Marshall: Football Expectations For '06 Team

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the 2006 football season featuring comments and observations from the head coach of the Auburn Tigers, Tommy Tuberville, whose team is receiving a lot of national attention.

On a hot Thursday afternoon, Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville is in a good mood. He is joking with Randy Byrd, one of his in-season State Trooper escorts, who has come by for a visit. He's getting ready to go to the intramural fields to watch the first day of Auburn's second seven-on-seven team camp.

Tuberville has plenty of reason to be in a good mood these days. He has built a program that is solid through and through. Season tickets are already sold out. He's as secure as any coach in the Southeastern Conference.

When Auburn calls, recruits listen. Auburn wins. Auburn's Academic Progress Rate was the best of any public university in Division I-A. Players rarely get into trouble. Facilities are among the best. The coaching staff is stable, talented and respected by high school coaches throughout the South and beyond.

Life is good.

But Tuberville knows better than most how quickly things can change in the fiercely competitive world of college football at the highest level. The difference between greatness and mediocrity is often small.

"We could win them all next season," Tuberville says. "Or we could lose three or four games. That's part of it when you play the teams we are playing. At least we have a chance. Every year, we want to be recognized as a team with a chance."

Since Tuberville got through his first season in 1999, every Auburn team has gone deep into the season with a chance to do big things. Even that first team might have had a chance had starting quarterback Ben Leard not gone down. Two of his seven teams have played in the SEC Championship Game. Three others shared the West Division championship. The last six have played in bowl games.

The gold standard, of course, is 2004, when the Tigers went 13-0 and won everything except the national championship..

With the start of two-a-days less than two months away, expectations are soaring again. Preseason predictions consistently put Auburn in the top 10. At least two publications have picked the Tigers in the top three.

Keeping talented players like Brad Lester healthy will be a key to having a strong season.

Tuberville remembers the last time it was like this. In the summer of 2003, The Sporting News and The New York Times picked the Tigers to win the national championship. They were No. 6 in both preseason polls. They went 8-5, losing four games to 10-win teams and falling to both national champions.

"What worries you is that you look at the Top 10, and there are three teams (LSU, Florida and Georgia) we have to play," Tuberville says. "Somebody is going to be disappointed. Is there another league that has that many? Nope.

"We are going to have a good team. We are going to have a good team next year, too. But there are a lot of variables in any season."

There are some advantages this season. The three teams Tuberville mentioned all must visit Jordan-Hare Stadium. Those advantages will turn into disadvantages in 2007 when the Tigers must play them all on the road.

But those advantages can dwindle if bad luck hits.

"It has more to do with the teams you are playing than anything else," Tuberville says. "Then, what if you get your quarterback hurt for four games? What are you going to do? He's the guy that runs your football team. Not many teams have great backups."

Even if there are no key injuries, there are questions that must be answered if Auburn is to make another championship run in 2006. Tuberville welcomes the high expectations, but he cautions that preseason polls don't count for anything once it's time to play. He dismisses out of hand the notion that a high preseason ranking is some sort of jinx.

"If people don't understand that we have questions, they need to start listening," Tuberville says. "All they have to do is look at the depth chart. We lost a lot of good players. Everybody wants to be positive and I want everybody to be positive, but they need to be realistic, too."

In 2004, the Tigers beat LSU 10-9 by hitting a big pass on fourth down and another on third down for the winning touchdown. With a loss, they wouldn't have even made to the championship game. Last season, they lost 20-17 at LSU in overtime when John Vaughn missed five field goals. Had they won, they'd have been in the championship game. Two years earlier, they lost to Georgia when David Greene hit Michael Johnson for a 19-yard touchdown on fourth-and-15. Had that not happened, they would have played Florida in the championship game.

"They had to complete a 40-yard pass before that, and their guy had to push off to catch it," Tuberville says. "We had the best team in the league that year.

"It's going to come down to two or three plays again. In 2004, we made those plays. Last year, against LSU, we didn't."

Whether the Tigers make those plays in 2006, whether they win a championship or don't, Tuberville has done what he came to Auburn to do.

He has recruited superior athletes and good people. Without a hint of scandal, he has built a program that can stand the test of time. And that's really what success is all about.


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