AU, UF a tough call

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 17, 2002

Even before the 2002 college football season began, it did not take a Rhodes Scholar to deduct that this weekend's battle at "The Swamp" in Gainesville between Tommy Tuberville's Auburn Tigers and Ron Zook's Florida Gators would be an especially huge SEC showdown.

It was thought that both schools figured to be at or near the top of their respective divisions and many expected this year's battle to be highly competitive and entertaining much like last season's Tiger/Gator clash, which resulted in a magical 23-20 victory by the Tigers in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Well, this Saturday's battle in the fabled Florida playground has indeed shaped up as a critical game for both squads, but not for the reasons many had expected heading into this season.

Instead, this game has become a game of survival featuring two reeling teams, with the loser likely to bid adieu to their chances of claiming the league crown.

Auburn, of course, is coming off an ugly 38-17 loss on the Plains to an Arkansas Razorback team which gained nearly 450 yards rushing on the Tiger defense in the process.

The Tigers also looked shaky in the preceding game, taking three overtimes to defeat a mediocre Syracuse team 37-34, the same Orangemen team which fell to football dreg Temple this past weekend.

This weekend's game against a struggling Florida squad could serve as a pretty good indication of how the rest of the Tiger season will go, with games against LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama still remaining on the Auburn slate.

A big road win over a Gator squad which appears to be totally lacking in confidence right now would go a long way toward helping restore some of the Tigers' growl, but for this to happen, it may start with the Auburn offense finally deciding what type of identity it wishes to assume.

Much like last season, the Auburn offensive attack has regressed into an inconsistent unit, showing its true potential only in brief flashes.

Not surprisingly, the offensive woes for the Tigers have mainly revolved around inconsistent play from Auburn quarterbacks Daniel Cobb and Jason Campbell.

Heading into the season, Tuberville elected to go with Cobb, a senior, as the starter, a decision I questioned then and a decision that many are still questioning, as evidenced by the sea of boos raining down on Cobb throughout last weekend's Auburn meltdown against Arkansas.

Cobb, much like the Tiger offensive attack in general, can look brilliant on occasion, but unfortunately for Tuberville's team, those good moments are too often tainted by his poor decisions and lack of mobility.

To Cobb's credit, much of those poor decisions are made out of a desire to sometimes do too much, but still a fifth-year senior such as Cobb should be making better choices at this stage of his career.

Although I feel that Campbell, who has a stronger arm and much more mobility, should have been given the first opportunity to lead the Tigers, to be honest he has not proven to be much more effective or consistent during his stints on the field.

And while Auburn has not exactly clicked on all cylinders during the past couple of games, it is frankly shocking how anemic quarterback Rex Grossman of the Gators was during the last two weeks in ugly losses to Ole Miss and LSU.

This past weekend's 36-7 home loss to LSU showed just how far the once-mighty Gators have fallen under the direction of Zook, and Florida, no longer a Top 25 program, still has games against Georgia and Florida State left after this weekend's clash with the Tigers.

A combination of things have led to the Gators' fall, including the loss of ultra-successful former coach Steve Spurrier, lackluster recruiting over the past couple of seasons, an inconsistent running game and the struggles of Grossman, once thought to be a prime Heisman Trophy candidate.

With offenses for both schools struggling with inconsistency right now, the game at The Swamp this Saturday may come down to which defense can rise to the occasion and perhaps make some plays to pull the game out of the fire for its offense.

And if the game comes down to this,

and I am thinking it might, I would have to give a

slight, very precarious edge to the Tigers.

Stan J. Griffin is a reporter and columnist for The Andalusia Star-News.