Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Is Auburn really back?

AUBURN -- Greetings from the media work room here at the Athletics Complex.
Not that one misses much by not being here. There's steady beat-writer banter, some that fans would find amusing and some that fans might not find so amusing.
Hey, we're a bunch of cynical reporters, some more so than others. What can I say?
There's also the occasional walk-through of coaches, players and staff. Grad assistant and former Auburn safety Travaris Robinson came through to nuke his lunch a little while ago, and wide receiver Prechae Rodriguez popped in for a snack-machine stop.
All that's said in this room is off record. Believe me. It's better that way.
On to things you really care about, I've sat here today pondering whether to believe that Auburn's current three-game winning streak is truly the sign of a season back on track or just a respite between disappointments.
The Tigers have certainly looked impressive. The offense, in particular, has gone from porous to potent. This thanks to three freshman linemen bringing energy, running back Brad Lester returning from suspension, Montez Billings boosting the receiver corps and quarterback Brandon Cox returning to form.
These factors and the improvement of running backs Ben Tate and Mario Fannin have allowed offensive coordinator Al Borges to throw more of the playbook at Auburn opponents, and it's starting to look more like a Borges offense again.
Auburn scored on its first three possessions against Vandy on Saturday, doing so for the first time since the 2005 Iron Bowl. Auburn had the SEC's best offense in 2005.
But just when it seems Auburn got going, injuries have begun to mount. On defense, All-SEC end Quentin Groves, middle linebacker Tray Blackmon, will linebacker Merrill Johnson and safety Aairon Savage, all starters, are less than 100 percent at best. On offense, starting center Jason Bosley has a sprained knee and is not likely to play Saturday at Arkansas.
Bosley's injury could be a shock to the continuity that Auburn's offense had begun to form. Injuries on defense come as Auburn has set to play the SEC's top-ranked offense and the nation's No. 2 rushing offense.
It's one thing for Groves, Blackmon, Johnson and Savage to sit out against Vanderbilt. It's another thing for them to chase Arkansas' Darren McFadden and Felix Jones with bad wheels and wings.
There's no doubt that Auburn is playing far better than it played in losses to South Florida and Mississippi State, but, to borrow a NASCAR term, injuries can act as restrictor plates on progress ... if not brakes.
Players may suit up and play on Saturdays, but not at 100 percent. The unseen factor is missed practice time, which stunts season-long development.
There's already enough parity in college football such that one key player injured can make a major difference on most Saturdays. Auburn has several.
If injuries continue to keep players out of practice, then Auburn's resurgence could run out of gas before Auburn runs out of games.
The Tigers still control their destiny in the SEC West Division, but they face consecutive road games at Arkansas and No. 1 LSU. It'll be interesting to see how things look two weeks from now.

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