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A whisper of doubt lingers from bowl

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A whisper of doubt lingers from bowl

Sunday, August 27, 2006

AUBURN -- Remember Orlando!

It's not terribly convincing as rallying cries go, but Auburn players, coaches and fans would do well to remember the meltdown in Orlando before making plans for a BCS bowl this season.

A Capital One Bowl lanyard swung from the neck of strength coach Kevin Yoxall for most of the summer to make sure players wouldn't forget. It's good advice.

The Tigers' uninspired performance in the Jan. 2 bowl game can't be explained away easily. Auburn's defense was dreadful, and the offense could manage only 10 points against underdog Wisconsin.

Even worse, the Tigers played with a lethargy that suggested the game wasn't particularly important.

And perhaps it wasn't. After all, preseason prognosticators have largely forgiven or forgotten the game, placing Auburn in the top 10 in virtually every poll.

There's certainly plenty of reason for optimism. Take away Auburn's season-opening loss to Georgia Tech and season-closing defeat to Wisconsin, and Auburn was nearly perfect in 2005.

The regular season ended with hard-fought victories over traditional rivals Georgia and Alabama, and only a freakish evening in Baton Rouge kept the Tigers from returning to Atlanta to defend their SEC title.

Much of that 2005 team is back. Quarterback Brandon Cox is so much more poised and so much more in control of the offense than he was at this point last year, it's almost impossible to make a comparison. Running back Kenny Irons, who oddly spent the first few games in the doghouse last year, is now the undisputed No. 1 back. The two skill-position players are surrounded by a veteran offensive line that any coach would envy.

But for all the optimism, there are still gnawing concerns, little whispers that perhaps the preseason expectations have outpaced reality. (See entries on the 2003 season, Nallsminger and Jetgate for more on the last time that happened.)

It's taken for granted that the defense should be better under hotshot coordinator Will Muschamp than it was under the oft-maligned David Gibbs. But so many of the questions from last year remain unresolved.

The secondary, if anything, is arguably less stable now that Will Herring has been moved to linebacker. Coaches seem confident in Eric Brock, but youngsters Aairon Savage and Tristan Davis will have to hold down one of the safety spots. The suspensions of Kevin Sears and Tray Blackmon, and an injury to Steve Gandy, make the linebacker spots equally precarious.

These aren't major holes, especially within the context of a 105-man roster. But top-10 teams deserve greater scrutiny, and that sometimes means the tiniest of flaws can be magnified.

Beyond the depth chart, Auburn must renew its attitude of invincibility it seemed to carry in 2004 and for much of 2005.

The opening loss to Georgia Tech can be explained away easily. (Cox struggled in his first start, had no run support and made a handful of silly mistakes.) The loss to Wisconsin is more troublesome, because the Tigers were so thoroughly outplayed. Top-10 teams sometimes lose, but they rarely lose that way.

The good news for the Tigers is that they can quickly vanquish feelings of inferiority. If Auburn makes it past the LSU game with a 3-0 record, the Tigers will be a legitimate part of the national-title picture.

And if they keep it up, the Tigers will be more concerned with Tempe or New Orleans than last year's trip to Orlando.

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