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Top 10 teams were taking the pipe all over the south, and now it looked like Auburn's turn. Late in the first half of a scoreless game on Oct. 30, Ole Miss had the visitors backed up to their one-yard line. Spurred on by the vocal, well-dressed and well-lubricated crowd in Oxford, the roused Rebels were threatening to spoil the Tigers' unbeaten season.
So it seemed, at any rate, for the duration of one TV timeout. In two plays--two beautifully thrown balls by senior quarterback Jason Campbell--Auburn was 60 yards up the field. Six plays later Campbell scored on a sneak. The Tigers won going away, 35-14.
It was a sloppy victory, but one that triggered joyous celebration among the orange-clad hordes who'd made their way to Faulkner country. With the win Auburn clinched the SEC Western Division, earning a spot in the conference title game, on Dec. 4 in Atlanta. There the Tigers rolled up 559 yards of offense en route to a 38-28 victory against Tennessee, a team on which they had already opened one can of whoop-ass this season. Of course, even though that wrapped up a perfect season, their No. 3 standing in the BCS (behind USC and Oklahoma) left the Tigers out of the national championship game. And also left them, like Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride, very put out.
Not that any of the Tigers were looking ahead. These guys learned that lesson last year. After having smoke blown up their backsides throughout the summer of 2003--some national publications had them as the preseason No. 1--the Tigers dropped their first two games. Recalls left tackle Marcus McNeill, "We went into last season with a swagger we hadn't really earned. This year we wanted to take it one game at a time, seize the moment, play every game as if it's our last."
More remarkable than even that triple clich� is the fact that Auburn was winning with an undersized defense that was supposed to struggle this year. That unit lost four starters to the NFL after '03 but finished the '04 season first in the nation in scoring defense (11.3 points per game) and arguably first in cohesiveness and attitude. "Our motto is Meet me at the ball," says middle linebacker Travis Williams, who had a game-high 12 tackles against Ole Miss. "If a couple of guys don't make it to the ball, we get on 'em. We tell 'em, 'Hey, you missed the meetin'.'" Also, they're mean. "On offense," says strong safety Junior Rosegreen, "[offensive coordinator Al] Borges talks about being greedy. On defense [defensive coordinator Gene] Chizik talks about being a [jerk]."
Beg your pardon, Junior? "You know, giving the other team a hard time. Making 'em fear you."
When they were not admiring the work of Rosegreen, Williams & Co., Tigers fans were thrilling to the most potent and imaginative offense seen on The Plains in recent memory. (Against Ole Miss, for example, Auburn's first scoring drive included a triple reverse.) If defenses sat back in a soft zone, the better to control the damage done by Campbell, he handed the ball off to Carnell (Cadillac) Williams or Ronnie (the Hummer) Brown. Both are seniors, and both will go high in next spring's NFL draft. Both also postponed pro careers to take care of unfinished business at Auburn. Neither cared that sharing the backfield meant they wouldn't put up Adrian Peterson-like numbers. (Each had 16 carries against Ole Miss: Brown for 100 yards, Williams for 96. Brown finished the season with 857 yards and Williams with 1,172.) "I didn't come back to win the Heisman," says Cadillac. "I came back to win a championship."
Standing sentinel before a bank of cabinets in Tommy Tuberville's opulent office is a stuffed turkey. The bird was bagged, if anyone asks, by Tuberville's 10-year-old son, Tucker. ("I killed it," says the Tigers coach, "but Tucker was with me, so he thinks it's his.") In cardboard boxes inside those cabinets are printouts of some 15,000 e-mails, tangible evidence of a torrent of support for the coach following a stunning act of duplicity last year.
On Nov. 20, 2003, as Tuberville prepared the team to play Alabama, an Auburn contingent that included university president William Walker, athletic director David Housel and two members of the board of trustees was boarding a private jet bound for Louisville. There they met with Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino in hopes of luring him to The Plains to replace Tuberville. Even in a conference renowned for its treachery, this stunt stood out. Yes, Tuberville's team had underachieved. Unlike the conspirators in the jet, however, the Auburn community saw a bigger picture. The personable, upright Tuberville was well liked. His guys went to class and stayed off police logs. He deserved better.
Despite rumors of his impending dismissal that were swirling around him in the week before the 2003 Iron Bowl, Tuberville focused on business. He told his assistants that things "didn't look good," then asked them to prepare the team as best they could. Auburn beat the Crimson Tide for the third time in Tuberville's five-year tenure. "He put us first, just like a parent would have," recalls noseguard T.J. Jackson. "I love and respect the man."