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Fuel the fire

Auburn should use academic issues as rallying cry

Posted: Friday July 28, 2006 9:14PM; Updated: Wednesday August 9, 2006 11:27AM
Brandon Cox led Auburn to a 7-1 SEC record in his first year as a starter.
Brandon Cox led Auburn to a 7-1 SEC record in his first year as a starter.
Bill Frakes/SI
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HOOVER, Ala. -- Tommy Tuberville had to know it was coming.

The Auburn coach took the podium at Friday's SEC Media Day and began talking about the target on his team's back as the overwhelming favorite to win the league -- but the target everyone else was concerned with had nothing to do with the product on the field and everything to do with the controversy surrounding "direct reading courses."

The New York Times has alleged that an Auburn sociology professor abused the independent-study course system by giving credit to students -- a reported 18 of the 250 involved are members of the football team -- for little to no work.

"If we're doing something wrong, please look at us and tell us," Tuberville said. "I promise you, we'll change it. We're going to do things right." The university has launched an investigation into the matter, though Tuberville says he doesn't "foresee anything happening."

While linebacker Will Herring called the allegations "unfair," he said the team's academics haven't been discussed in the locker room.

"I don't think that's even a question we have to answer among ourselves," he said.

While everyone is claiming the investigation isn't an issue, Tuberville may be wise to make it one. As we've seen in the past, this is a team that plays better when it has a chip on its shoulder, not when it's everyone's darling.

Think back to 2003 when the Tigers started the season ranked No. 3, only to go 8-5 and earn a trip to the Music City Bowl, nearly getting Tuberville fired. The next season, the pressure was off and the team went 13-0 and was part of a national-title debate that Tuberville says he still thinks about "every day." In '05, nobody expected anything out a team that had to fill the shoes of NFL first-round picks Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown and Jason Campbell. But Brandon Cox and Kenny Irons emerged to turn the Tigers into one of the hottest teams in the country by the end of the regular season. That team must have been reading its own clippings, though, because it got whacked by Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl.

This season? Well, there's a certain amount of pressure that comes with having a Heisman candidate at tailback in Irons, a budding star at quarterback in Cox and top wide receiver Courtney Taylor completely healed from an ankle injury, so much so that the SEC media made the Tigers the favorite to win the league by 62 votes over Florida, which had the second-most votes.

If you're looking for warts, the Tigers did lose both of their offensive tackles (All-America Marcus McNeil and Troy Reddick) and four of their top five receivers as well as nose tackle T.J. Jackson and defensive end Stanley McClover, who were two of the unit's bigger bodies. But even those losses aren't really issues. With the players now filling those roles and Herring -- who has spent the last three years at safety but will move to linebacker to bring him closer to the action -- anchoring the defense, this unit should be quicker and more athletic than a year ago.