Auburn head coach tommy Tuberville didn't acquire the nickname "Riverboat Gambler" for nothing. And he certainly lived up to it in Saturday's 24-17 victory over Georgia.
Auburn went for first downs on fourth down four times against the Bulldogs and made three. One of those tries came, amazingly, from Auburn's own 13-yard line. Moments after Daniel Cobb sneaked for the first down from the 13, Tuberville called for Damon Duval to fake a punt. Duval made 12 yards and a first down. Auburn, trailing 14-7 at the time, didn't score on that drive, but it used up most of the final minutes of the second quarter and kept Georgia's offense on the sideline.
Tuberville said he gave serious thought to going on fourth-and-one on Auburn's final possession. A first down would have ended the game. Instead, Duval got off a short punt and Georgia had to be turned away outside the one-yard line on the final play of the game. Tuberville's approach is certainly unconventional. It is admired by some and held in disdain by some. But it's not likely to change.
Those who would criticize might want to take a look at Saturday's game. Had it not been for the fourth-down conversions, there is a very real chance Auburn might have come home a loser instead of celebrating a sweet victory over a time-honored foe. Auburn players and Tuberville's assistants don't even blink when the decisions come. "We've been together so long," offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone says. "Our kids expect it. We expect it. It's not a ‘You want to do what?' kind of deal. If he wants to go, we have a plan. The kids know what the plan is. They treat it just like another down. They think it's fun. They love it."
It's all part of Tuberville's scheme to make the game fun for his players and to plant doubt in the minds of opponents. He'll go for those first downs deep in his own territory, he'll fake field goals and fake punts. He loves onside kickoffs.
The fakes are often spectacular when they work. LSU players were left looking at each other in 1999 when holder Jacob Allen tossed the ball over his shoulder to Duval, who raced into the end zone untouched for a touchdown.
They often leave fans grumbling when they don't work. When Tuberville called for a fake punt at his own 20 on Auburn's first possession at Florida last season, Duval was supposed to throw to Rob Pate. Pate was wide open and might have scored, but Duval threw the ball short. Florida took over, scored and was off and running to a 38-7 victory.
It's the fakes that Tuberville really likes. It all started, he says, when he was an assistant to Jimmy Johnson at Miami. "Jimmy used to sit around and scheme all the time about stuff," Tuberville says. "We won a national championship one year because we faked a field goal and beat South Carolina. I coached a lot of special teams and saw how much fun they had doing it."
They don't work by accident. Tuberville spends times every week studying opponents' special teams before choosing from his ever-growing list of fakes. "Most of the fake punts and field goals have come from players I have coached who have gone to camps in the summer," Tuberville says. "They say, ‘We ran this play, we did this, we did that.' We sit down and look at them. We have a list of 10 or 15 that are good ones. I pick out one every week I think will work."
Tuberville has some he says are too bizarre even for him. "I've never run the one where you snap it back to the punter, he slaps the ball real hard to sound like he punted it, throws a big spiral up in the air and they run and catch it," Tuberville says. "I don't have enough guts to run that one."
It was when Tuberville was head coach at Ole Miss that he began routinely gambling on fourth down, even in his own territory. "We were so bad we needed five downs a lot of times," Tuberville says. Against Georgia, Tuberville's main mission was to keep his defense off the field as much as possible. It worked. Auburn's time of possession advantage of almost 2-1 was a large part of the reason the Tigers won.
And now Tuberville, his staff and players are on the brink of a remarkable accomplishment as they await Alabama's Saturday visit to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Tuberville took over a program short on talent and short on enthusiasm after the 1998 season. Auburn players had ridden an emotional roller-coaster through Terry Bowden's resignation and the departure of interim head coach Bill Oliver. Some were giving serious thought to transferring. In his second season, Tuberville took Auburn to a 9-2 regular-season record and the West Division championship. Remarkable.
After losing more than 90 percent of last season's offensive production when Ben Leard graduated and Rudi Johnson and Ronney Daniels went to the NFL, Auburn was widely picked near the bottom of the West this season. The Tigers need only to beat Alabama or LSU to win the West again and go to Atlanta again. Even more remarkable.
The Tigers are no longer short on talent or enthusiasm. Auburn has done it by winning close games, perhaps the best gauge of a head coach. This season, the Tigers' five SEC wins have come by margins of 6, 3, 2, 3 and 7 points. "I guess we just aren't good enough to score enough points," Tuberville says. "We play hard, but we're not real explosive. We have to earn everything we get. When that happens, games are going to be close."
As the season nears its end, one guy has made Auburn a lot more explosive. Freshman tailback Carnell "Cadillac" Williams has proved himself to be everything he was supposed to be coming out of Etowah High School. Saturday, Williams carried the ball a school record 41 times for 167 yards. That gives him 344 yards in his last two games. With Williams running and receivers going against Alabama's often befuddled secondary, Auburn should beat the Crimson Tide and wrap up the West Division championship barring a rash of turnovers or a defensive collapse. But if things get bogged down, don't be surprised to see Tuberville go back to his gambling ways.
"If we need some kind of spark, to get the fans up and everybody excited, I think that's the head coach's job," Tuberville says. "It's to psychologically say, ‘Hey, this idiot still thinks we can win it. He's trying.'"