Instant Analysis: Florida-Auburn

Staff Columnist
Posted Oct 15, 2006

There was a school of thought which said that Auburn needed to throw in order to have a chance against Florida. But with a little help from Florida punter Eric Wilbur, all the Tigers needed was their customarily strong running game. It returned just in time, and as a result, the teetering Tigers balanced the beam and saved their season.

It was a very bizarre night in rural Alabama that appropriately concluded a very bizarre day in the college football world. On a Saturday when no top team other than Ohio State seemed interested in winning with any air of decisiveness, Florida and Auburn tried to hand each other a victory on the Plains. In the end, Florida gave the greater gifts, and the Gators drowned due to a severe case of Leakage by their starting quarterback.

In one of the few highly-touted games of this 2006 season that actually went down to the wire (but which, like the other hyped affairs, was played very poorly), the actions of the principals in the game's latter stages naturally defined the event. It is therefore obvious that since crunch-time performances make or break reputations, the final minutes of this game put a big dent--though not a fatal blow--into the profile of Chris Leak. Auburn didn't exactly thrive or excel under pressure, but Leak surely wilted. Yes, it should be said--quite forcefully, in fact--that Leak could get another shot at Tommy Tuberville's team in Atlanta, and ultimately redeem his Florida career. For that reason, this game lacks the finality it would have had in the years (1991 and earlier) when the SEC had no split-division format and conference title game. But on one night--in one confrontation with Old Demon Pressure--Florida's much-admired and stately senior leader didn't deliver the goods. Emotional shoutdowns of a fine human being have no place in a postgame postmortem, but the plain facts of the matter can't hide the painful truth that Leak lost this game more than Auburn won it. That's a somewhat subjective statement, but it's backed by more than a little objective truth.

Simply stated, Leak had already gotten away with a bad pass that Auburn's David Irons had clang off his stony mitts. Simply stated, Leak's late fumble--while returned near the Auburn 40--was committed inside the Tiger red zone. Had Leak not lost control of the pigskin, Florida had a chip-shot field goal for the lead. And after Tiger kicker John Vaughn--another player who couldn't handle the nerves on this night of shaky football--missed an important kick with just over three minutes remaining, Leak--for all his mistakes--was offered yet another chance at redemption. It was the kind of chance--namely, a third or fourth one--that rarely comes one's way in games as big as this one. Leak, though, immediately biffed this chance with a horribly underthrown ball that had precious little to do with anything Auburn did right (except catch the ball). After two and a half quarters of mistake-free ball and solid game management, Leak lost his winning edge precisely when the going got tough. That's the kind of performance that makes Leak the Alex Rodriguez of college football in an on-field sense: great numbers, but no key plays in the biggest moments of the biggest games. Yes, he'll very likely get a shot at ultimate redemption before this season's through, but for now, the monkey on Chris Leak's back just got a little bigger.

As for Auburn, this win--while not artistic, imposing or overwhelming by any means--was huge and, moreover, impressive for the simple fact that it was actually achieved. No one in Auburn should care how elegant the proceedings were in Jordan-Hare Stadium. And after a week of massive self-doubt among gloom-and-doom Tiger fans, chances are Auburn people will stop thinking the worst about their limited but quite gallant football team, which--lookee here--still has a very good chance to win the SEC West. Arkansas--the current West leader--must win as an underdog against Tennessee or LSU (while also surviving a road trip to Steve Spurrier's house in Columbia) in order to fend off a one-loss Auburn team for the Western division crown. As long as Tommy Tuberville's team can stay the course and win the Iron Bowl (likely its toughest remaining game on the schedule), the Tigers will find themselves in good shape at season's end.

Auburn is likely to steady the ship in the remaining weeks of the season, because the energy and passion in the running game--so absent from the equation against Arkansas--returned in a big way against the Gators. Facing a Florida defensive front that smothered every other rushing attack it had encountered, Auburn's offensive line blew open big holes for Brad Lester and especially Kenny Irons, who largely rediscovered the finishing kick and bucking-bronco bursts that eluded him against the Razorbacks. The ground game was so good that it thrived on a night when Auburn's passing game fared poorly. In every red zone situation save one (when tight end Tommy Trott fumbled at the Florida 4), Brandon Cox had no answers. Whether it was taking bad sacks, having balls tipped, or making nervous throws, Cox and the Auburn air attack were a near-disaster throughout the night... even though the running game was firing on all cylinders. The only redeeming element of Cox's performance was the simple fact that he avoided the huge and paralyzing mistakes Leak made in the fourth quarter. In the immediate aftermath of this contest, it's hard to determine which reality is more amazing: the fact that Auburn ran so well when its passing game stunk, or that the Tigers' passing game was so awful even when its ground game fared so favorably. At any rate, Auburn found the energy and intensity that--if sustained in future games--should be enough to win in an SEC that has not yet showcased a well-played football game in 2006... not at the highest levels, anyway.

But who cares about style points? They don't matter (despite what certain CBS studio hosts might say about the matter). Winning ballgames is the only thing, and Auburn--for all its limitations--won a game that easily could have gone Florida's way. If you ask Tommy Tuberville how many ugly wins he'd like to have over the remainder of the season, he'd probably tell you something on the order of, "in every game we play... including a date in Atlanta against the SEC East champion." And if Auburn does indeed play that extra game in December, the ugly nature of this win over Florida won't be remembered. What will stick in the collective memory is the thought that the 27-17 triumph over the Gators saved a season on the Plains.

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