Now that they're safely out of the national title race, the Tigers are playing the way people expected them to
Carnell (Cadillac) Williams's inner critic was nagging enough. But when an 0-2 start transformed Auburn from preseason favorite to seeming paper tiger, Williams, one quarter of a touted tailback unit that had failed to score in either loss, got an earful from family, friends, even random classmates whom he suspected had never seen the inside of Jordan-Hare Stadium. "I'd be walking through campus, and someone would say, 'Aren't you guys supposed to be the best in the country?' " says Williams. "And some other guy would go, 'So where's that rushing game?' "
What seemed hopelessly lost has now been found. Last Saturday night in Auburn the un-ranked Tigers beat then No. 7 Tennessee 28-21—and stayed in the thick of the SEC race—by establishing their power running game. After averaging just 41.5 yards in losses to Southern Cal and Georgia Tech, Auburn had its third straight 200-yard ground game in its third straight win. Contributing to the Tigers' 264 yards were Williams (36 carries for 185), junior Ronnie Brown (12 for 65), junior Brandon Jacobs (3 for 19) and sophomore Tre Smith (2 for 11). "All four bring something different," says senior linebacker Dontarrious Thomas, whose defense held the Vols to four yards on the ground. "Carnell is a slasher, Ronnie has finesse and power, Tre's a little dart, and Brandon [6'4", 257 pounds] will just crush you."
This yard-swallowing quartet wasn't the only inspired act. Streaky junior quarterback Jason Campbell showed poise, and the offensive line blocked better than it had all season. "We used a little more motion and formations, but it came down to guys executing," says offensive coordinator Hugh Nail. "On the morning after Georgia Tech, I made the entire offense watch the game tape from start to finish. I said, 'You guys tell me what's wrong.' They saw how many people were making tiny mistakes—a missed block here, a missed cut there."
All last week Williams lobbed challenges back and forth with roommate Carlos Rogers (the cornerback who would seal the victory on Saturday with an interception in the last minute) to have career-best games against the Vols, and his mind spun maddeningly to Tennessee's Rocky Top, which Auburn's trainers put on constant replay on the training room stereo to stoke the Tigers' wrath. By the time Williams broke off his first run, a seven-yard dash through a yawning hole for a first down, he says he felt "completely crazed."
With a humbling September behind him, Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville praised the spirit of his Tigers, who face unbeaten Arkansas this Saturday "I'm proud they stayed positive and focused," said Tuberville. "We'll sacrifice an 0-2 start to be 2-0 in the conference any day?'
Virginia Tech QBs
Vick Watches as Randall Rolls
As he walked off the field after his third touchdown pass of the first half in last Saturday's 48-22 victory over Rutgers, Virginia Tech junior Bryan Randall was stopped by the man who wants his job: redshirt freshman Marcus Vick. There was no quarterback controversy, or even a competition, only a compliment. "Man," Vick said, "you're having a Rod Rutherford kind of day."
Vick was referring to the pin-ball stats (1,171 yards, 16 TDs, best-in-the-nation 182.6 passer rating) of the Pitt quarterback, but Randall is not just turning in impressive numbers. His solid play has transformed the Hokies' offense into more than merely running back Kevin Jones and his Heisman helpers. It also has made fourth-ranked Virginia Tech, still flying under the radar in the Miami-dominated Big East, a bona fide national title contender. "There was a time when we asked Bryan to just turn around, hand it off and not lose the game for us," quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers says. "Now we can ask him to win it for us."
As the 6'1", 221-pound Randall battled for the starting job in the off-season with the younger brother of Hokies great Michael Vick, the Tech coaches stressed to Randall the need to be what they call a "proprietor of the football"—to keep the ball safe and make the most of the Hokies' possessions. He's doing just that. Randall, known as a scrambler, had 12 interceptions to go with 12 touchdowns in his first two seasons. This year he's flourishing in the pocket, having completed 68% of his passes and thrown for nine touchdowns and just two picks.