Suddenly, Auburn may be the team to beat

Originally Published: September 20, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Auburn junior offensive tackle Marcus McNeill sounded a little Zen-like, especially after an afternoon that was anything but non-violent. "It wasn't us against them," McNeill said of the Tigers' fourth-quarter, game-winning drive against LSU. "It was us against ourselves."

Auburn's 10-9 victory over the defending national champions was the first of four games that re-ordered the Southeastern Conference race Saturday. Alabama, which began the season as a long shot in the West Division because of its youth and lack of depth, lost the one player it could least afford to lose when quarterback Brodie Croyle blew out his right ACL in an otherwise methodical 52-0 defeat of I-AA Western Carolina.

Jason Campbell
A strong running game should afford Jason Campbell with opportunities for big plays.
In the East, Tennessee's 30-28 comeback victory over Florida has given the Volunteers center stage in the audition to supplant two-time division champion Georgia. Quarterback Erik Ainge led the Volunteers to 16 fourth-quarter points, including a five-play, 28-yard drive in the final 43 seconds that led to James Wilhoit's 50-yard field goal.

The redemption of Wilhoit, who flat missed an extra point with 3:25 to play that left Tennessee behind by a point, is an irresistible storyline. So, too, is the officials' error in failing to start the clock after a penalty on Florida with 55 seconds to play. Had the clock been started, Wilhoit probably wouldn't have had time to be redeemed.

However, whether he came by the time legitimately or not, Ainge's football imitation of his Uncle Danny's drive through the Notre Dame defense for the buzzer-beating layup that gave BYU an NCAA tournament victory in 1981 shouldn't be missed.

Ainge pulled ahead of Brent Schaeffer in the Tennessee quarterback derby, and Ainge now has played two games without looking like a freshman. The fact remains, however, that he will make his road debut at No. 3 Georgia on Oct. 9 with the lead in the SEC East at stake. The week before that game, Ainge and Tennessee will have to play Auburn, which rose from No. 15 to No. 10 in the coaches' poll, and from 14th to ninth in the AP voting.

The coaches jumped Tennessee from 13th all the way to eighth, while the AP voters moved the Vols only to 11th.

The way that the Tigers defeated the defending co-national champion Saturday, the Auburn-Tennessee game has overtaken the LSU-Georgia game as the SEC game to watch on Oct. 2. Auburn has come a long way from a year ago, when the Tigers began the season in the top five, then lost their first two games to USC and Georgia Tech and finished 8-5.

Against LSU, Auburn trailed the entire game, but came back to drive 61 yards for the winning touchdown with 1:14 to play.

"Even though we weren't scoring," McNeill said, "we never felt like there was a time we couldn't get there. Last year, when we were down, everybody's heads were hanging. It's hard to rebound from stuff like that. This year, there's a whole new attitude."

No one exemplifies that attitude better than quarterback Jason Campbell, who has been tolerated more than loved while making 27 starts over the last three seasons.

After the game, Campbell brought up losing to Georgia when the Bulldogs scored on a fourth-and-15 in the final seconds to win 24-21 in 2002, the 30-23 overtime loss at Florida that season, and the 24-20 loss to Ole Miss last season, when Ben Obomanu dropped Campbell's game-winning touchdown pass with 37 seconds to play.

"This says a lot about my character, about how much my teammates believe in me," Campbell said. "The coaching staff believes in me a lot. The team finally got over that hump. To finally be on the opposite side of it means a lot. ... It's been pretty hard. I was getting criticized for things I wasn't in any control of. I was trying to do what the coaches asked of me."

The biggest change in Campbell is his relationship with offensive coordinator Al Borges, the fourth man to hold that job in Campbell's career. Coach Tommy Tuberville fired Noel Mazzone. His replacement, Bobby Petrino, is the head coach at Louisville (who breached coaching protocol by trying to sabotage Tuberville at the end of last season, but that's another story). Hugh Nall, promoted from offensive line coach, is back to coaching to line.

"Coach Borges came in, and we sat down and talked. By the second or third week in the spring, he was listening to me," Campbell said. "He wants what's best for me. He wants to put me in position to make a play. He's a player's coach."

The victory, combined with the season-ending injury to Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle, made Auburn the team to beat in the SEC West. Arkansas must come to Jordan-Hare Stadium. LSU must hope at least two conference teams beat Auburn. The one-point margin may have been small, but suddenly Auburn's lead is not.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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