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This Time They're For Real

After failing to live up to their top billing last year, the revitalized Auburn Tigers have dominated the SEC this fall--and are clawing at the door of the BCS title game

Top 10 teams were taking the pipe all over the South, and now it looked like Auburn's turn. Late in the first half of a scoreless game last Saturday night, Ole Miss had the visitors backed up to their one-yard line. Spurred on by the vocal, well-dressed and well-lubricated crowd in Oxford, the roused Rebels were threatening to spoil the Tigers' unbeaten season. ¶ So it seemed, at any rate, for the duration of one TV timeout. In two plays--two beautifully thrown balls by senior quarterback Jason Campbell--Auburn was 60 yards up the field. Six plays later Campbell scored on a sneak. The Tigers won going away, 35-14.

It was a sloppy victory, but one that triggered joyous celebration among the orange-clad hordes who'd made their way to Faulkner country. With the win Auburn clinched the SEC Western Division, earning a spot in the conference title game on Dec. 4 in Atlanta. There the Tigers are likely to face Tennessee, a team on which they have already opened one can of whoop-ass this season. Then what? Should they finish undefeated, they could--given their current No. 3 standing in the BCS, behind USC and Oklahoma--be excluded from the national title game. And be, like Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride, very put out.

Not that you'll catch any of them looking ahead. These guys learned that lesson last year. After getting smoke blown up their backsides throughout the summer of 2003--some national publications had them as the preseason No. 1--the Tigers dropped their first two games. Recalls left tackle Marcus McNeill, "We went into last season with a swagger we hadn't really earned. This year we want to take it one game at a time, seize the moment, play every game as if it's our last."

More remarkable than even that triple cliché is the fact that Auburn has been winning with an undersized defense that was supposed to struggle this year. That unit lost four starters to the NFL after '03 but is now second in the nation in scoring defense (9.7 points per game) and arguably first in cohesiveness and attitude. "Our motto is Meet me at the ball," says middle linebacker Travis Williams, who had a game-high 12 tackles against Ole Miss. "If a couple of guys don't make it to the ball, we get on 'em. We tell 'em, 'Hey, you missed the meetin'.'" Also, they're mean. "On offense," says strong safety Junior Rosegreen, "[offensive coordinator Al] Borges talks about being greedy. On defense [defensive coordinator Gene] Chizik talks about being a [jerk]."

Beg your pardon, Junior? "You know, giving the other team a hard time. Making 'em fear you."

When they're not admiring the work of Rosegreen, Williams & Co., Tigers fans have thrilled to the most potent and imaginative offense seen on The Plains in recent memory. (Auburn's first scoring drive on Saturday night included a triple reverse.) If defenses sit back in a soft zone, the better to control the damage done by Campbell, he hands the ball off to Carnell (Cadillac) Williams or Ronnie (the Hummer) Brown. Both are seniors, and both will go high in next spring's NFL draft. Both also postponed pro careers to take care of unfinished business at Auburn. Neither cares that sharing the backfield means they won't put up Adrian Peterson--like numbers. (Each had 16 carries against Ole Miss: Brown for 100 yards, Williams for 96.) "I didn't come back to win the Heisman," says Cadillac. "I came back to win a championship."

Standing sentinel before a bank of cabinets in Tommy Tuberville's opulent office is a stuffed turkey. The bird was bagged, if anyone asks, by Tuberville's 10-year-old son, Tucker. ("I killed it," says the Tigers coach, "but Tucker was with me, so he thinks it's his.") In cardboard boxes inside those cabinets are printouts of some 15,000 e-mails, tangible evidence of a torrent of support for the coach following a stunning act of duplicity last year.

On Nov. 20, 2003, as Tuberville prepared the team for its annual showdown with Alabama, an Auburn contingent that included university president William Walker, athletic director David Housel and two members of the board of trustees was boarding a private jet bound for Louisville. There they met with Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino in hopes of luring him to The Plains to replace Tuberville. Even in a conference renowned for its treachery, this stunt stood out. Yes, Tuberville's team had underachieved. Unlike the conspirators in the jet, however, the Auburn community saw a bigger picture. The personable, upright Tuberville was well liked. His guys went to class and stayed off police logs. He deserved better.

Despite rumors of his impending dismissal that were swirling around him in the week before the 2003 Iron Bowl, Tuberville focused on business. He told his assistants that things "didn't look good," then asked them to prepare the team as best they could. Auburn beat the Crimson Tide for the third time in Tuberville's five-year tenure. "He put us first, just like a parent would have," recalls noseguard T.J. Jackson. "I love and respect the man."

Three days after the Alabama game, news of the clandestine mission broke. "It was tough," says Tuberville. "You go through a year of ups and downs thinking it can't get much worse, and then this happens." The trip to Louisville caused an immediate backlash. The Auburn community rallied behind Tuberville and railed against Walker and Housel. A sampling of those e-mails:

I wish to express my profound disgust with the manner in which this board, President Walker and Mr. Housel have conducted themselves.--W.T.C., Class of '69.

If the people responsible for this fiasco remain, I will no longer support Auburn. --Brian, Class of 2000.

I will never forget the treachery of our current "leaders."--Joseph F., Class of '79.

While Tigers fans and local media vilified Walker, Tuberville kept to the high road. "I didn't take [the recruiting of Petrino] personally," he says. "I looked at it as a business decision they made." If so, it was a poor one. Walker resigned in January; Housel will step down after this season (though he says that decision has nothing to do with the Petrino affair).

Tuberville's calm and dignity laid the foundation for this season's success. It helped that the Tigers didn't open with Southern Cal, as they had in '03. Auburn lost that game to the eventual co--national champs 23-0. Hung over with disappointment, the Tigers were beaten the following week at Georgia Tech and went on to finish the year 8-5. This fall they opened with routs of Louisiana-Monroe and Mississippi State before hosting LSU, the other defending national champion. Less than seven minutes were left in that game when Auburn took over on its own 41, trailing 9-3. If the home fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium could have heard what Campbell said in the huddle--"We're going to win this game 10-9"--they would have been forgiven for thinking, Yeah, right.

A Parade All-America at Taylorsville (Miss.) High, Campbell was recruited by most of the top programs in the country. At 6'5", 225 pounds, he was tall, strong-armed and mobile. Before playing in a game at Auburn he was nicknamed the Future.

The Future was a bit slow in arriving. He started eight games as a freshman, throwing as many picks (four) as touchdowns. He tantalized with 11 TD passes as a sophomore but last season was often unable to find a rhythm. As recently as in this year's opener he was booed in his home stadium.

On fourth-and-12 on that final drive against LSU, Campbell called Knock Nine Comeback, a pass to wideout Courtney Taylor. LSU brought the house, forcing Campbell to roll out to the right. Just before he was drilled--and before Taylor had come out of his break--Campbell threw to a spot 14 yards downfield. Taylor turned, found the ball, made the catch and moved the chains. Three plays later Campbell calmly waited until Taylor came open in the end zone, then fired a 16-yard strike through a welter of limbs. Final score: 10-9.

That game--indeed, that drive--propelled Campbell to a higher level. In Auburn's next SEC game, against Tennessee, he was again on fire against a ranked opponent. With skeptics doubting that the Tigers could beat a tough team on the road, Campbell completed 12 of 15 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns in the first half of a 34-10 win. He was close to perfect in a 38-20 thumping of Arkansas: 17 completions in 19 attempts, 297 yards, three TDs, no picks.

Campbell takes mild exception to talk of his finally "arriving" this year. He feels he's played pretty well in each of his four seasons. His teammates see a quarterback who has taken the final step toward realizing his potential. "Jason's more relaxed this year," says Williams. "He's showing more leadership; he doesn't seem to get nervous. I think also he's benefited from the relationship with Coach Borges."

Ah, yes, Borges: the toast of the town, the Hawaiian-shirt-sporting savant who has unleashed the powers of Auburn's offense. When Tuberville hired him from Indiana to be his fourth offensive coordinator in four years, the politest response he got was some head-scratching. "It was gutsy of Tommy to hire me," says Borges. "I'm sure there were some sexier candidates."

Borges, a disciple of the West Coast offense, had been the coordinator at UCLA for four years in 2000 when, feeling in a rut, he took the same job at Cal. It was like stowing away on the Lusitania. The Bears went 1-10, and he and the rest of the staff were fired. Borges spent the next two years as the coordinator at Indiana, the basement of Big Ten football.

After Tuberville hired him, one of the first things Borges did was meet with Brown and Williams, his stud backs. He assured them that he wasn't about to turn Auburn's offense into a passing circus. His version of the West Coast offense, Borges told them, was balanced. He would even put them on the field at the same time, line them up as receivers, throw them more passes than they'd ever seen. It sounded like fun. On the final day before underclassmen could declare for the 2004 NFL draft, Brown and Williams met with Tuberville and told him they'd both be returning.

"That," says Tuberville, "was a good day."

How would Borges and Campbell work together? After all, this would be the quarterback's fourth coordinator. Borges came to see that as a plus. Campbell had been "inundated by such a potpourri of offenses," says Borges, that he had little trouble understanding what the new guy taught him. "His learning curve wasn't steep."

Borges has emphasized precision in the passing game, and Campbell, always an accurate passer, has lapped it up. "What I'm trying to do with the kid is keep him grounded in fundamentals," says Borges, "to allow him to play so he's not afraid to make a mistake. He's got a little more of a 'Let 'er rip' mentality this year."

With a no-name defense shutting down opponents; with Cadillac and the Hummer tearing it up on the ground; with Campbell letting 'er rip, the Tigers are 9-0 for the first time since 1994. At Auburn, the Future is now.

Heisman Double Team

Only three times since 1950 has a Heisman winner had a teammate who finished in the top five in the voting. (In '83 Nebraska's Mike Rozier won and Turner Gill was fourth; in '72 the Cornhuskers' Johnny Rodgers was first and Rich Glover third; in '64 John Huarte of Notre Dame won and Jack Snow was fifth.) But this year four teams have two solid candidates. While conventional wisdom says teammates siphon votes from each other, the sheer quality of these eight players suggests that the '04 winner will come from this group.

OKLAHOMA True freshman Adrian Peterson has burst to the front of the Heisman pack with one of the most jaw-dropping debuts in college football history. He's third in the nation in rushing, at 159.0 yards per game, and his maturity has been nearly as impressive. The Sooners have relied on him heavily as a second-half weapon, and he has ground down defenses with his remarkable combination of power and speed. Meanwhile sixth-year senior quarterback Jason White, the Heisman incumbent, has bounced back strongly from last season's late collapse, connecting on 64% of his passes, for 20 TDs and just four interceptions.

USC Junior quarterback Matt Leinart, the consensus preseason pick, has done nothing to hurt his Heisman candidacy, completing 65.4% of his passes for 18 touchdowns and four interceptions for the No. 1 Trojans. But much of his thunder has been stolen by supersoph Reggie Bush. The most electrifying player in the nation, Bush is averaging 171.6 all-purpose yards and has 11 touchdowns, including a dazzling 59-yard punt return in USC's 42-12 demolition of Washington State last Saturday.

CALIFORNIA If there's a quarterback better than Leinart, it's junior Aaron Rodgers, who outplayed his counterpart in their Oct. 9 showdown and has hit on 71.1% of his passes, helping position the Bears for their first Rose Bowl berth since 1959. Rodgers's backfield mate, senior J.J. Arrington, is fourth in the nation in rushing (158.0 yards per game) and is the only player other than Oklahoma's Peterson to have rushed for 100 yards in every game.

MICHIGAN Two Wolverines have thrust themselves into the Heisman race. True freshman back Michael Hart has been even more productive than Peterson recently, with three straight 200-yard rushing performances following his breakout 160-yard game against Minnesota on Oct. 9. Over the same span Braylon Edwards has solidified his standing as the nation's top wideout. He had a Heisman-worthy performance in last Saturday's 45-37 win against Michigan State, with 11 catches for 189 yards, including two leaping grabs in the end zone in the fourth quarter and a 24-yard catch-and-run for the game-winner in the third overtime.

SI'S HEISMAN TOP FIVE (this week) 1. Peterson 2. Rodgers 3. Bush 4. Leinart 5. Edwards

Says Borges, "What I'm trying to do with Campbell is keep him grounded in fundamentals, so he's not afraid to make a mistake. He's got a LET 'ER RIP mentality this year."


Photograph by Bob Rosato


Cadillac has been in overdrive in the Tigers' West Coast offense--against Ole Miss he had 70 yards receiving and 96 rushing.


Photograph by Bob Rosato


Tuberville is more secure than ever.




Bush (left) and Peterson have Heisman rivals on their own teams.



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Photograph by Bob Rosato


Safety Will Herring and the "meet me at the ball" defense have allowed the second-fewest points in the nation.