Last year, Jason Campbell could see the strain in Tommy Tuberville's face. Auburn had been a trendy preseason pick for the national title, and when the Tigers lost their first two games, the pressure on Tuberville, in his fifth year as head coach, was plain. The speculation about Tuberville's future grew beyond typical, late-season rumors when Auburn's president, athletic director and two members of the board of trustees flew to meet with Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino, lining up a replacement for a coach who was still in place.
After Saturday's dominant 24-6 victory over Georgia, Tuberville seems entrenched at Auburn, and the talk has turned from tenuous futures of individuals to the controversial future of a nasty, unbeaten football team.
"It seems so long ago now," said Campbell, Auburn's senior quarterback, by telephone yesterday, thinking about the swirl around Tuberville a year ago. "But the way Coach Tuberville handled the whole situation, the way he showed composure and took care of everything, I think it rubbed down to the team. I could see it in him last year. There was a lot of pressure on him, with the expectations and everything. It was like he was scared to make mistakes, and so we were scared to make mistakes.
"This year, he's totally different. He's so relaxed, and he lets everyone play. It's like he's a laid-back coach now."
Everything about Auburn is more secure now -- except its postseason future. The Tigers (10-0) yesterday pulled into a tie with Oklahoma for the second spot in the Associated Press media poll, and are just two points behind the Sooners in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. The Tigers sat in third in the Bowl Championship Series standings last week, and the top two teams play for the national title.
"It's something we don't dwell on a whole lot," Campbell said. "But we're getting down to the last part of the season, and we're starting to look at the whole picture. We feel like if we go undefeated, we deserve a shot. I mean, we play in the SEC, the best conference in the nation."
That, in a nutshell, would be the Tigers' argument should they beat Alabama this week and also win the SEC championship game -- likely against Tennessee -- on Dec. 4. The AP and ESPN/USA Today polls make up two-thirds of the BCS formula, with the average of six computer polls making up the other third.
"We've made a lot of headway," Tuberville said yesterday. "We knew going into this game we were going to have to gain some ground, playing against a top-five team [Georgia was fifth in the coaches' poll], and it looks like the voters were very fair to us."
Though the gains the Tigers made in the human polls were significant -- especially because the BCS formula takes into account the number of points each team receives, not just the position -- they have further to go in the rankings. Last week, Oklahoma's .990 computer score was tops, followed by Southern California's .970. Auburn was well back at .870.
Tuberville, for his part, said he doesn't know how that works. He does, however, know how he feels about his team. "I can't fathom any SEC team not getting the chance to play for the national championship if they go undefeated," he said.
There are several reasons Tuberville's team is in this position. Campbell (15 touchdown passes, four interceptions) leads one of the nation's most balanced offenses (201.4 yards rushing, 229.9 yards passing). The ferocious defense has allowed just 12 touchdowns all year, fewest in the country, and gives up 9.3 points per game, best in the nation. There's not as much flash as top-ranked USC or Oklahoma.
"We feel like the way we're playing right now, as a team, has to be looked at and taken into consideration -- not just that we're winning, but how we won," Campbell said. "We don't base things on how we do as individuals. It's what we do as a team."
What they've done as a team is respond to a coach who was granted another chance, and made the controversy about the BCS, not the school itself. "Three weeks from today," Tuberville said, "we'll know a lot more than we do today."
5th Bowl Piques Network Interest
Plans to add a fifth major bowl game to the BCS have drawn interest from more than one television network, BCS Chairman Kevin Weiberg told a group of presidents representing the 11 major football-playing conferences Sunday, and could be finalized before this season's bowl games.
"We've been encouraged by our meetings up to this point," he said in a conference call with reporters. "We have multiple parties who have interest in the package, and we're confident we're going to be able to continue to move the talks along."
It's possible that the expanded BCS games could be carried by more than one network. The Tournament of Roses recently signed an eight-year contract extension with ABC, but BCS officials are shopping the other bowls to competing networks.
Staff writer Liz Clarke contributed to this report.