The Fall of the House of Auburn is easily the biggest story thus far in this young college football season. After the Tigers unexpectedly dropped their first two games to Southern Cal and Georgia Tech, Auburn Head Coach Tommy Tuberville is being roasted on the spit by fans and the Alabama media. To say that he is suddenly on the hot seat is an understatement-- the vultures are circling.
Auburn was the preseason pick of almost everyone to win the SEC, and a few publications picked the Tigers to win it all. National magazine covers were awash with Tigers striking fearsome poses.
Then the season started. Two games later, the Vanderbilt game is considered a "must-win" for Tuberville.
Funny, a mere ten days ago, you couldn't have gotten a plug nickel for the Commodores' chances in this game; now the contest will carry more than its share of intrigue. Oddsmakers have installed Auburn as a 12-1/2-point road favorite; two weeks ago, that might easily have been 25-30. The eyes of a nation will be watching Saturday to see whether Auburn rights itself, or falls to 0-3.
The big question for Vanderbilt Saturday-- does it help or hurt to play the talented Tigers in the midst of such a dizzying plummet?
"I don't know," Vandy Head Coach Bobby Johnson said Monday, in response to that very question. "I'm sure they are pretty upset and that they are going to work extremely hard to try to work out some of their problems.
"But if you watch them on film, they're awfully talented. They have some great athletes. It looks like they are just inches away from making the plays they've needed to be 2-0 right now."
Despite the record, Auburn still has that "stable" of dangerous running backs, led by Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. Though USC and Georgia Tech were able to keep the Tiger running game in check by stacking the defensive front, Commodore fans remember that Auburn's ground attack was able to punish Vanderbilt in the Tigers' 31-6 win last year.
"I'm sure they're going to try to pound us, because they pounded us pretty good last year," said Johnson. "We haven't been tested by the run yet this year. I'm sure they're going to see if we can stop the run. They've got a stable of running backs that ought to be able to run against anybody.
"Getting behind early took them out of running opportunities against Southern Cal and Georgia Tech and those teams didn't have to worry about it. But from the start of the game, we're certainly going to be worried about their running attack."
Auburn's inability to score a touchdown in eight quarters has its critics making the kind of jokes usually reserved for the Vanderbilts of the world. (The Tiger offense couldn't score against tall grass, etc.)
"Their offense has kind of sputtered," said Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler. "But this is the third game. I'm sure they'll get some of the wrinkles out."
The fear is that the Tigers will rediscover their missing ground game and commence taking out their frustrations Saturday. Auburn is typically accompanied by a large contingent of fans when they travel on the road, and Vanderbilt Stadium should see plenty of orange and blue Saturday.
But by the same token, if Vanderbilt is able to take an early lead, it could shake the confidence of an Auburn fan base that is wondering whether all that preseason hype was just that. It could also force Tuberville's team into a passing game, which isn't its strong suit.
Although the Tigers are likely come to Nashville snarling, Commodore cornerback Dominique Morris said Auburn couldn't possibly hold as much pent-up frustration as the Commodores, losers of 18 straight SEC games.
"They're gonna be just as upset as we are," Morris said. "We're still just as upset and we want that win as much as they do."
The Commodores are still searching for that elusive SEC win that will break the hideous losing streak and signal the arrival of a new era for Commodore football.
The opener vs. Ole Miss would have made for a grand day to start a new era, but it didn't happen. Vanderbilt fell short, 24-21, but things appeared to be different afterwards. The players learned that they could hang with a team like Ole Miss, and losing it close as they did only served to cheese them off even more.
Vanderbilt teams of the past might have followed the close loss to Ole Miss with a poor performance, or even a loss, against a team like Chattanooga. But Johnson's team was able to channel the frustrations from the Ole Miss game into a 51-6 pounding of the Mocs the following week.
Cutler said he hoped fans will realize this is a different Vanderbilt team from teams past. But are the Commodores ready for a game in the limelight like this one?
"We're not going to go out and just lay down for Auburn," Cutler said. "We played Ole Miss tough-- we should have won it. I hope [Vandy fans] realize that. I hope they'll come to the Auburn game and let us put on a show for them."
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