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Auburn out to prove it can handle hype

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Auburn out to prove it can handle hype

By JOHN ZENOR, AP Sports Writer

AUBURN, Ala. - The Auburn Tigers were basking in the preseason expectations and media attention. National title contenders? They were surely playing the part in 2003 — until the season opened with back-to-back losses and the buzz turned ugly.

Three years later, the Tigers are again popular picks to win the Southeastern Conference title and perhaps emerge as dark-horse contenders on the national scene. If only they can avoid repeating that famous flop.

"Everybody says, 'Auburn, they get ranked high and they don't do so well,'" tailback Kenny Irons said. "We've got to prove a lot of people wrong."

The Tigers, who went 8-5 after opening at No. 6 that season, have plenty of company around the SEC in that regard.

Chris Leak wants to prove he's a championship-caliber quarterback at Florida, and the Gators are eager to show they don't need Steve Spurrier to win a title.

"Your expectations if you're a Gator are to compete for an SEC and national title every year," said Leak, who has fallen short by that standard despite an impressive career.

LSU and Georgia, meanwhile, are trying to overcome significant losses and answer a different type of quarterback question: Who's the starter?

LSU's JaMarcus Russell is 14-2 as a starter, a track record that might help him fight off Matt Flynn and redshirt freshman Ryan Perrilloux. A little competition, coach Les Miles figures, is a good thing.

"I promise you the competition at that position will kind of necessitate great play," Miles said.

At Georgia, top prospect Matthew Stafford and senior Joe Tereshinski lead what coach Mark Richt says is a four-man race for the defending SEC champs.

The Bulldogs aren't sweating the loss of quarterback D.J. Shockley and other talented players. They certainly sound like a team that's won two of the last four SEC titles.

"We just reload instead of rebuilding," center Nick Jones said.

To defensive end Quentin Moses, Richt's program is a revolving door of talent.

"There's always somebody waiting on their turn," Moses said

And Tennessee? Well, contrary to Miles' sentiment, last season proved too much quarterback competition isn't always a good thing. The Volunteers missed a bowl game for the first time since 1988 while rotating current No. 1 Erik Ainge and senior Rick Clausen.

Coach Phillip Fulmer brushes off last season as "an aberration."

"It's not like we're all of a sudden void of talent," Fulmer said.

Neither is Auburn, though.

Quarterback Brandon Cox and Irons led the league's top scoring and overall offense last season. The Tigers are projected to start 12 seniors.

They proved in '04 that they thrive under modest expectations — they got one preseason vote as SEC champion but went 13-0. Then, the low preseason ranking helped shut Auburn out of the national championship game.

That won't be a problem this season if they can somehow run the tables again. One big advantage: Their presumed toughest opponents — LSU, Florida and Georgia — are all visiting Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Still, coach Tommy Tuberville doesn't want another season-opening fiasco — like Georgia Tech last season and Southern California in 2003 — against Washington State spoiling their good mood.

"We want to play as a contender early," Tuberville said. "I don't want to come out slow. We've done that a couple of times. I want us to understand that if you're going to be picked up there, you don't come out swinging in the middle of the season."

A capsule look at the teams in predicted order of finish:


FLORIDA — Urban Meyer's spread offense wasn't dominant in a league that included four of nation's top-10 scoring defenses. ... Three top runners return from inconsistent ground game, led by DeShawn Wynn. ... Freshman QB Tim Tebow could be one of many from top recruiting class seeing action. ... Marcus Thomas and Ray McDonald formidable in middle of D-line.

TENNESSEE — Ainge is unquestioned starter again, and coordinator David Cutcliffe to help revive sputtering offense. ... Are they back? If opener against California doesn't provide answer, Game 3 against Florida should. ... DT Justin Harrell anchors defense that must replace six of seven defenders up front.

GEORGIA — Whoever starts at quarterback should get plenty of support from talented group of running backs, led by Thomas Brown. ... DE Quentin Moses is tremendous pass rusher, and veteran linebacking corps features seniors Tony Taylor and Jarvis Jackson and junior Brandon Miller.

SOUTH CAROLINA — Spurrier took Gamecocks to bowl game and rare wins over Tennessee and Florida. ... Now, QB Blake Mitchell, 1,000-yard receiver Sidney Rice and RB Mike Davis are back for Year 2 in his offense. ... CB Fred Bennett leads defense. ... Program has only gone to back-to-back bowl games three times.

KENTUCKY — Rich Brooks has four league wins in three years and will likely face more heat if the Wildcats don't make strides. ... Rafael Little was leading rusher and receiver and a dangerous punt returner. Needs help from players like WR Keenan Burton. ... Curtis Pulley beat out QB Andre' Woodson in spring.

VANDERBILT — QB Chris Nickson is favorite to replace four-year starter and NFL first-rounder Jay Cutler. Redshirt freshman Mackenzi Adams and former Arizona starter Richard Kovalcheck are also contenders. ... Whoever wins job will have talented wideout in Earl Bennett. ... LB Jonathan Goff among defensive returnees.


AUBURN — Only four defensive starters return who finished last season at their current position and only one wide receiver has more than 13 career catches. ... Will Herring and Steve Gandy move from safety to linebacker. LBs Tray Blackmon and Kevin Sears were suspended for an unspecified number of games for alcohol-related offenses.

LSU — Russell, WR Dwayne Bowe and RBs Alley Broussard and Justin Vincent lead offense loaded at skill positions. ... Nation's No. 3 defense is led by FS LaRon Landry and LB Ali Highsmith. ... Broussard, who was sidelined last season, and Vincent are both coming off knee injuries.

ALABAMA — Gone are team leaders QB Brodie Croyle and LB DeMeco Ryans. ... New QB John Parker Wilson will be aided by return of RB Kenneth Darby and leading receivers DJ Hall and Keith Brown. ... Teammates say WR Tyrone Prothro (broken leg) is unlikely to play this season. ... LB Juwan Simpson and CB Ramzee Robinson lead returnees from nation's top scoring defense.

ARKANSAS — RB Darren McFadden is doubtful for season opener against Southern California with dislocated toe after bar fight. ... Coach Houston Nutt handed over play-calling duties to high school coach of top QB signee Mitch Mustain. Mustain could compete for job with Casey Dick. ... Undersized LB Sam Olajubutu is tackling machine.

MISSISSIPPI — The Rebels' starting QB arrived on campus on the eve of fall practices. Brent Schaeffer, briefly Tennessee's starter as freshman, spent last season in junior college and finished coursework over the summer. ... Indiana transfer RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis beefs up running game. ... MLB Patrick Willis led nation in solo tackles in '05.

MISSISSIPPI ST. — Coach Sylvester Croom says he finally has the personnel to run his West Coast offense. MSU ranked 113th in total offense last season. ... Sophomore QB Michael Henig is unquestioned No. 1 on team with 17 returning starters. ... Brandon Thornton is top contender to replace RB Jerious Norwood. ... Three signees at WR should help passing game.

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How come you never hear about from #3 to 3-8?

I guess the media hasn't made another mistake like that lately.

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2003??? I've got two word to explain that season: Hugh Nall.

"We want to play as a contender early," Tuberville said. "I don't want to come out slow. We've done that a couple of times. I want us to understand that if you're going to be picked up there, you don't come out swinging in the middle of the season."

No "preseason games" this year! :cheer:

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How come you never hear about from #3 to 3-8?

I guess the media hasn't made another mistake like that lately.

You just don't get it -- when AU doesn't live up to how journalists vote in pre-season, AU is the problem! The media is never wrong, obviously. :rolleyes:

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No doubt the OC position was the down fall of the 03 season. But Tubbs stated before the season even started that he thought we were still one year away.

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