New kind of pressure for AU's Tuberville
Published: Friday, August 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 1, 2003 at 1:25 a.m.
He has been to this rodeo before but this is different. Different from his previous eight seasons as a coach in the SEC. Different from a year ago when his job was considered to be in jeopardy. Different from anything he has experienced since he was an assistant coach in Miami.
He's no longer the underdog, able to motivate through others' doubts.
Tommy Tuberville is now the favorite, the target, the hunted instead of the hunter.
"Some of you didn't think I'd be here this year," Tuberville told reporters at SEC Media Days Thursday. "I guess I'm on a different hotseat this year. I'd rather be on this one."
Auburn is the team to beat in the SEC this year, just one season removed from being picked to finish fifth in the West. The Tigers will likely be in the top five of both major polls when they are released.
The optimism among media members and buzz around the campus are the result of a strong finish last season when the Tigers won five of their last six games and the fact they return 16 starters.
Those 16 starters include two linebackers who turned down a chance to jump to the NFL, four-fifths of the offensive line and a defensive line that may be the most dominant in the conference. There is quality and quantity, enough so that it's not inconceivable that the Tigers could contend for a national title.
"I really do think we can win it," said linebacker Karlos Dansby.
Auburn was the overwhelming pick here to win the SEC. But so much of what will transpire this season depends on how the players and coaches handle it.
We saw just three seasons ago - and Tuberville witnessed it from close up - an Alabama coach who showed up in Birmingham talking title, went 3-8 and lost his job. College football's landscape is littered with hype-turned-horror.
As a result, Tuberville has turned to old friends to see how they handled elevated expectations, including Jimmy Johnson who was the head coach at Miami when Tuberville was an assistant.
"It's a different scenario for us," Tuberville said. "The last few years, we've been pretenders, trying to convince our team it was as good as everyone else in the league. You have to have the confidence you can win every game. This year, for the first time, our team is going to have that feeling."
Still, there is nothing on Tuberville's resume as a head coach to suggest that this year's team should be taken seriously as a national contender.
This is still the same coach who has lost 19 games over the past four seasons at Auburn. This is still a coach who is under .500 in the SEC during his eight seasons at Ole Miss and Auburn. This is still a coach who has never won in Fayettville and who made boneheaded calls in consecutive games in Gainesville.
And this is still a team with some holes. It's just that the Tigers seem to have fewer than most teams.
That's why the loudest buzz in the conference is coming from Toomer's Corner.
"The players and coaches know what we're getting into," Tuberville said. "Our goal is to go to Atlanta and win in Atlanta. You have to win games when you don't play well. Georgia did that last year. Now, it's our turn."
While Tuberville has to find a kicker, a punter, a back-up quarterback and a cornerback between now and the beginning of the season, he also has to balance an incredible group of running backs. Three returners combined to rush for 2,207 yards and 26 touchdowns a year ago and Auburn has added 6-foot-4, 250-pound Brandon Jacobs.
The big question in the preseason will be finding enough carries for all of the quality tailbacks.
"I got them all together this summer and told them I keep reading how I'm supposed to keep you guys all happy," Tuberville said. "I looked in the media guide and next to my name it says, 'head coach.' You're supposed to keep me happy."
There is also the question of the quarterback. Jason Campbell has shown talent, but has also been erratic. He lost confidence as a freshmen after being introduced repeatedly to Syracuse defensive end Dwight Freeney. Last year, Campbell's ability to pick up the offense was questioned by Tuberville publicly.
But Campbell did step in midway through the season and threw for 11 touchdowns while running for three more.
"I feel I'm ready to lead this team," Campbell said. "We're ready. We used to use the media predictions as motivation. Our attitude has changed. We have the bulls-eye on us. Everybody is going to come at us."
The task is made more difficult by a schedule that includes Southern Cal, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. And, of course, there is always that game at Fayettville.
But the fact that everyone is noticing Auburn football again is refreshing for Tuberville, his coaches and the players.
"You can't help but see it," Dansby said. "It's everywhere right now. On campus, everyone is getting pumped. Everyone's asking, 'Y'all ready?' "
You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at email@example.com or by calling 374-5053. You can hear Pat weekdays from 4-5 p.m. on WGGG 1230-AM in Gainesville and WMOP 900-AM in Ocala.
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