First true test faces both sets of Tigers

Weather permitting, LSU and Auburn will find out this weekend what they're really made of.

Originally Published: September 16, 2004
By Bill Curry | Special to ESPN.com

The bulletin on the Auburn Football program's web site states, " ... because of the potential for damaging winds and flooding, no RVs will be permitted to park anywhere on campus until further notice ... We urge fans not to come until we announce a final decision on whether the game will be played."

Tommy Tuberville
Auburn and Tommy Tuberville are worrying about the storm as much as they are LSU.
Imagine the conversations around Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium this week:

"This thing with Mother Nature is getting all out of hand! What in the name of Fob James is she thinking? First we find we miss out on GameDay. No Corso, so no Tiger head (one way or the other). No Herbstreit, so no shrieking co-eds. No Chris Fowler, so not a single witticism aimed at rude, disgruntled fanatics. Those guys are scared of a little wind? Shucks, and we thought they were tough."

Or:

"We don't need GameDay to make an Auburn football weekend, but how will we function without our RVs? An Auburn football game without RVs is like a day without ...well, it has just never happened, even in the days when RVs were mule drawn hay wagons!"

So, for the third week in succession the story of the biggest game of the week is not the game at all, but rather the latest monster storm. In the south, when Florida State-Miami, ESPN's College GameDay and the sacred Recreational Vehicles of the War Eagle faithful are all scuttled, we assume there is either an earthquake, a volcanic eruption or a civil war.

A little ol' storm? Shucks again! Auburn folks are tough and they have some getting even to take care of with those LSU guys. They got jumped on like a duck on a june bug last year in Baton Rouge and have not forgotten. Whupping the defending semi-national champs in some nasty weather, which LSU does not handle well, would be even more fun than if the weather were pretty. The vengeful denizens of UCLA -- in this case, the Upper Corner of Lower Alabama -- do not mind getting soaked in exchange for serious payback.

Bear in mind, folks, that there is nothing a Southerner loves more than football revenge. Unless it is his or her RV.

Two species of big cats

Into this volatile mix of hurricane, confusion, anger, vengefulness and RV angst, come two decidedly different species of Tigers.

On one hand we have the Bayou Bengals of LSU, the co-national champs of a year ago. They are a stable breed, led by the steady hand of Nick Saban, steeped in a system that has evolved with their talent base. They benefit from a consistency born of Saban's remarkable model for daily focus and growth. They have a supportive athletics director, a coaching staff that has been together five years and an administration that committed to the current regime long before success was apparent.

On the other hand is a band of Auburn Tigers, the preseason national champs a year ago. The players here are never sure who is at the helm. Coordinators have come and gone like shadows in the night. Their coach, Tommy Tuberville, is alternately lionized and vilified, depending on the most recent eruption from the board of trustees, who have leadership issues of their own. There is an interim president and a search for yet another athletics director.

The prevailing atmosphere for the Auburn species of big cats is one of constant turmoil, confusion about administrators and coaches and occasional wonder at midnight plane trips. Do not underestimate the capacity of today's student-athletes for deductive logic. If their administrators got caught once, how many flights went undetected?

How does one coach or play football in such circumstances? The answer last year was clear: not very well. This year? Weather permitting, we are about to find out.

Missing persons
Now that the game is on, it will serve as the first true test for either team, and do not mention Oregon State-LSU to me. The Beavers were exposed by Boise State and were the beneficiaries of some very large heads that had trouble fitting into yellow helmets two weeks ago in Baton Rouge.

Both teams will find out just how much they miss the awesome array of talent that departed after last season. Try to imagine the number of big plays, the quality of leadership and the sheer intimidation provided by the missing players:

Auburn lost linebackers Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas, defensive tackle DeMarco McNeil and defensive ends Reggie Torbor and Spencer Johnson. That group constituted 71 percent of Auburn's tackles and an incredible 78 percent of its sacks last year.

Most offensive weapons return, but if a defense cannot stop the run the offense will be on the bench a majority of the time. When things get rough, which they always do in football, will this group tank like the last one? Can the leadership handle the constant controversy swirling around the program enough to focus on the task at hand?

LSU is without quarterback Matt Mauck (100 percent of QB productivity in meaningful situations), wide receivers Michael Clayton (the best football player in the SEC the last three years) and Devery Henderson, defensive tackle Chad Lavalais (the most intimidating lineman in the SEC the last three years), free safety Jack Hunt and defensive end Marquise Hill. There is great talent on this LSU team but a shortage of leadership could kill it.

Both coaching staffs are extremely anxious about this game. Not because of the weather, not because of the uncertainty about game time, but because you never know how good you are in football until you play someone as talented as you are. Only then do the real Tigers surface.

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years in the college ranks. His Center Stage examinations of marquee matchups appear each week during the college football season.

Bill Curry

College Football
Former coach Bill Curry joined ESPN in 1997 as a college football game analyst. His primary assignment is the ESPN2 College Football Saturday Night telecast, along with selected bowl games. His knowledge and easy-going manner have translated quite effectively into the broadcast booth, where he's been well-received by fans and media alike.