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Phillip's blog: Harrowing ride

Auburn will have championship talent on its 2011 football team. It will not have championship experience. And history tells us one is as important as the other.

Senior Editor Phillip Marshall

Hang around any college football team and you’ll see a physical and mental metamorphosis for players who play out their careers. With each passing year, they are bigger, faster, stronger and more mature. That’s the natural order things for young men moving from their late teens to their early 20s.

Jason Campbell was a great quarterback as a fifth-year senior. He wasn’t great as redshirt freshman. Lee Ziemba and Ryan Pugh were average SEC offensive linemen as true freshmen. They were great ones as seniors.

It takes longer for some than it does for others. Nick Fairley was an average defensive tackle in 2009, his first season at Auburn. He was the best in the nation in 2011. Does anyone believe middle linebacker Josh Bynes was as good as a true freshman in 2008 as he was a senior in 2011? Zach Clayton? Mike Blanc?

That’s why it’s impossible to make a well-informed prediction of how the Tigers of 2011 will fare. They will have freshmen and redshirt freshmen all over the place, if not in the starting lineup, dominating the second teams. All it will take is a few injuries, and many of those freshmen will be called on to play more snaps against stronger, more mature players.

And then there is the big, mean bear in the room. Auburn, with seven games against nationally ranked teams, four of them on the road, might play the toughest SEC schedule ever. Throw in a road game at Clemson, and it’s even tougher.

The national champions of 2010 came from 13 points or more behind a remarkable four times. Along with the Heisman Trophy winner and Lombardi Award winner, that team had 24 seniors who had been through good times and bad. They had been tempered by adversity. More than half the players on the 2011 Auburn football team have yet to experience their first college loss.

The rational expectation for this team, assuming it stays relatively healthy, is that it improves week after week.

There’s not a game the 2011 Tigers can’t win. But there are at least eight that they could lose as easily as they could win. If another team ever played four nationally ranked SEC teams on the road in the same season, I don’t remember it.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik and his staff have the Tigers well on the way to being an annual contender in the league and nationally. They may well be there in 2012. But first, they have to negotiate what could be a harrowing journey in 2011.

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