A Step Forward For Auburn Football

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the 2002 Auburn football Tigers, the Capital One Bowl Game and the future of AU football.

Orlando, Fla.--In more than 33 years of covering college football, I've never seen anything like it. I've seen players display anger and disappointment after their teams lost, but I've never seen a player act with such total lack of graciousness as did Penn State tailback Larry Johnson after Auburn's 13-9 victory in the Capital One Bowl.

He had little good to say about the Auburn defense that held him to 72 yards rushing on 20 carries, not one good word to say about Auburn tailback Ronnie Brown, who gained 184 yards on 37 carries. For Johnson, who finished the season with 2,087 rushing yards, it was all about him. How dare his coaches not give him the ball more than 20 times? It was a sad display from a player who clearly thinks of himself more than he thinks of his team.

Johnson isn't the first All-American to be shut down in a bowl game. What happened on the field didn't make him look nearly as bad as what happened after the game. The worst time to trash an opponent is when you've just had your tail kicked, but even though he's a coach's son, Johnson failed to learn that lesson somewhere along the way.

The truth is Auburn had the best tailback on the field Wednesday. Ronnie Brown finished off a storybook season with a magnificent performance. As the Tigers drove toward the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter, Penn State had no answer for him. He finished it off with a 17-yard run, hurdling the final defender and going over 1,000 yards for the season.

Ronnie Brown scores his second touchdown vs. Penn State.

For Brown to finish with 1,008 yards despite spending most of the first seven games on the bench and missing the season finale against Alabama with a sprained ankle is every bit as impressive as Johnson's 2,000-yard season. The only back I saw this season that was Brown's equal was the one that was in street clothes on the Auburn sideline--Carnell Williams.

As Auburn defensive players watched tape in the weeks leading up to Wednesday's game, they saw the truth. Johnson was a good back, not a great one. More than 1,200 of his yards came in games against teams ranked 98th or worse against the run. They reacted with derision to Johnson's childish postgame tirade. "Personally, I think he's a frontrunner," Auburn defensive tackle DeMarco McNeil said. "When the close games came around--like the three games they lost--he didn't have much success running the ball. The only time he really ran the ball was when they were up 20-30 points. I think he's a frontrunner running back. He definitely wasn't the best running back on the field today."

McNeil said he wasn't surprised he and his teammates were able to stop Johnson. He would have been surprised if they had not been able to. "If you are a Heisman Trophy candidate and you have to wait until your senior year to get much playing time, something wasn't right your first three years," McNeil said. "He's a great running back, but I don't think he's Heisman material."

Safety Junior Rosegreen said neither Johnson nor his teammates could handle what Auburn brought to the game. "They don't have any class about themselves," Rosegreen said. "They were too cocky. They were arrogant. After we won the game, they didn't want to shake our hands. Well, we won the game. That's all that matters."

The Tigers wrote a happy ending to a happy season. Oh, it could have been better. It could have been Auburn playing Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on Wednesday night. But in the end, it was a large step forward for the program that head coach Tommy Tuberville is building.

Auburn will be among the favorites in the Southeastern Conference next season. It should start the season with a nice national ranking. There are, of course, holes to be filled, but impact players return at almost every position. With Brown, Williams, Tre Smith and junior college transfer Brandon Jacobs at tailback, it's hard to imagine any team having better runners.

Less than three months ago, in the wake of an ugly loss to Arkansas, Tuberville was being widely criticized. In the weeks ahead, he will sign a new contract that assures he will be Auburn's coach well into the future. That's as it should be. Since arriving in late 1998 to take over a dispirited and talent-depleted program he has had two nine-win seasons, won or shared the SEC West three times, played in the SEC Championship Game, in three straight bowl games and in two New Year's Day bowls. He and his staff have patiently rebuilt the talent base.

Does that mean Auburn will win an SEC championship next season? Not necessarily. There are other teams with plentiful talent. The champion will be the team that keeps the right players healthy and wins the close games, the ones that are often decided by the bounce of the ball. But those are concerns for the future. The first day of 2003 was a happy one indeed for Auburn's football team.

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