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Phillip's blog: Tigers at the top, but can th

For the first time since the second week of the 1985 season, a quarter of a century ago, Auburn sits at the top of the college football world.

Phillip Marshall, Senior Editor,

This time, it’s not in the polls. After beating LSU 24-17 in a battle of unbeaten at Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Tigers are No. 3, according to the coaches and the Associated Press. But in the BCS standings, which decide who plays for a national championship, they are No. 1.

Really, Auburn should be No. 1 in polls, too, if those polls are based on accomplishment. The Tigers have four wins over teams currently ranked in the top 25. Wisconsin has two. No one else has more than one. But from ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit on down, those who talk about the game for a living change their own rules to fit what they want to do at the moment.

In 2004, Auburn had five wins over nationally ranked teams, but Herbstreit and others said playing the Citadel was too much to overcome. Now, since they’ve fallen in love with Boise State, they say strength of schedule shouldn’t matter. Hard to figure.

But that’s another story for another day. Coaches and players insist their focus is elsewhere, and it should be. So much remains to be done, starting with Saturday’s dangerous trip to Ole Miss. After all, nobody has stayed at the top for long in recent weeks.

Alabama was No. 1 across the board, coming off a romp past Florida, and lost on the road at South Carolina. Ohio State was No. 1 and lost on the road at Wisconsin. Oklahoma was No. 1 in the initial BCS standings and lost on the road at Missouri.

And now Auburn goes to play the Rebels, a team with talent and an explosive offense that could turn its season around with a victory.

If the Tigers win that one, they’ll have a break for homecoming against Chattanooga. Then they play at home against Georgia, as hot as any team in the league. Two weeks after that, they go to Bryant-Denny Stadium to play potentially one of the more significant Iron Bowls ever against Alabama.

Not even Auburn’s 2004 team, one of the more dominant college football teams in recent seasons, ever got to No. 1. That team, after a 10-9 victory over LSU, really never had another close game. This team is very different. Almost every game is close. Five times, these Tigers have been tied or trailed in the fourth quarter. And that is when they’ve been at their best, making plays on both sides of the ball to win every time.

The problem is that, if you live dangerously week after week, chances are that sooner or later the ball will bounce the wrong way and you will lose. It could happen Saturday. It could happen against Georgia. It could happen Alabama.

But it hasn’t happened yet, and it’s clear that Auburn’s players don’t expect it to happen.

Head coach Gene Chizik is the voice of caution. He says his team must continue to improve if it is to finish off a season for the ages. The defense, facing serious injury difficulties, must build on the dramatic progress it seemed to make against LSU. Punts and punt returns helped keep LSU in the game. Penalties are still an issue.

This team has a lot going for it, too. The offensive line might be the nation’s best. The running game that put up 440 yards on LSU, which still leads the SEC in total defense, could be the best in school history. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley has put himself squarely in contention for the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Award.

And then, of course, there is quarterback Cam Newton, whose meteoric rise has made him the biggest name in college football. Newton leads this Auburn football team as much with the force of his will as with his remarkable talent.

Yes, Auburn is No. 1 and deserves to be. Is it good enough to stay there? We’re about to find out.

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