Tommy Tuberville, Head Coach for the
Auburn Tigers, has earned a nickname "The Riverboat Gambler," for his daring
gameday strategies. In preparing
for the USC Trojans he has sounded more like "The Rainmaker," with his prayers
for hot, sticky, humid rain come this Saturday when the Trojans visit Jordan
Hare Stadium. It's very similar to
the Trojans' last season opener in
Fifth-year head coach Tommy
Tuberville welcomes back 16 starters (8 on each side of the ball) from an Auburn
squad that went 9-4 last season (5-3 for a share of the SEC Western Division
title), beat Penn State in the Capital One Bowl and finished with a No. 14
ranking. The Tiger offense, led by
junior QB Jason Campbell (94-of-149, 63.1%, 1,215 yds, 11 TD, 5 int in 2002),
features a strong running attack (2,648 rushing yards in 2002) that includes
junior tailbacks Carnell "Cadillac" Williams (141 tcb, 745 yds, 5.3 avg, 10 TD
in 2002) and Ronnie Brown (175 tcb, 1,008 yds, 5.8 avg, 13 TD in 2002).
As good, no great, as
Another chink in the
WARNING: AUBURN FANS MIGHT WANT TO STOP READING HERE.
It would be nice if USC had a tuneup game prior to this match, but they don't. And it seems as if Auburn has every possible advantage from homefield through humidity to the self-labeled Four Horsemen. With all that going for Auburn, what might lead to a Trojan victory beyond what was mentioned above? The greatest aspect of any hard fought competition - mindset. Auburn's need versus the Trojan's desire.
Coach Tuberville has been talking about the heat since he saw USC destroy Iowa in the Orange Bowl. In truth, though, the heat is on Auburn, not USC. It's been 46 years since Auburn won its only national championship and 14 years since the Tigers last won a Southeastern Conference championship. Coach Tuberville shied away from nationally recognized non-conference matchups as he retooled the Tigers' program for three seasons beginning in 1999. But an improved team demanded an improved schedule. This weekend's game will be Auburn's most anticipated non-conference game in years. The Tigers, ranked by some publications as the nation's top team, have plenty on the line -- most importantly the team's ability to handle high expectations. In fact, expectations haven't been this high since 1984, when the Tigers opened at No. 1 and Bo Jackson was a contender for the Heisman Trophy. Home games are sold out. Team media guides, also sold to the public, are gone, too. Even last Saturday's practice attracted 8,500 fans. Around town and at alumni meetings this summer everyone was talking about a national championship.
When you live in the great state of Alabama, you spend most your time looking for large objects that cast great shadows - you know, to get out of that aforementioned heat. And in that same state, there is only one historically great football team - The Crimson Tide. And in trying to escape from the shadow cast by this football behemoth, Tuberville has taken his Auburn Tigers from the frying pan and dropped them square into the fire. Now that's heat. Auburn faces much the same challenge USC's crosstown rival UCLA does year in and year out - how to surpass a legend. The spotlight is on Auburn. They've been labeled number one by a pair of publications and now the country wants to know if the hype is real. The national media coverage of Saturday's game will be unprecedented for the Tigers. New York NewsDay, Sports Illustrated, the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, New York Times, Sports Illustrated.com, ESPN.com, the Washington Times, ESPN Radio and the New Orleans Times-Picayune all are credentialed to cover the game along with reporters who regularly cover Auburn and USC. CBS Sports is televising the game. Verne Lundquist will call the play-by-play, with former Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge providing color commentary. Jill Arrington will handle sideline reporting for CBS. Adding to the pressure, in a recent article previewing the USC vs. Auburn game, a local writer raised five central questions regarding Tommy's Tigers. His final question and answer said it all... "Will USC have ruined Auburn's season by 9 p.m. Saturday? The mere possibility of this is the best reason why you won't see the Tigers schedule any similar games in the future. Despite outcries from over-ambitious fans, the best thing a head coach can do to win a national championship in the SEC is to fill the non-conference schedule with Division I-AA teams like Western Kentucky and The Citadel. The only reason Auburn scheduled USC was the fact that both teams needed to find an extra opponent for 2003 after the NCAA allowed the schedule to expand to 12 games in certain years. As a result, the Tigers are facing their most talented opponent all season in the first game of the year. After accepting -- and welcoming -- high expectations all summer long, the Tigers will find out just how burdensome those expectations are if they lose the first game of the season on national television." Saturday's matchup is much like those of past, when the great Bear Bryant would field his ‘Bama team against his west coast equal St. John's USC Trojans. So, for Tuberville and the Tigers, this is their chance to get up on stage and that is the difference between Auburn's mindset and USC's. Auburn NEEDS this win. And when you need something that badly, you can get a little desperate, make a bad call as a coach, go to the wrong spot as a player or just suddenly feel the heat as a team. Auburn cannot and will not survive losing. For if they do, the will spend the rest of the season trying to climb back into the top ten and regain the respect from their community. They could beat the heck out of Bama later in the year and it won't matter - the season will have been lost.
USC, on the other hand, has already
been given a pass. Everyone knows
SC is going on a very difficult roadtrip without their Heisman Trophy winner,
Thorpe finalist and three current NFL running backs. Just for getting back to the top and
returning the Trojans to the national spotlight, Carroll is getting a
well-deserved break. All he has to
do is stay close and walk away healthy.
From there, the season is his if he plays the team to their ability. But that's not Carroll's or USC's
game. Through very obvious growing
pains, the Trojans have learned what it's like to win again. They don't need wins anymore. They desire them. They bought into Carroll's program and
already know what it is to win the big game, to crush an opponent, to turn the
sportsworld upside down and to come out with everything a team could want save
the National Championship. They've
regained Trojan pride. Now
they have the desire to accomplish more.
The desperation fed by need is gone. It is gone, replaced with a sense of...
confidence. USC knows if they play
their game and ignore the naysayers and prognosticators, they will win.
The final factor that could USC the
deciding edge is the one thing that returned the Trojans to prominence and will
keep it there throughout their tenure - the coaching staff. No slight to Tuberville, who is an
outstanding coach with a solid support team, but the Trojan staff is truly
second to none. As great a leader
as Coach Carroll is, he showed his greatest skill when he compiled this
collection of professionals. Norm
Chow has yet to meet his match and Coach Orgeron has the team's best unit
playing at a level not seen at USC since the original Wild Bunch. What Trojan fans have witnessed and
nearly come to expect from this crew is outstanding game day preparation and
more importantly game day adjustments.
Through top conditioning and on the fly moves, the Trojans have been able
to completely dominate every opponent they have faced from the second half
on. Doing that to the Auburn
Tigers, in their stadium, so early in the season is going to take a herculean
effort. But, if the Trojans are
competing with six minutes to play, it will be because their coaching staff put
them in the position to do so. So,
despite all the hype for our outstanding players, it is the coaching staff that
Predictions: It's going to take 24 points or more to
win this game. SC's defense won't
give up much, but their offense, through freshmen mistakes, may not hold up
their part of the bargain. If the
Trojans can minimize their turnovers and capitalize on
Final score: USC 23