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,
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
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
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."
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
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."