Publication after publication ranks the Tigers as a Top 10 team. Some rank them in the top five. The Sporting News ranks them No. 1. The excitement that seems to grow daily has sparked an almost unprecedented demand for tickets. On the day available single-game tickets went on sale at 8 a.m., more than 3,000 people were lined up to get on the Internet website to order.
On a rainy afternoon, still moving gingerly and often painfully after neck surgery, head coach Tommy Tuberville was doing the things he usually does in the summer. It was final weekend of camps. Campers and parents came by for visits. Assistant coaches were poised to get away on long-anticipated vacations. Tuberville, who underwent disc fusion surgery earlier this month, will stay around town to recuperate.
Coach Tommy Tuberville
"I'm still in some pain and I get tired easily," Tuberville said. "They say the main thing is to take it easy for a few weeks. It's been tough, but it's getting better."
Tuberville hasn't had much opportunity to take it easy yet. More than 3,000 campers have been on the Auburn campus in recent weeks. And there has been the usual demands in a job that never seems to have a dead period. "It's kind of work as usual," Tuberville said. "There's not a whole lot we can do more than we've been doing. We push these guys hard. I think the biggest thing is to give some leeway to your players and let the leadership build up in the team. Coaches can only do so much.
"I think the good thing our offseason program does is really puts a lot of peer pressure on certain individuals that might not have the work ethic or determination to do something. They do it because they see their teammates do it." But Tuberville recognizes, like everyone else, that this summer is different. From the time they arrived in the fall of 1998, Tuberville and his staff built toward this season. The talent level is high. There is depth and there is maturity. Every varsity player is in town for the summer. More than half of the incoming freshmen are expected, too.
Auburn might not live up to the lofty expectations, but it won't be because players weren't willing to take charge of their own fate. The list of players who have stepped forward and said to their teammates "follow me" is a long one. "We have good leadership on this team," Tuberville said. "They are having their own meetings as players. We've got more depth. For the first time, if we get a defensive lineman hurt it won't be the end of the world. We have continuity in what we've been doing on offense and defense, but the schedule is awfully tough. Now it's time to see what level we've gotten to."
There will be plenty of tests along the way, starting on Aug. 30 against USC. Maybe the ball will bounce Auburn's way like it did Georgia's last season and there'll be a championship at the end of it all. Maybe it won't. The thought that maybe it won't makes many a fan nervous. Tuberville says it's different for the players.
"The players are here to play the game," Tuberville said. "It might affect a few of them, but most players enjoy working out and enjoy the pressure. That's what it's all about, having fun. It's even more fun when you are looking at a game like we start off with. Even though we lost the opening game (at USC) last year, it helped our football team. We played in a national environment. We played a decent game, saw our shortcomings and what we needed to work on. We got better for a while, then we had some injuries, then we got better again. I think playing them the first game will help us again, and this time it's at home."