Highs And Lows Of 2002 Auburn Football

Columnist Phillip Marshall analyzes Auburn's 12 regular season football games.

It's been three months almost to the day since Auburn went to Southern California to open its season. It's over now, except for a bowl game. To say the least, it's been interesting. It's been a good year for the Tigers, but it was oh so close to being a great one.

The high point, of course, came a week ago in a 17-7 victory over Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Few of us gave a team down to its fourth tailback and a converted tight end at fullback much of a chance, but the Tigers didn't listen. They went to Bryant-Denny Stadium with confidence and determination. They didn't just win. They dominated the game.

The low point? From an emotional standpoint, it would have to be the 24-21 loss to Georgia on David Greene's Hail Mary touchdown pass to Michael Johnson with 1:25 left. Close behind would be the 30-23 overtime loss at Florida when Damon Duval couldn't execute a 23-yard field goal with 20 seconds left that would have completed one of the great comebacks in Auburn history.

From a performance standpoint, Arkansas stands alone. The Razorbacks came to Jordan-Hare Stadium and won 38-17 in what surely must rank as one of the more puzzling games in the SEC this season. The 24-17 loss at Southern California was disappointing, as all close losses are. No one will ever know what would have happened if Robert Johnson had not dropped a pass that seemed surely destined for a touchdown that would have given Auburn the lead. As it turned out, Auburn might have played the best team that night it played all season.

Those who play and those who coach will always look at this season as one that was on the verge of greatness. Auburn should have beaten Florida and Georgia. Beating just one of them would have meant a spot in the SEC Championship Game. In the end, an 8-4 record is about as good as most people expected (I predicted 9-3).

Any football coach will tell you that improving as the season goes along is the No. 1 goal. Auburn was certainly much better at the end than it was at the beginning. The offensive line grew up as the season went along. Just as importantly, players like Demarco McNeil, Spencer Johnson and Dontarrious Thomas got healthier than they were at the midway point.

There can be little argument that head coach Tommy Tuberville made a couple of terrific choices in hiring coordinators Bobby Petrino and Gene Chizik. There were growing pains in new schemes, but all it takes to know what these two guys accomplished is to look back at the win over Alabama. Petrino was masterful in developing quarterback Jason Campbell, who now seems on his way to stardom. The offense overcame the loss of perhaps the two top tailbacks in the SEC and kept right on going. Chizik overcame injuries and lack of depth on the defensive line, particularly at end. Since the loss to Arkansas, Auburn's defense has been as consistent as any in the SEC.

The future seems bright. Auburn should be a serious championship contender next season. The schedule that includes games at home against USC, Tennessee and Alabama and road games at Georgia Tech, LSU and Georgia will be exceedingly difficult. Let's take a look at some of the best of this Auburn season:

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Tailback Ronnie Brown. Brown probably won't be the starter next season when Carnell Williams returns from his broken leg, but had he not been ready to take the challenge the record would be substantially worse than 8-4.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Linebacker Karlos Dansby. Playing linebacker for the first time, Dansby was perhaps the top playmaker in the SEC. His play against Alabama when he forced quarterback Tyler Watts to pitch, then went and tackled the ballcarrier was the most spectacular defensive play I saw all season.

BEST GAME: It would have to be the victory over Alabama because of the circumstances caused by injuries on offense. Honorable mention goes to the 31-7 rout of LSU at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

BEST ATTITUDE: Quarterback Daniel Cobb. In his sixth season, Cobb wanted desperately to go out on top. He was booed by his own fans and lost the starting job to Jason Campbell. Instead of pouting, he did all he could to help Campbell and support his teammates.

BEST DECISION: Montae Pitts returning to the football team after saying he was leaving to pursue a career as a rap musician. Said his high school coach in Loachapoka: "I hope he goes back to football. I've heard him sing."

BEST COACHING JOB: The entire staff gets this one for getting the team ready for another all-out effort against Alabama after the devastating loss to Georgia.

BEST TRUE FRESHMAN: I'd say offensive tackle Marcus McNeill, who is going to make many millions in the NFL one day. Tailback Tre Smith, wide receiver Devin Aromashodu and nose tackle T.J. Jackson weren't far behind.

TOUGHEST GUY: I'd call it a tie between fullback Brandon Johnson and middle linebacker Mark Brown. Johnson, once he got comfortable with the offense, was knocking people silly before suffering a high ankle sprain against Georgia. Brown was the epitome of what a middle linebacker should be.

MOST IMPROVED: Defensive end Bret Eddins gets this nod. At a position where it was desperately needed, he was a tough and consistent player by the end of the season.

All that remains for this season now is a bowl game. Just what bowl that will be is still uncertain. The most likely Auburn destinations are the Capital One Bowl, Outback Bowl or Cotton Bowl, not necessarily in that order. But what happens this weekend and in the SEC Championship Game could change that. Regardless of what happens, Auburn's seniors can leave proudly. They vowed to make amends for the late-season swoon of a year ago, and they did.

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