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Fuel the fire

Auburn should use academic issues as rallying cry

Posted: Friday July 28, 2006 9:14PM; Updated: Saturday July 29, 2006 6:20PM

HOOVER, Ala. -- Tommy Tuberville had to know it was coming.

The Auburn coach took the podium at Friday's SEC Media Day and began talking about the target on the back of a team that's the overwhelming favorite to win the league -- but the real target everyone was concerned with had nothing to do with the product on the field and everything to do with the controversy surrounding "direct reading courses."

The New York Times alleged an Auburn sociology professor abused the independent study course system by giving credit to students -- a reported 18 of the 250 involved are members of the football team -- for little to no work.

"If we're doing something wrong, please look at us and tell us," Tuberville said. "I promise you, we'll change it. We're going to do things right." The university has launched an investigation into the matter, though Tuberville says he doesn't "foresee anything happening."

While linebacker Will Herring called the allegations "unfair," he said the team's academics haven't been discussed in the locker room.

"I don't think that's even a question we have to answer among ourselves," he said.

While everyone is claiming the investigation isn't an issue, Tuberville may be wise to make it one. Because as we've seen in the past, this is a team that plays better when it has a chip on its shoulder, not when it's everyone's darling.

Think back to 2003 when the Tigers started the season ranked No. 3, only to go 8-5 and earn a trip to the Music City Bowl, nearly getting Tuberville fired. The next season, the pressure was off and the team went 13-0 and was part of a national title debate that Tuberville says he still thinks about "every day." In '05, nobody expected anything out a team that had to fill the shoes of NFL first-round picks "Cadillac" Williams, Ronnie Brown and Jason Campbell. But Brandon Cox and Kenny Irons emerged to turn the Tigers into one of the hottest teams in the country by the end of the regular season. Though that team must have been reading its own clippings, because it got whacked by Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl.

This season? Well, there's a certain amount of pressure that comes with having a Heisman candidate at tailback in Irons, a budding star at quarterback with Cox and top wide receiver Courtney Taylor completely healed from an ankle injury, so much so that the SEC media made the Tigers the favorite to win the league crown by 62 votes over Florida, which had the second-most votes.

If you're looking for warts, the Tigers did lose both of their offensive tackles, All-American Marcus McNeil and Troy Reddick, as well as four of their top five receivers, and nose tackle T.J. Jackson and defensive end Stanley McClover, who were two of the unit's bigger bodies. But even those losses aren't really issues. With the players filling those roles and Herring -- who spent the last three years at safety moving to linebacker to bring him closer to the action -- anchoring the defense, this unit should be quicker and more athletic than a year ago.

And then there's this little factoid, of the last 14 years, the media has only correctly picked the SEC champ twice: Florida in 1994 and '95, to which Tuberville said: "Maybe you'll give it to somebody else next year."

So how can Tuberville avoid another slip up like the '03 debacle? Ride this whole thing for what it's worth, baby. This is a team that's dangerous when it's angry, it feeds off of being slighted. No one's worn the underdog label this well since Peter La Fleur and the team from Average Joe's Gym.

So fuel the fire, Tommy.

That's not to say for a moment that these allegations aren't extremely serious. They could cost the university and the program if they're proven to be true. But whether or not Tuberville believes his team is at fault or not, he can still make it a rallying point. Let's face it; it's hard for the public to believe that a student-athlete doesn't receive preferential treatment that isn't given to your run-of-the-mill college kid. The perception in these cases is guilty until proven innocent; it's a sad truth that turned Maurice Clarett into a punchline. So what would it hurt, at least internally, to make the controversy an issue the team can use as motivation? They rallied when their coach was nearly canned, they rallied when everyone counted them out, and they'll get behind the fact that they're being scrutinized when they feel did absolutely nothing wrong.

Tuberville said Friday he hopes this whole thing is over before the season, but the Tigers have proven they have a penchant for drama, and this could be national-title, Susan Lucci-worthy material.

Irons alone is good enough for the Tigers to march through the SEC and win a national championship, but for a team that has a nasty habit of tumbling when they're headlining the show, there's nothing wrong with a little controversy to get the blood boiling --- just ask Steve Spurrier.

So have at it Tommy Tuberville, and here's a log for the fire: Auburn didn't deserve a crack at the 2004 title game.

I'm just doing my part: Nod-nod, wink-wink.


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I agree 100%.

Between this controversy and last year's Ga Tech and Wisconsin embarrassments, this team should have no problem getting motivated to prove themselves to the world. I'd certainly hate to play us when we're properly inspired!

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