When Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville picked up the phone Sunday afternoon, the first words out of his mouth were "Never say die!"
The Tigers, a preseason top-five team left for dead after losing their first two games by a combined score of 40-3, overpowered previously unbeaten No. 7 Tennessee, 28-21, on Saturday night. With the victory, Auburn climbed over .500 (3-2) and reasserted itself as a contender in the SEC West.
Auburn won the way that those of us in the expert business predicted they would before the disastrous 23-0 opening loss to USC. Junior tailback Carnell Williams rushed for 185 yards and a touchdown on 36 carries. Ronnie Brown added 65 yards and a touchdown. Brandon Jacobs and Tre Smith combined for 29 yards. The Tigers rushed for 264 yards, controlled the ball for 36:04, and dominated both lines of scrimmage. The Volunteers finished with four rushing yards.
"We got a good team," said Tuberville, who has won five of his last seven games against top-10 teams. "We've gotten a lot more confidence in what we're doing. We struggled a little bit on offense (earlier in the season), trying to get an identity. Offense is hard to play. Defenses are so much quicker and faster. You've got to learn to play offense. You're going to have bad plays. Don't worry about it."
Coming into the season with such high expectations, Tuberville said, his players feared
playing less than perfect.
"In that first game, we dwelled on a bad play, felt sorry for ourselves," he said. "Since the first two games, the guys have said, 'Heck with it.' We do what we do best."
Tuberville is proud of the attitude and work ethic of his players, he said. Their toughest work lies ahead of them. Auburn has three remaining games against top ten teams, all of them on the road. The first one is against No. 8 Arkansas on Saturday. Two weeks later, Auburn goes to No. 6 LSU, and three weeks after that, on Nov. 15, the Tigers play at No. 10 Georgia.
Tuberville is encouraged, but he's not ready to say that Auburn has met its preseason potential. "We were ahead 28-7 with 10 minutes to play," he said of the victory Saturday night, "and we had to intercept the ball at our 15 to win the game. We still got a long way to go."
Rock The Vote
A college football player has the opportunity to vote for his team captain, to vote for what movie the team sees on the night before a game, to vote for student body president, United States president and every elective office in between.
However, until this season, a college football player hasn't had the opportunity to vote for a college football award, as far as we know.
"Yeah, we can do it better," Oklahoma defensive tackle Tommie Harris said. "We're out there playing. You could vote better on a reporter's award than I could."
This year, the Lombardi Award, given to the best interior player in the nation, awarded a ballot not only to the previous winners of its award, but to previous finalists as well. Enter Harris, one of three finalists in 2002 (Arizona State defensive end Terrell Suggs won it). Not only will Harris be trying to beat the center and guards in front of him, he'll be evaluating them as well.
Members of the media typically decide the Heisman, the Lombardi, and all the rest. Many of the awards give votes to former winners. However, when the 1990 winner, junior quarterback Ty Detmer of BYU, returned for his senior season, he didn't get a vote.
"Once his eligibility is over, he got a vote," Rudy Riska of the Downtown Athletic Club said Sunday. "That's how it has been set up from the beginning. We didn't give them a vote until they graduate."
Harris is taking it seriously. The first two guys on his list, he said, are Georgia defensive end David Pollack and Miami defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
"I watched Wilfork against Louisiana Tech," Harris said. "Somebody taped that. I saw Pollack against Clemson. I'd give it to Wilfork. He's so mobile."
Wilfork may want to hold off on a thank-you note. Harris didn't realize that linebackers are eligible until he was asked about them. Objectivity may be out the window. Harris has two very good friends among the best linebackers in the nation.
"Derrick Johnson," said Harris, referring to the Texas junior. "I like his intensity. He's always around the ball. Also, he's a good friend of mine. I played with him all the way through high school." The other one, friend and teammate Teddy Lehman, is one of two returning All-Americans on the Sooner defense. Harris sees the other one every morning in the mirror. Would he vote for Tommie Harris? "Nah," Harris said. "I wouldn't do that."
Mack Brown Comma
Mack Brown's biggest problem is not the charge that his Texas team is soft. It takes a tough team to come back to beat Kansas State, 24-20, after blowing a 17-3 lead. "It's a big confidence builder," junior tailback Cedric Benson said. "We got that swagger back. We can get rid of that 'soft' talk."
Brown's biggest problem is the comma, the one on the wall of the small auditorium across the hall from the Longhorn locker room. On one wall, in large metallic numbers and letters, are lists of all the years in which the Longhorns have won conference or division championships.
There's the "The Big XII Conference" and, beneath it, "1996", looking a little lonely.
There's the "South Division", and, beneath it, "1996, 1999, 2001, 2002", which means that co-championships are included, too.
On the opposite wall, there's "National Champions" and, beneath it, there's three years and three commas: "1963, 1969, 1970,".
It's that last comma that dangles over Brown. Division titles and conference titles are wonderful, but they are not enough. National championships are expected. That's why, when it comes to the three-game losing streak to OU, Longhorn fans treat Brown as if he were a Green Party candidate at an NRA reception.
In the meantime, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder stretched his road record against higher-ranked opponents to 0-18, 0-11 since the Wildcats became a winning team 10 years ago. No one mocks Snyder for that record.
After the Kansas State game Saturday, as the players crossed a walkway that stretches above a concourse in Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, the fans packed below them chanted, "OU sucks! OU sucks!" As the most important week of the Longhorns' season commences, that comma is the engine that drives the impatience of Texas fans.
Texas and Oklahoma are both to be congratulated for playing up to their capabilities in the week preceding an important game. That necessary skill has eluded some top teams in the first six weeks of the season, most recently Miami, which remained No. 2 in the polls released Sunday after its 22-20 defeat of West Virginia last Thursday. The talk of the Hurricanes' annual showdown against No. 5 Florida State had started. For instance, the game Saturday will be the first one in 10 years in which both teams will be undefeated and ranked in the top five.
Judging by their play, the Hurricanes lack the mental discipline to get ready to play every week. Miami spotted Florida a 33-10 lead on Sept. 6 before scoring four touchdowns to win, 38-33. They allowed West Virginia, which lost 34-7 to Maryland on Sept. 20, to go ahead 20-19 in the final three minutes.
There's no question that the loss of tailback Frank Gore, who tore the ACL in his good knee, the left one, 19 months after he tore the ACL in his right knee, will be difficult for Miami to overcome. In the space of nine days, coach Larry Coker and his offensive staff must find a bellcow back from among senior Jarrett Payton, who has never been more than a capable backup; freshman Tyrone Moss, who could pick up Beyonce Knowles before he could pick up a blitzing linebacker; and senior Jason Geathers, who switched late last season from second-string tailback to flanker.
Finding a tailback, even in an offense in which junior quarterback Brock Berlin has shown he isn't ready to put 10 teammates on his shoulders, pales to repairing the breach in Miami's mental readiness. Coker received a remarkable amount of praise for going 24-1 with one national championship in his first two seasons. But it may be that the most valuable leader on those teams was not Coker, but quarterback Ken Dorsey, who departed after last season and took his 38-2 record as a starter with him.
If you thought Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons had great numbers against Texas A&M -- 20-for-30, 305 yards, four touchdowns -- you should have seen him in the second half. Symons finished 34-of-46 for 505 yards, his third consecutive game with more than 500 yards passing, and eight touchdowns, a Big 12 record, and Symons came out of the game with 11:48 to play. The Red Raiders won, 59-28, their biggest margin over the Aggies since a 41-9 victory in 1954, Bear Bryant's first game with the Junction Boys.
The Red Raiders, behind their mad scientist coach Mike Leach and their senior passer, are recalibrating the passing record book the way that Houston and the run-and-shoot offense did in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Andre Ware rode that offense to the 1989 Heisman Trophy. Hmmm...
You can really pick your statistic that shows how far the Nebraska defense has come under new coordinator Bo Pelini. Here's mine: after forcing four turnovers Saturday in the 30-0 defeat of Troy State, Nebraska has 19 takeaways in five games. The Huskers had 15 last season. ... Watch out for Purdue in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers ran 87 snaps to Illinois' 45 in a 43-10 romp on Saturday. Offense and defense are clicking. Purdue must play at Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State, so the road to the Rose Bowl will not be easy. ... Great line by Olin Buchanan of the Austin American-Statesmen, who called the Texas A&M-Texas Tech game, which started at 9 p.m., CT, "late night with lettermen." ... Oregon State tailback Steven Jackson is averaging more rushing yards per game (146.1) than eight of the other nine teams in the Pac-10. If Jackson likes something, he sticks with it. A year ago, he rushed for 239 yards and three touchdowns in 35 carries against California. On Saturday, he rushed for 227 yards and three touchdowns in, yep, 35 carries, in the Beavers' 35-21 victory, their fifth straight over the Bears.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.