Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Looking purely at the hard numbers, Auburn and Ole Miss are having comparable football seasons.
They meet Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium with identical records. Both teams are 4-4, 2-3 in the SEC. Both teams are fighting to get bowl eligible. Both teams are jockeying for that third spot in the Western Division standings, and both teams have lost some bitterly close games this season.
But that's where the similarities end.
Take a stroll on the Plains these days and check out the climate. Then do the same through the Grove.
What you'll find is two programs that look the same on paper, but two programs with distinctly different outlooks about where everything is headed.
At Auburn, there is increasing chatter that veteran coach Tommy Tuberville might be in trouble despite the fact that he'd won 42 football games in the four seasons prior to this one, has won nine of his last 13 games against top 10 opponents and has won six straight against Alabama.
The offense has been a disaster, so much so that Tuberville fired first-year coordinator Tony Franklin six games into the season after the spread experiment failed miserably. The Tigers are ranked 109th nationally in total offense and 102nd in scoring offense, haven't been able to get any consistent play at the quarterback position and have lost four of their last five games.
In their last six games, the Tigers have been outscored 77-16 in the second half -- never a good sign when you start examining a team's resolve.
"We haven't quit yet. We never have quit," Tuberville said of his team's second-half nose dives. "I don't know how you determine that. Our guys have a lot of pride. They practice like everybody else. One thing we are going to do is play hard, and we are going to play for four quarters. Now we might not play very well, and again, fatigue is a factor in that. People start talking about quitting, and they start looking for excuses.
"We have no excuse."
At Ole Miss, there's more talk about the future than there is about what has or hasn't happened this season. With Houston Nutt in his first season there, fans have taken much more of a glass-half-full approach.
All four of the Rebels' losses have been by a touchdown or less, and they've had chances to win all four in the final minutes. They've been hurt by their own mistakes (namely turnovers) more than they've simply been outclassed on the field. And most of all, they showed how capable they really are with the 31-30 win at Florida back in September.
With the exception of senior offensive tackle Michael Oher, senior defensive tackle Peria Jerry and senior safety Jamarca Sanford, just about every key player from this season is eligible to return in 2009. And there's a nucleus of younger players -- quarterback Jevan Snead, tailback Enrique Davis, tailback Brandon Bolden, defensive end Kentrell Lockett and defensive tackle Ted Laurent -- that really excites fans.
Clearly, this is a pivotal game for Ole Miss, which needs to do a better job of protecting its home turf after blowing games at home earlier this season to South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
"We really owe our home fans a 60-minute, four-quarter football team," Nutt said. "We've let some games slip here, and it's hard to get out of my mind. You play so good at times, and then there's a stretch where you basically gift-wrap a game."
If the Rebels can finish with at least seven wins, which would entail winning three of their last four games, they're going to be attractive to a number of bowl games. They haven't been since 2003, and there's a sense of hope and what might be surrounding this team.
There's also a sense of what might be at Auburn, but the hope has been drowned out by apprehension and uncertainty.