Auburn game preview

On August 30, 2003 a pair of Top 8-ranked teams, both with national championship aspirations, meet in steamy, sold-out (86,063) Jordan-Hare Stadium in a CBS nationally-televised contest. No. 8 USC carries over an 8-game winning streak from 2002, while No. 6 Auburn is looking to avenge last year's loss to the Trojans. The last time USC played an opener when both teams were ranked this high was in its national championship season of 1972.

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 Colorado where people predicted USC would fade from fatigue going into the third and fourth quarters due to the altitude.  Now, this year, Tuberville's got everybody talking heat.  The kind that turns an athlete's sweat into soda pop syrup and everything they touch feels like melting cotton candy.  He's painting a picture of hell on earth just to give his Tigers that edge from the unknown.  He thinks because USC hasn't set foot in the state of Alabama since 1978 that they won't be able to handle it.  What he's failed to tell his Tigers is that the last time a USC team did visit, they whooped the then number one ranked Crimson Tide and won a National Championship.  He thinks Coach Orgeron, Kiffin and Messrs. Ross, Booty, Ramsey, Williams and Watson don't know heat?  Hell.  All I can say to that is... "Boy, whatchu talkin' ‘bout?" These Trojans grew up dancing in to and out of southern fried summers.  They know exactly how hot it gets and they ain't afraid, no sir.  They're coming to play ball. 


On August 30, 2003 a pair of Top 8-ranked teams, both with national championship aspirations, meet in steamy, sold-out (86,063) Jordan-Hare Stadium in a CBS nationally-televised contest.  No. 8 USC carries over an 8-game winning streak from 2002, while No. 6 Auburn is looking to avenge last year's loss to the Trojans.  The last time USC played an opener when both teams were ranked this high was in its national championship season of 1972.  It's USC's first-ever visit to Auburn (and only Troy's third trip to the state of Alabama), as well as its first journey to a Southeastern Conference stadium since 1982.  It's also USC's third consecutive game against a Top 7 opponent.  The Trojans are trying to continue the momentum of their magical 2002 campaign, when they finished with an 11-2 record, a No. 4 final ranking, a share of the Pac-10 championship, decisive wins over traditional rivals UCLA and Notre Dame and an impressive victory in the BCS' Orange Bowl.  But USC, under third-year coach Pete Carroll, will have to do it without the likes of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Carson Palmer and 2-time All-American first team safety Troy Polamalu.  Instead, it'll rely on a strong defense, led by the "Wild Bunch II" and some talented offensive skill position players (including 2002 Freshman All-American wide receiver Mike Williams).  Auburn also is coming off a stellar season, having gone 9-4 in 2002 while winning a share of the SEC Western Division title and beating Penn State in the Capital One Bowl to earn a No. 14 final ranking.  Obviously, there's a lot on the line for these two quality opponents so let's look a little closer and see how these boys matchup and what the difference makers might be.


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).  Auburn's solid defense is spearheaded by senior LBs Karlos Dansby (76 tac, 14 for loss, 4 sack, 3 int, 2 FR in 2002), a 2002 All-SEC first team pick, and LB Dontarrious Thomas (92 tac, 11 for loss, 3 sack, 2 FR in 2002).  Experience is such a key factor in college football and Auburn has that in nearly every spot on the field - nearly.


As good, no great, as Auburn's running backs are, their defensive counterparts are not.  The only true player in the Tiger secondary, Junior Rosegreen has been forced to move from his natural position of safety to corner back.  No one else around him as any real playing time.   There can be no question that Auburn fields two outstanding linebackers and a solid dline, but linemen and backers will not hang with SC's skill players out in space.  Every student of Trojan football 2002 remembers asking the question last season, "if Coach Chow spreads MacKenzie, Kelly, Williams and Colbert wide, while leaving McCullough or Fargas in the backfield, how will any team defense that?"  The answer was "they won't."  Well, despite the fact that some of the names, it appears the talent level has remained the same.  Steve Smith, Reggie Bush, Whitney Lewis and Dominick Byrd are going to be asked to do what comes naturally - catch the ball and run fast.  That's a lot to ask of boys on the verge of becomming men.  Mike Williams had his worst outting in a similar environment when the Trojans travelled to Kansas.  But, if SC hopes to produce anything offensively, the performance of these newbies will be key.  The speed of these players will expose a very week Auburn secondary and when it does, Auburn will be forced to pull the safeties from run protection to minimize the big play.  When they do, it will be up to Herschel Dennis and the SC running backs to get by Auburn's talented front seven and pop 4-5 yard gains.  It'll be pretty, if it works and it could be SC's best chance at victory.


Another chink in the Auburn armor is Special Teams.  The Tigers graduated Damon Duvall, the best all around kicker they've had in school history.  Since then, they've struggled to name starters at most of their key positions - namely punter and place kicker.  In a defensive war like both teams will face this weekend, Special Teams becomes integral to success.  Poor production led to the Trojan's only conference loss. Both teams know the importance of these units and in a game of inches and missed fieldgoals, both teams will look to maximize these units' output. In contrast, USC returns nearly every player to their starting Special Teams' squads including two of the best kickers they've had in recent memory.  Added to that, they get back their leading punt returner, and top gunner, Kevin Arbet.  Arbet was lost prior to last season due to a foot injury.  It took a lot of shuffling to cover the gap left by his absence and he will be more than "special" for his return.  No doubt, Special Teams will be a deciding factor in Saturday's matchup.




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,, 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.  Iowa knows it.  So does Notre Dame and UCLA.  Auburn's is very aware they might learn it too.  And that will be the ultimate, burning heat felt in Jordan Hare stadium this coming weekend.  Not a little humidity.


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 will get Troy there.  By the end of their tenure, they will be as legendary as any player to ever take the field.  And they might just prove it this Saturday night.


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 Auburn's that will be a deciding factor.  Another will be Special Teams.  SC will need no less than nine points from Special Teams to come out on top.  For all I said above and I do believe, Auburn is a top ten team.  They are not overrated.  Beating them at Jordan Hare will take an act of God.  But then again, God is, afterall, a Trojan.


Final score:  USC 23  Auburn 20 in OT. Top Stories