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Auburn suffered from lofty expectations in 2003; who will this season?

Posted: Wednesday July 28, 2004 11:59AM; Updated: Wednesday July 28, 2004 2:59PM
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Carnell Williams
Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and the highly-touted Tigers finished a disappointing 8-5 in 2003.

Just about every year at  this time, media members pluck one team from a conference's middling ranks, prop it on a pedestal, and predict it to be the sensation of the coming season. Last summer, they found their candidate in tiny, title-hungry Auburn.

When talking up the Tigers, who had one outright and two joint division championships but no conference crown under then-fifth-year coach Tommy Tuberville, preseason prognosticators frequently cited their standout linebacker and tailback duos, and a splashy win over Penn State in the previous year's Capital One Bowl. No matter that there was scant depth in units surrounding their stars, or that there are few more dubious predictors of success than a preceding year's bowl victory. When the glossies hit the newsstands, Auburn had been pegged as a consensus No. 5 team by the major preseason guides, and a buzz-worthy No. 1 by The Sporting News.

Preseason turned out to be the high point of Auburn's year. The team might have been forgiven for its home-opening shutout at the hands of eventual co-national-champ USC, had it not been followed by a 17-3 embarrassment at Georgia Tech, a team that would later surrender 41 points to Duke. Granted, after finally scoring their first touchdown of the season in the second quarter of a win over Vanderbilt on Sept. 13, the Tigers clawed their way to a respectable, if disappointing, 7-5 record by the end of November.

Unfortunately for Auburn, a regular-season-closing win over rival Alabama was overshadowed by an incident more embarrassing than the Tigers' shortcomings on the field. Local news stations revealed that a group led by university president William Walker was secretly courting Louisville coach Bobby Petrino to replace Tuberville. As media commentary vacillated between Auburn's shabby showing on the field and its actions behind administrators' doors, the diagnosis was clear: Like its mascots, the "War Eagles," who were grounded at season's start by a bacterial outbreak in the school's raptor center (a harbinger?), Auburn football was hurting.

The beauty of sports, however, is that every new year offers the promise of a fresh start. In this regard, no group of fans should be more relieved by the turning of the leaves than Auburn's. In the preseason polls published thus far, the Tigers are averaging out in 19th place, a far more reasonable estimate of the team's tools at season's start.

Tuberville is back, with a contract extension to boot, and while that might frustrate those fans who wish that the clandestine rehiring mission had succeeded, his presence promotes a team unity that is crucial after a tumultuous 2003. A defense that lost five of its front seven will not be the strong unit that it was last season, but with a star-studded secondary led by senior cornerback Carlos Rogers and senior safety Junior Rosegreen, it should be solid. And finally, new offensive coordinator Al Borges has come from Indiana to add an aerial spark to an attack that seemed stuck in the mud under his predecessor, Hugh Nall. With Borges in his ear and veteran wide receivers at his disposal, fifth-year senior quarterback Jason Campbell (181-for-293 passing for 2,267 yards in 2003) will enjoy increased responsibility in the Auburn offense, which could be just the cure for the shaky confidence that has plagued his entire career.

On Tuesday afternoon, Auburn's brightest light of all was sitting at a conference table at the Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham, Ala., the site of this week's SEC's media day festivities. Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, a 5-foot-11, 204-pound bolt of speed and skill, will return to share the Tiger backfield with fellow senior Ronnie Brown, with whom he combined for 1,753 rushing yards and 22 of the team's 42 touchdowns last year.

Having suffered one broken collarbone, one broken ankle and having played under four different offensive coordinators in his Auburn career thus far, Williams has more reason than any pundit or player to have a fatalistic view of his final season on the Plains. And yet there he was in Birmingham, suit pressed and shoes shined, nodding eagerly at a reporter who asked him whether his offense could lead the team to an improved record.

"Most everyone on this offense has been through the tough times, and we believe that we're capable of carrying the defense until they come along," Williams said. "This team is hungrier than ever -- that's for sure."

Given the decidedly imperfect record of preseason prognosticators, this reporter not excluded, his word seems as good as any.

An irresistable question, in light of Auburn's lesson: Which teams could be ranked a tad too high entering the season? While the following teams are all undeniably decent, they could be hard-pressed to live up to the hype that we media types are bestowing on them (rankings refer to the consensus among the major magazine polls published thus far):

Ohio State (No. 10): How will the Buckeyes cope with the loss of a total of six starters on its interior lines? Can tailback Lydell Ross finally prove to be the big-play threat that his team so desperately needs? And most importantly: Who is going to start at quarterback? A killer linebacking corps aside, these Buckeyes have an awful lot of question marks for a top-10 team.

Missouri (No. 13): When the offensive line needs rebuilding on a team that subsisted on its ground game last year, it is never a good sign. Neither are problems at punter, where Brock Harvey ranked 10th in the conference in yardage in 2003 and is recovering from offseason surgery on his kicking leg, as well as at placekicker, where no player is a proven entity. Quarterback Brad Smith is fabulously multi-dimensional, but he'll need help to guide Mizzou to a BCS bowl.

Clemson (No. 14): With all due respect to quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, who is proving to be a phenomenal talent, one established star (or arguably two: Leroy Hill is a monster at linebacker) does not an ACC title contender make. Clemson is staring down road games at Texas A&M, Florida State, Virginia and Miami.

On the brighter side ... While the following teams aren't necessarily big-bowl locks, they are good bets to overachieve:

Wisconsin (No. 21): While the Badgers have looked strangely spiritless over the past two seasons, they return a healthy Anthony Davis at tailback and, more importantly, a wholly intact offensive line that is stacked with size and leadership. The entire defensive front returns, too.

Rutgers (NR nationally; No. 4 Big East): The Big East might have balked at losing its two marquee members to the ACC, but its teams stand to profit on the field. Without behemoths Miami and Virginia Tech to sink morale along the way, Rutgers' high-octane offense and deep defensive front could send the Scarlet Knights bowling for just the second time since 1992.

Vanderbilt (NR nationally; No. 6 SEC East): Success is relative, and in the case of the Commodores, it means posting a winning season. Thanks to 21 returning starters, including gritty quarterback Jay Cutler and the SEC's second-leading tackler from 2003, linebacker Moses Osemwegie, as well as a forgiving early-season schedule, Vanderbilt has its best chance in years to pull off five or six wins -- or at least one knock-your-socks-off upset.

Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Kelley King covers college football for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.