Expected to field a powerful running attack with junior stars Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and Ronnie Brown leading the way, Auburn is ranked a dismal 116th nationally in total offense and 117th--dead last--in scoring with just three points in two outings. Auburn¹s defense has been solid, but has not played up to expectations either in the 23-0 loss to Southern Cal and a 17-3 setback at Georgia Tech.
Coach Tommy Tuberville¹s task this week has been to repair the offense and the egos of his shell-shocked players, who went into the season ranked sixth nationally but have quickly dropped out of the Top 25. "It will be interesting to see how we react," Tuberville says. "Our players are looking forward to this weekend and to getting on the right track."
Tuberville has had high praise for Vanderbilt¹s offense, noting that the Commodores will challenge his team as the Tigers look to win for the twelfth straight time vs. Vandy. "We have our hands full," the coach says. "I think Vanderbilt is one of the most improved teams in our league and they are very talented. They should have won their first conference game against Ole Miss, but they made too many turnovers that cost them the ball game.
"Their quarterback is going to be one of the better quarterbacks in our league the next couple of years. He¹s an accurate quarterback who throws a lot of percentage passes, but he also takes a lot chances throwing the ball downfield to put his team in a position to win. They are going to be ready to play."
Auburn¹s offensive numbers are difficult to understand for a team that returned most of its key players from a squad that normally had no problems moving the ball in 2002. The Tigers are netting just 197 yards per game with only 41.5 on the ground. The Tigers have struggled to produce positive yardage on first down and that helps explain a 22 percent third down conversion ratio.
Quarterback Jason Campbell has not made much happen. The returning starter has completed 32-59 passes for 311 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns. His pass protection has been substandard as 13 sacks in two games would indicate. He also hasn¹t been helped by dropped passes from receivers.
Defensively, the Tigers feature talented linebackers in seniors Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas. Dansby has played particularly well vs. Vandy the past two years and scored a touchdown on a sack of Jay Cutler in the rain last season at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The Auburn defensive front has been solid against the run this season, but has not put much pressure on the opposing quarterbacks.
Auburn¹s rebuilt secondary, considered a question going into the season, hasn¹t played great football, but is not the reason for the team¹s struggles. The main blame goes to the offense where offensive line coach Hugh Nall and new quarterback coach Steve Ensminger have taken over the offensive coordination and play-calling duties after the Tigers lost 2002 offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino to Louisville, where he is head coach. Much of the focus of this week¹s road trip has been getting the execution problems on offense ironed out.
Seniors such as All-American candidate Dansby called a players only meeting on Sunday to make sure their teammates sense the urgency needed to be successful as the Tigers begin SEC play.
"It¹s time," Dansby says. "It¹s time for people to do what they need to do to help this team out and make this team better. You just can¹t sit back and be relaxed any more. Our backs are against the wall and like a cat being cornered we are going to come out fighting."
Saturday¹s game will be a homecoming for Auburn¹s true freshman starting kickers. Kody Bliss was punting for Brentwood Academy at this time last year as was his teammate John Vaughn, the surprise winner of the field goal duties over junior Philip Yost.