The topic was expectations, a subject that Tommy Tuberville had thought about at length over the previous year. Sitting in his office one day last July, Tuberville leaned back in his chair, glanced out the window at the sticky summer afternoon, then looked back at his guest and smiled as slyly as a man who's drawn four aces in a game of poker. The words proceeded to drip out of his mouth in his molasses-slow Southern drawl.
"I love the fact that we're not on the national radar right now," Tuberville said of his team, which had begun the season ranked 17th in the Associated Press poll. "Last year at the beginning of the season some people picked us to win it all, and we believed all the good things that people were writing about us. But we don't have that problem this year. Listen, I think we might have something real, real special here. Not that anybody's writing about it."
Indeed, at the start of the season, Auburn seemed about as likely to go undefeated as the woebegone Army Black Knights. Back then Tuberville was barely clinging to his job. His team had finished a disappointing 7-5 in 2003 and played in one of the least sexy postseason games of the holiday season, the Music City Bowl. Tuberville's '03 team underachieved--even he admits that--and the coach knew that The Plains was abuzz with talk that he would be fired in '04 if the season turned sour. "I had turned in my application at Wal-Mart to become a greeter," Tuberville joked recently.
What's more, the Tigers had boldfaced question marks on both sides of the ball before the 2004 season kicked off. Could redshirt senior quarterback Jason Campbell, who in '04 would be coached by his fourth offensive coordinator ( Al Borges) in five years, finally shed his reputation for choking in big games? Could senior running backs Carnell (Cadillac) Williams and Ronnie (Hummer) Brown, both of whom most likely would have been early picks in the 2004 NFL draft had they opted not to return to school, coexist in Borges's version of the West Coast offense? And could Auburn's defense, which had lost three starters to the NFL, stop anyone? So many questions.
But judging by his body language back on that quiet summer afternoon in his office, Tuberville clearly sensed that he had all the answers. And, sure enough, a dream season unfolded. Under the guidance of Borges, Campbell blossomed into a star, perhaps making more clutch throws at key moments than any other quarterback in the nation. Borges also found creative ways to get Williams and Brown on the field at the same time. Borges interchanged his star runners at tailback, fullback, slotback and even wide receiver, and they wound up forming the deadliest one-two combo in the country. Cadillac and Hummer powered the offense, combining to rush for 2,164 yards and catch 55 passes for 465 yards.
"Ain't nobody better than me and Carnell," says Brown.
"I'd say we're unstoppable," says Williams.
And what about Auburn's defense? During his 24-year college coaching career Tuberville has cultivated a reputation for being a stout defensive coach. So it really shouldn't be surprising that the Tigers' D--a smallish, quick unit bereft of stars other than All-America cornerback Carlos Rogers--finished the season leading the country in fewest points surrendered (11.3 per game) and fifth in total defense (269.5 yards per game). No wonder Tigers defensive coordinator Gene Chizik was named a finalist for the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation's top assistant coach.
Boasting a balanced offense and a swarming defense, the Tigers rolled to the SEC championship game, where they beat Tennessee 38-28. They amassed a 12-0 record--they were the first SEC team to go undefeated since the Volunteers in 1998--but largely because of what was regarded as a weak non-conference schedule, Auburn became the first team from a major conference to go undefeated and still be shut out of the national championship game. USC and Oklahoma edged Auburn in the BCS rankings to earn invitations to the Orange Bowl, while the Tigers were forced to play Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, where they held on for a 16-13 victory over the Hokies to cap their first undefeated season since 1993. (That year Auburn, which at the time was on probation and not eligible to play in a bowl, thus missing any chance at the national championship, went 11-0.)
"It's disappointing," said Tuberville about being left out of the national championship game. "An undefeated season happens once or twice in a lifetime, if you're lucky. But most of the talk has been about polls and rankings rather than what we have accomplished."