The Cougars have won nine games over the past two seasons so why are some fans nervous about the season opener? It's not so much what the Cougars bring to the table as it is which Auburn squad will show up opening night. Coming off a major beat-down by Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, Auburn fans are still a tad "shell-shocked" from the Tigers' last non-conference outing. Of course it's not just the last game, but also Auburn's track record of season openers under Coach Tommy Tuberville.
If it walks and talks like a duck...Tuberville made his debut at Auburn with a 22-15 victory over I-AA Appalachian State in 1999 followed up with a come from behind victory over Idaho (30-23) the following week. It was two victories most Auburn supporters would rather forget, but Tuberville was given a pass since a major rebuilding job was under way.
The 2000 Tigers opened the season against a Wyoming team that would eventually finish with a 1-10 record and it took a long run by Rudi Johnson to finally put the game away in the final period with Auburn winning 35-21.
In 2001, Auburn began the season with a 30-0 victory over Ball State in a game never in doubt, but the Tigers didn't look particularly sharp.
Entering his fourth season at Auburn, Tuberville's Tigers raised the ante by opening the 2002 season against Southern Cal on the road. The Tigers played very well early on, but faded in the second half as the Trojans walked away with a 24-17 victory. USC returned to Auburn in 2003 to face a highly-ranked Auburn squad, but the result was even worse. The Tigers could not muster any offense and the Trojans crushed the Tigers, 23-0.
The 2004 season would be one of the most memorable in school history, but even the season opener against Louisiana-Monroe required a couple of early turnovers to jump start the victory.
Georgia Tech came to Auburn to begin the 2005 campaign, which provided the Tigers with the opportunity to gain revenge for Auburn's embarrassing loss to the Yellow Jackets in 2003. Once again, Auburn self-destructed on offense and could not overcome five turnovers as the Yellow Jackets defeated the Tigers, 23-14.
In all fairness to Coach Tuberville, the man should receive a "pass" for the 1999 season. He took over a 3-8 football team from the year before, which clearly lacked talent and depth. With no running game and a question mark at quarterback, Auburn was destined to struggle. In fact, the 1999 season might have been one of Tuberville's best coaching jobs because the Tigers were just a few plays from turning a 3-8 season (1998) to being 7-4.
The 2000 season-opener against Wyoming was not as close as the score might reveal. Auburn was ahead 28-7 early in the third period before the Cowboys scored two touchdowns in the final period to trail by only seven points. Auburn outgained Wyoming, 443 yards to 242 yards and lost some of its competitive edge after building a 21-point lead.
The 2001 victory over Ball State was not spectacular, but it had more to do with offensive struggles in the red zone than anything else. The defense pitched a shutout and held the Cardinals to 92 total yards. The Tigers had to replace All-Southeastern Conference performers, Ben Leard and Rudi Johnson, from the year before so a dropoff in offensive production should have been expected. Let's not forget the Florida Gators struggled in their season opener against Ball State the previous year, defeating the Cardinals by only 19 points.
The 2002 loss to Southern Cal was not a disappointment in terms of preparation. By the end of the season, the Trojans were as good as any team in the country and Auburn went toe to toe with USC on the road. Bottom line, the Trojans made better second half adjustments and it didn't help that Carnell Williams cramped up after rushing for over 80 yards in the first half.
The return game with Southern Cal in 2003 is where preparation became an issue. It appeared both coaching staffs picked up right where they left off in the second half of the 2002 matchup. Auburn actually performed better on defense during the 2003 contest. It was the offense in 2003 which would be the downfall of the Tigers.
After defeating Louisiana-Monroe 73-7 in 2003, Auburn's 31-0 victory over La. Monroe in 2004 appeared to be a major letdown. Once again, it was not a lack of preparation, but a decision to be very conservative on offense with newly acquired offensive coordinator, Al Borges. Scripting his first 15 plays of the game, Borges elected to call running plays on 10 of 13 first down plays during the first half. The season before, Hugh Nall called 10 pass plays on 17 first down plays during the first half. Borges also brought in Brandon Cox on Auburn's third possession of the game and the Tigers still managed to build a 24-0 halftime lead.
Much like the 2003 Southern Cal game, the 2005 Georgia Tech game appeared to be a preparation issue. It was clear that Georgia Tech spent a great deal of time preparing for Auburn while Auburn was still attempting to decide on the best 11 to put on the field. By game time, Auburn had the edge in talent and depth, but the Yellow Jackets had the better game plan. The defense actually adjusted well after surrendering 127 yards in the first 19 plays. The Yellow Jackets gained only 186 yards in their next 56 plays, but the offense didn't do enough to help the Tigers win the football game.
Breaking it down, Tuberville received a "pass" for the 1999 season opener basically because Auburn was rebuilding. The 2000 Wyoming game falls under lack of focus and depth. The 2001 Ball State game was a 30-point victory that could have been a greater margin with better execution. No excuses are needed for the 2002 Southern Cal game as Auburn lost a competitive game to a team that was simply better. The 2003 USC and 2005 Georgia Tech games were the result of poor game planning and failure to make "game day" adjustments.
Expectations are high for the 2006 Auburn Tigers and the Tigers are due to have a good opening night performance. Coach Tuberville has done a remarkable job in rebuilding the Auburn football program, but the Tigers are now in a position of reloading rather than rebuilding and should be ready to play well starting in game one. For the most part, games are won and lost based on talent, depth, preparation, adjustments, execution and injuries. Coaches have control over five of those six categories, though players should be held accountable for execution.
The 2006 Auburn Tigers have the talent and depth to be a Top 10 team in the country. Coaching will make the difference in an 8-9 win season or a 10-12 win season. Since 1951, only Doug Barfield and Tommy Tuberville have a losing record against Division I-A non-conference opponents with a winning record. From 1999-2005, Auburn is 6-8 against quality non-conference opponents. Under Tuberville, Auburn is 35-0 against non-conference opponents with a losing record and 54-9 against opponents with the same win-loss record as Auburn or less. Bottom line, the Tigers normally win the games they are supposed to, but struggle against teams of equal or better quality.
Tuberville received a lot of grief for his "preseason" comments after losing the first two games of the 2003 season. In defense of the coach, some fans read too much from his comments. His intent was to stress how important conference games were and not to say non-conference games were not. After Auburn dropped its first two games, which just happened to be non-conference games, it was up to Tuberville to stress the team could still compete for a conference title. At that point and time, conference games became more vital than non-conference games because Auburn was no longer in the national title picture. In the grand scheme, all games are important and it should definitely be the theme for 2006 if Auburn wants to make a push for a national championship.
Auburn deserved to be in the BCS championship game in 2004 but the national perception of USC and Oklahoma took a front seat to what Auburn accomplished on the field. Over the last four years, Southern Cal is 9-3 against opponents with 10-wins or more. Winning on a consistent basis will sway voters in your favor, which helps explain why the Tigers are a preseason Top 10 team this year. A sharp performance on opening night on national television will go a long way toward leaving a good impression on the pollsters, which could pay dividends down the stretch if the Tigers have a big season and are trying to win a popularity contest to get into the next BCS championship game.