Football Fortunes Can Change Quickly

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the football Tigers' strong finish and preparations for a bowl trip to Orlando.

On Sunday, Auburn happily accepted a bid to play No. 10 Penn State in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando. Alabama athletic director Mal Moore searched for a new football coach. Auburn fans flocked to the Internet to buy tickets and make hotel reservations while Alabama fans wondered about the new coach and came up with yet more foul names to call departed coach Dennis Franchione.

Rewind now. Go back just under two months. On Oct. 12, Auburn had won four straight games and welcomed Arkansas to Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Razorbacks had lost a six-overtime heartbreaker at Tennessee the week before. The Tigers had enjoyed an open date. Arkansas won 38-17, bringing a firestorm of criticism of Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville. A week later, Auburn lost 30-23 in overtime at Florida. Tuberville's decision to fake a punt from his own eight-yard line in the second half got more attention than Auburn's remarkable fourth-quarter comeback that would have resulted in a victory had Damon Duval kicked a 23-yard field goal with 20 seconds left.

On the day Auburn lost to Florida, Alabama crushed Ole Miss 42-7 at Bryant-Denny Stadium and moved closer to the Top 10. Franchione was hailed as the savior of the Alabama program. Alabama fans chortled. Auburn fans fretted. That was seven weeks ago. In college football time, it might as well have been seven years.

Since that day, Auburn has won four out of five games, including a 17-7 victory over Alabama at Bryant-Denny, and earned a spot in the best bowl available outside the BCS. Tuberville is now the one hailed as a football savior. There is severe concern at Alabama that legal developments in Memphis could result in more NCAA problems and Franchione is gone to Texas A&M. Welcome to the strange world of college football, where things are seldom as bad as they seem and almost never as good as they seem.

Alabama fans, with their unique need to give their football coach such exalted status that virtually no one could live up to it, will quickly make whoever Moore hires the anointed one. Auburn, at least for now, can go quietly about the business of getting ready for a big bowl and a chance to make a statement on a national stage. The fun thing about such bowls is that they are big games without big-game pressure.

For Auburn, a win over Penn State would be nice. It would mean a nice national ranking at the end of this season and a high ranking to start next season. But that's about as far as it goes. There is little evidence that wins or losses in bowls have any real impact on what a team does the following season.

Georgia lost an embarrassing 20-16 decision to Boston College in the Music City Bowl last season and has lost just one time since. Alabama was blown out 38-7 by Virginia Tech in the 1998 Music City Bowl and won the SEC championship in 1999. Heck, Bear Bryant went eight years without winning a bowl game at Alabama.

I think Auburn has an excellent chance to beat the Nittany Lions, who might not be quite the team their record would indicate. The key, of course, will be stopping 2,000-yard rusher Larry Johnson. Win or lose in the bowl game, Auburn will be among the SEC favorites next season. Will that translate into a championship? It depends on injury luck, schedule luck and frequently just the bounce of the ball.

Alabama will be ineligible for the championship again next season but should still be a real factor in the race. The serious fallout from losing 21 scholarships will probably start to hit in 2004. That can't do anything but complicate Moore's search for a coach. Auburn and Alabama would seem to be programs marching in opposite directions, but that's just today. Tomorrow, everything could change. Ask Mal Moore.

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