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Auburn mood upbeat

Monday, August 28, 2006

By PHILLIP MARSHALL

Times Sports Staff pmarsh9485@msn.com

Tuberville says he pushed Tigers, and he likes results

AUBURN - From the start of preseason camp, Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville was hard to please.

As his players toiled in suffocating August heat, Tuberville complained about effort, complained about execution, complained about focus and complained about the number of players riding stationary bicycles because of nagging injuries.

Normally an optimist, Tuberville scoffed when Auburn was picked to win the Southeastern Conference championship and was highly ranked in preseason polls. He said the voters must not have seen his team practice.

On the field, Tuberville and his staff followed up a physically demanding spring practice with an even more demanding preseason camp. The hitting was fierce from the first day the players put on pads. It didn't start to diminish until Thursday.

It was all part of Tuberville getting his team ready for a grueling 12-game stretch with no open date. It was part of preparing for a challenging opener. The No. 4 Tigers will have their first test Saturday night when Washington State visits Jordan-Hare Stadium. Kickoff time on ESPN2 is set for 6:45.

"This is a pretty talented group of guys," Tuberville said. "Sometimes the thing coaches need to find out is how far guys will push themselves and how far you can push them. We've asked them to do things that maybe they didn't think they could do. Most of them have responded."

Tuberville is talking more positively these days, but he still says there are questions that won't be answered until his eighth Auburn team takes the field. On both sides of the ball, inexperienced players will be called on to make major contributions. There will be new starters at wide receiver, tight end, offensive tackle, fullback, linebacker, defensive tackle and safety.

"I like the prospects of this team," Tuberville said. "They've worked hard. I think we are going to be a physical football team. I think we have a chance to play well on both sides of the ball with an exceptional kicking game. Is that going to happen? We'll have to wait and see on Sept. 2."

Auburn was 9-3 last season, going 7-1 in the Southeastern Conference to share the West Division championship with LSU. It has won 22 of its last 25 games. But the last game, a 24-10 loss to Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, left a mark.

Tuberville made it clear early that the 2006 Tigers would be more about force than finesse, more physical than the team that was battered in the bowl game.

"It really didn't have anything to do with last season," Tuberville said. "It had to do with what we thought we needed. There were several players, especially the younger guys, we didn't feel were physical enough. We wanted them to understand what it's going to take to win at this level."

At Washington State, coach Bill Doba has taken a different approach. He has spread optimism throughout fall camp. Coming off a 4-7 season in which they lost five games by four points or less, the Cougars are picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10. Doba says his team will not be distracted by Auburn's lofty national ranking nor intimidated by the surroundings.

"I wish they were No. 1," Doba said. "First games are anybody's. Maybe they work too hard or don't work hard enough. Same with us. There are always upsets on the first weekend."

After having as many as a dozen players sidelined at one time with injuries, the Tigers will be relatively healthy going into the game. Other than fullback Mike McLaughlin, who is recovering from spring knee surgery, only linebacker Steve Gandy and offensive tackle Oscar Gonzalez are expected to miss the game.

"We've been very lucky," Tuberville said. "As much contact as we've had and how physical it has been, we're lucky we don't have a couple more that are going to miss a game or two or even the season.

"We felt like we had to take that chance to make everybody else better. We rolled the dice and it's worked out pretty well for us."

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