee 28, Kentucky 24.

SOUTH CAROLINA (6-5) at CLEMSON (8-3): Like Kentucky, South Carolina was in the Top 10 not long ago. But the Gamecocks have lost five straight and are in danger of not even going to a bowl. Clemson is coming off a heartbreaking loss to Boston College that took away a possible to the ACC Championship Game.

But the Tigers are the stronger team and they are playing at home. Clemson 31, South Carolina 28.

WAKE FOREST (7-4) at VANDERBILT (5-6): The Commodores have one more chance to get bowl eligible, though it might still be enough to get them into a bowl. They came so close against Georgia and against Tennessee.

Something tells me they are going to get hump this time. Vanderbilt 24, Wake Forest 21.

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