Ben Leard and Gabe Gross were in a close race to see who would be the starting quarterback. Rob Bironas had been outstanding kicking field goals in practice and Damon Duval had enjoyed a big day punting. Tuberville mentioned that freshman Ronney Daniels, who had played three years of professional baseball, was doing well at wide receiver. Tuberville tried to sound optimistic as the opener against Appalachian State approached, but the gaping holes in his team were obvious. "I think we were a little surprised there wasn't more talent, or experienced talent, here at the skill positions," Tuberville said after practice that day. "You would expect that in a program like this."
Publicly, Tuberville expressed confidence the Tigers could overcome their problems and have a good year. Privately, he feared the worst. He'd taken over a team still reeling from Terry Bowden's departure at midseason in 1998. Winning their confidence had not been easy. On Sept. 4, the Tigers had to rally late in the fourth quarter to beat Division I-AA Appalachian State 22-15. Had freshman wide receiver Travaris Robinson not alertly raced into the backfield to recover the bouncing ball at the Auburn four-yard line after a wayward snap, Appalachian State probably would have won.
Leaving Jordan-Hare Stadium, I wondered to myself how things had gotten so bad so quickly. On that night, it was difficult to envision Auburn winning more than two or three games. That team went on to go 5-6, including routs of LSU and Georgia on the road. The record certainly would have been better had Leard not gone down with a shoulder injury in the fourth game against Ole Miss. There were a lot of positives in that season, but the future seemed ominous. Alabama had won the SEC championship in Mike Dubose's third year as head coach. It would have a recruiting class deemed by some to be the nation's best.
Running back is a position that has seen a major upgrade in talent and depth in recent seasons. The tailbacks and fullbacks run through a footwork drill at Sunday's practice as position coach Eddie Gran watches.
Fast forward now to the present. Auburn is preparing to open its season against Southern California at Jordan-Hare Stadium in an atmosphere of excitement and high expectations. Since that first year, the Tigers have had two nine-win seasons and have been to three bowl games. They played in the SEC Championship Game in 2000 and shared the West Division championship in 2001 and 2002. Their record in those three seasons was 25-13 overall and 16-8 in SEC games. Along the way, they beat Alabama two out of three and Georgia two out of three. They beat the nation's No. 1 team, Florida, in 2001. Today, they are ranked No. 6 in the preseason and are the favorite to win the overall SEC championship.
In 1999, even the most ardent Auburn supporter would have questioned the sobriety of anyone who might have suggested that the next three years could produce numbers and accomplishments like that.
Tuberville and his staff have rebuilt the Auburn program with remarkable speed. Going into this season of high expectations, the Tigers can look any team in the eye. Does that mean they will win the SEC championship? No. Does it mean they will fulfill The Sporting News' prediction of a national championship? No. It means they have a chance.
In modern college football, at the level it is played in the SEC, a chance is all you can ask for. When the ball bounces your way, when you keep the right players healthy and win the close games, you can win a championship. Whether that will happen for the Tigers this season is anybody's guess. But they are one of a handful of teams with a realistic opportunity. Considering where things were four years ago, that in itself is one of the more remarkable accomplishments in the proud and storied history of Auburn football.