"We're about ready to turn the corner," Ford said. "We're going to have a heck of a football team here next season. The only question is if I'm going to be around to coach it." Ford was in his fifth season at Arkansas. He'd taken his team to the SEC Championship Game two years earlier. But the Razorbacks had been 4-7 in 1996 and were on their way to another 4-7 record in 1997. Ford was a prophet. In 1998, Arkansas won its first eight games on the way to the Cotton Bowl. But Ford was not there. Houston Nutt reaped the rewards of Ford's building program and finished with a 9-3 record.
Go with me back to 1992. Auburn finished 5-5-1 as the Eric Ramsey saga reached its zenith. Pat Dye resigned the night before the Tigers lost 17-0 to Alabama. Almost lost was the fact that Auburn finished No. 5 in the nation in total defense with mostly underclassmen. The next season, Terry Bowden took over as head coach. He had a fifth-year senior quarterback. He also had two tailbacks, a fullback, two offensive linemen, a linebacker, two defensive backs and two defensive linemen who were on their way to the NFL. He won his first 20 games.
In 1987, Frank Beamer was named head coach at Virginia Tech. It wasn't long before he was under fire. He was in his seventh season before he won more than six games in a season. Today, in his 16th season, he is hailed as one of the nation's top coaches and has the Hokies contending for a national championship. The bottom line? All rebuilding jobs are not created equal.
Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville has taken a decade's worth of criticism in the five days since the Tigers were beaten 38-17 by Arkansas at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The way his team played in that game is deserving of criticism. But it also makes sense to look at the big picture. Tuberville inherited a mess when he moved to Auburn from Ole Miss in late 1998. Bowden had left at midseason. Bill Oliver had been named interim coach and was the unanimous choice of the players to get the job permanently. The talent level, sliding since the early years of Bowden's career, had hit bottom.
Things don't always happen smoothly or evenly in college football. Tuberville almost surely would have had the Tigers in a bowl game that first season had quarterback Ben Leard not been injured. The next season, Rudi Johnson showed up and the Tigers won the West Division championship.
College football fans are easily spoiled. Once that happened, there was a widespread feeling that the rebuilding job was done. It wasn't and it still isn't. The talent level today is far greater than it was when Tuberville arrived. A large number of players on this team will eventually play in the NFL. But there are still holes. Coaches worried going into the season about the defensive line. What if they had a rash of injuries? They did. They worried about adjusting to new offenses and defenses. They worried about consistency at quarterback. It hasn't been there.
Despite all that, the program is on track. Even as Tuberville and even his players have been trashed on Internet message boards and radio talk shows, those in positions of authority have quietly told him their support has not wavered. The job he took on was a big one. From the start, the 2003 season was viewed as the one that would mark the real beginning of the Tuberville era, the year when all the pieces should be in place. To make any judgment on where the program is headed before that season would be both unfair and unwise.
Last week was pretty much of a disaster for this fearless forecaster. I said Auburn would beat Arkansas. Wrong. I said Tennessee would beat Georgia. Wrong. I said Florida would beat LSU. Wrong. I said Vanderbilt would beat Middle Tennessee State. Wrong. At least I did pick South Carolina to beat Kentucky. Anyway, maybe we'll do better this week. Here are the SEC picks:
Florida 23, Auburn 20;
Alabama 38, Ole Miss 20;
South Carolina 19, LSU 17;
Kentucky 30, Arkansas 28;
Georgia 45, Vanderbilt 10;
Memphis 17, Mississippi State 13.