SCOTT: Is Tuberville back in hot water?

In the week leading up to Auburn's 2003 game against Alabama, former Auburn University president William Walker led a delegation of Auburn representatives on a clandestine mission to hire then-Louisville coach Bob Petrino to replace Tommy Tuberville as the Tigers' coach.

Between news of the trip broke and Auburn's win over Alabama that Saturday, Auburn fans sided with Tuberville. While Walker was forced out, Tuberville won out, went 13-0 in 2004 and received a major contract extension.


Short-term history insists Tuberville survived the coup. Long-term history suggests he might not.


Between the embarrassing scandal Walker created and a prolonged SACS investigation into interference by the Board of Trustees, opposing programs were able to create confusion and concern among recruits. Other SEC programs told recruits Tuberville wouldn't make it and Auburn would soon be on probation, even though the SACS investigation had nothing to do with the NCAA or athletics.


Auburn is paying that price now and it's one of the primary reasons behind the Tigers' 1-2 start with a near-miss win over Kansas State in the opener and consecutive late-game home losses to South Florida and Mississippi State.


USF and Mississippi State are the kinds of teams Auburn beat habitually over the past three seasons, a span in which the Tigers went 33-5. However, this year's redshirt seniors and juniors were recruited during a period of significant uncertainty, leaving those classes low on numbers and quality players.


Meanwhile, 21 true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores are listed on Auburn's two-deep depth chart. One true freshman, Lee Ziemba, has started all three games at right tackle. Another, quarterback Kodi Burns, played for the first time in the 19-14 loss to Mississippi State when senior quarterback Brandon Cox struggled once again.


Past scandals are just one reason why the Tigers are floundering right now. Cox appears to have lost his confidence and his decision-making isn't what it used to be. Even though he did play well down the stretch against Kansas State and came back to do some positive things late against Mississippi State, he's still thrown six interceptions in three games.


An offensive line with four new starters continue to struggle and the one returning starter, senior left tackle King Dunlap, played far short of expectations before suffering a first-quarter shoulder injury against Mississippi State.


Tight end was supposed to be one of the team's best areas but two of those tight ends, Cole Bennett and Tommy Trott, are dropping passes. One of Bennett's bobbles was returned for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead by Mississippi State safety Derek Pegues.


The receivers are dropping passes as well and redshirt freshman tailback Mario Fannin, an otherwise talented runner, has fumbled three times in the past two games.


The defense has been hit hard by injuries, with one of the team's best players, middle linebacker Tray Blackmon, missing the past 10 quarters. The remaining defenders aren't forcing any turnovers or making big plays.


Add it all up and this is not a very good Auburn team right now. Throw in an apparent lack of chemistry and leadership and the Tigers are struggling to find themselves right now. That may be the worst part for this Auburn team. Even when the Tigers struggled to score points the past two seasons they've known who they are: play hard, play physical, run the ball, play defense, win with special teams and do whatever it takes.


The one factor exacerbating this entire collapse is the momentum currently under construction by new coach Alabama Nick Saban, especially after a dramatic last-minute 41-38 victory over Arkansas on Saturday. Off the field, a long list of top recruits has already committed to Alabama and Saban.


The Paul Finebaum Radio Network, headquartered in Birmingham, is often an accurate and influential gauge of the public temperature. Between the Finebaum show, the message boards and the post-game call-in shows on Saturday, Alabama fans believe their program is on the rise once again and many Auburn fans are in panic mode, concerned that their program is on the decline. All of a sudden, Auburn's five consecutive wins over Alabama aren't carrying as much weight as they once did with fans of either team.


That volatile mix of reality and perception is cutting into Tuberville's public and private support among common fans and the power brokers. Of course, it doesn't help that Florida fired Ron Zook the day after he lost at Mississippi State or that Mike Shula's final straw at Alabama came in a home loss to Mississippi State.


Tuberville has three things working in his favor: he's won in the past and he's done it for eight-plus years; there is plenty of talent among the younger classes; and there's that not-so-little issue of a buyout.


Three years ago when Tuberville seized a large measure of power following the failed coup he agreed to a contract that comes with a $7 million buyout.


At some point, Auburn might have to decide whether or not it has seven million reasons to make a coaching change. For now, the Tigers have big problems to solve, starting with Saturday's game against a pass-happy New Mexico State that suddenly looks a lot scarier than it did a month ago.


"We are not going to panic," Tuberville said. "The guys in there know.  We knew the situation we were in when we started the season.  It's not going to be overnight to get it all going in the right direction, but this hurts, especially a conference game at home.  Last week hurt, but this one hurts a lot more."  


Unfortunately for Auburn, Notre Dame is not on the schedule this week.




Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and featured columnist in Tiger Rag. Reach him at

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