Tigers look for answers against Vols
There is no evidence of a spike in prescriptions for lithium in Auburn, Ala., these day, but it would come as no surprise. The mood swings in the Loveliest Village on the Plain have been violent this autumn.
First Auburn football is the hottest commodity in the nation, rating a preseason No. 1 ranking from The Sporting News, the cover of ESPN The Magazine and a blowout spread in the New York Times. Then it's an object of nationwide ridicule after being utterly smothered in its first two games. Then, after two blowouts of overmatched opponents, chests are beginning to puff out once again.
All that, and we've just hit October.
Now we should learn exactly where the truth lies, and where Auburn's self-esteem should locate itself. The Tigers host Tennessee Saturday, the latest and largest stop on their Image Rehabilitation Tour.
"We'll find out a lot more about our team this week," coach Tommy Tuberville said.
Is the Auburn offense the inept unit that looked like it couldn't score against tackling dummies in losses to USC and Georgia Tech, producing a total of three points? Last time the Tigers were that anemic across two games was 1967.
Or is the Auburn offense the powerful unit that scored 93 points against Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky, the school's highest two-game total since 1996?
Will Auburn run like it did against the Trojans and Yellow Jackets, compiling a pathetic 83 yards on 74 carries?
Or will Auburn run like it did against the Commodores and Hilltoppers, rolling up 504 rushing yards on 96 attempts?
Will Auburn's offensive line leave quarterback Jason Campbell running for his life like it did in the first two games, when he was sacked 13 times?
Or will it protect him like it did in the last two games, when Campbell wasn't sacked at all?
Will Campbell play like the panicked QB who threw two interceptions and zero touchdowns the first two weeks?
Or will he play like the poised QB who threw three TDs and zero picks the last two?
Is it true that Auburn has found its offense? ("We had to look real hard for it, I know that," Tuberville said. "First two games, it didn't look like we had an offense.")
Or did Auburn simply find a charitable stretch of the schedule that allowed it to look better than it really is?
The answers are quite likely somewhere in between -- but they have to be skewed toward the high end for the Tigers to beat the No. 7 Volunteers and return to the national radar screen.
Tennessee ranks 15th nationally in scoring defense, 25th in total defense and 22nd in rushing defense. Not only that, the howitzer leg of punter Dustin Colquitt has often left opponents a long way from scoring territory.
Tuberville, for one, believes his team has regained its swagger -- but, he hopes, not the swollen heads that apparently went with it.
"I don't there's any doubt we got humbled," he said. "We ran into two pretty good defenses and didn't have an answer. ... We ran into a buzzsaw, kind of lost our confidence.
"We feel good about how we've played the last couple games. The thing we needed was some confidence. The last two games we played hard, played well and played consistent."
The opening schedule was a trap that nobody saw coming.
Auburn's defense was so powerful and its running backs so talented that nobody stopped to worry about a new offensive coordinator (Hugh Nall), new play-caller (quarterbacks coach Steve Ensminger) or a starting QB who had never proven that he could win big games with his arm. Combine those factors with opponents who are hardly from the Sun Belt mode of early-season scheduling, and the Tigers were set up for a huge pratfall.
All that national title talk was shredded like Toomer's Corner toilet paper. War Eagle was almost changed to Surrender Eagle. Raging Auburn fans quickly moved past firing Tuberville on the message boards to speculating on his replacement.
The panic subsided when perennial SEC cure-all Vanderbilt popped up on the schedule. After going nine quarters without a touchdown, Auburn exploded for six of them -- then did much the same thing to defending I-AA champion Western Kentucky.
After the Vandy game, Tuberville had 72-year-old former NFL coach Zeke Bratkowski to come in and serve as an offensive consultant. Bratkowski watched film, watched practice and offered his tweaks and suggestions to Tuberville, who implemented many of them during Auburn's bye week between Vandy and Western.
Among the changes: tight end Anthony Mix was moved to wide receiver, where he responded with a career-high five catches for 40 yards against Western; the offensive line combinations were revamped and the running back rotations were rejiggered.
The running game is in high gear now, with Tuberville doling out carries with an eyedropper, trying to keep an array of quality backs happy. The main issue there is working heralded JUCO transfer Brandon Jacobs into the mix without alienating the veterans.
Carnell "Cadillac" Williams is the leading rusher at 54 yards per game, followed by Ronnie Brown at 51 and Jacobs at 43. After not running the ball the first two games, Jacobs picked up 68 yards against Vandy and 103 on just 10 carries against the Hilltoppers -- then told the Alabama media, "If I were me, I'd start me."
Tuberville stopped short of saying Jacobs will start, but did say, "He wants to play more, and I think he's going to get obliged."
More importantly, Campbell has picked up his performance behind more reliable blocking.
"Jason Campbell's playing better," Tuberville said. "Your quarterbacks's usually as good as the offensive line, and the offensive line wasn't very good the first two games. Jason's settled down. He's settled into a comfort zone."
The tricky thing for Auburn is finding the comfort zone without reverting to being too comfortable. We'll see against Tennessee whether the Tigers have stopped the mood swings and located the proper frame of mind to compete for an SEC title.
Pat Forde covers college football for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
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