AUBURN, Ala. — Almost everyone who wore an Auburn jersey during the Tigers’ undefeated 2004 football season will admit it: Tommy Tuberville’s team, particularly on defense, was better the year before.
“That 2003 defense was one of the best defenses that I ever practiced against and I’ve ever been around,” former Auburn running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams told SEC Country this week. “Those guys were so talented. There wasn’t very many holes in that defense. They didn’t have too many weaknesses.”
But Williams said the offense’s struggles in 2003 led to an 8-5 season, which ended with a victory in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn. Sound familiar?
The next season, despite losing top talent on defense, Auburn finished 13-0. And this year’s Tigers could echo that 2004 team. Despite losing talent from last year’s defense, some think Auburn might be better this season.
Auburn’s defense played well enough to win almost every game in 2016. But the offense sputtered, and the Tigers finished 8-5. Gus Malzahn and his staff have had to figure out how to replace four defensive players selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, starting with linemen Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson.
Yet days before the season opener, the Tigers sit at No. 12 in the preseason Associated Press poll, poised for a run at the national championship.
“I am trying not to get too hype, but I’m on fire,” Carnell Williams said. “I honestly think, not to put too much pressure on my boys down there, but man, I think we’re coming out of the West. I honestly feel like we’re going to do some special things. I’m really looking forward to this year.”
Auburn linebackers coach Travis Williams was on the other side of things during that two-year span in the early 2000s, playing with the Tigers from 2001-05. He said it takes a lot to put together a perfect season, including a little luck.
“You have to win close games,” he said. “You have to stay injury free. The team has to jell.”
Travis Williams hasn’t compared every aspect of his 2004 Auburn team to the 2017 Tigers, but he’s seen a chemistry that mirrors one of the 12 undefeated teams in program history — the 2004 edition. Here’s what could unfold in the coming months.
Step 1: ‘Making us believe in ourselves’
In the summer before the 2004, there were questions about the Auburn defense.
Linebackers Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas were gone, selected in the 2004 NFL Draft. Travis Williams, then 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, talked to his position coach, Joe Whitt, about switching from the weakside to the middle linebacker spot.
When he thinks about it, he smiles and says it’s unheard of that someone his size would be playing that spot in the SEC.
Fortunately Williams and other players had the right mindset, determined to replace the departed seniors.
“We wanted to be the best that we could be,” Travis Williams said. “Coach Whitt did a great job of making us believe in ourselves. I remember having a conversation in his office that he was going to move me to mike, and it was, ‘You can do this.’ He had me believing before I even did — ‘Yeah, OK, coach, I can do this.'”
Defensive back Carlos Rogers, then a senior, wasn’t involved in many conversations about who had just walked out the doors of the Auburn Athletic Complex and into the NFL.
“It was more about who was there,” Rogers said. “We had so many guys back that the coaches trusted. Dontarrious Thomas was gone, Karlos [Dansby] was gone, but Travis, Antarrious [Williams], all those guys coach trusted so much. They trusted them to get the job done.
“On top of that you had seniors who kept those guys from not getting in trouble,” Rogers said. “We had a good group of guys and a strong coaching staff that kept us in line.”
Step 2: Competing all the time
Even more than a decade later, Travis Williams hears all the trash Carnell Williams talked constantly.
“He was like, ‘That’s our linebackers? Oh I can’t wait ’til fall,'” Travis Williams recalled. “So during fall I was like,’ I have to get him, I have to make him understand this isn’t going to be a cakewalk.’ We had some great battles and just hard-nosed football. We had fun at practice. We had fun just hitting on each other.
“At the end of the day you look up and you win the SEC Championship, you go undefeated and you’ve won the Sugar Bowl and it’s all worth it.”
The two Williamses weren’t the only duo to send playful insults back and forth, of course. With some, such as roommates Carnell Williams and Rogers, the trash talk went up a notch.
“We’d been roommates since our freshmen year,” Rogers said. “We talked so much junk to each other in the offseason. It wasn’t about getting through the workouts. We knew we were going to get through the workouts, but we wanted to get through the workouts, but we wanted to beat that other guy beside us in … time. So everything was a competition and making each other better.”
So in everything from weighing in to lifting weights — those were also the battles between Rogers and fellow defensive back Junior Rosegreen — competitive fire raged on the Plains that summer.
Step 3: An unbreakable bond
The 2003 Tigers were a close-knit team, but the following year, everyone was tighter than ever.
“That was truly — not that the other teams we played on weren’t teams — but that was a team that was truly together,” Rogers said., “and was really close and had one goal not for selfish reasons.”
Players didn’t pick and choose their moments to be united. They just were. During winter, spring and summer workouts, everyone held each other accountable. It was a unique time in the program.
“I’ve never been part of a team that was so close, that did everything together,” Carnell Williams said. “We would grind together, we did Bible study together. We were really a unit as in one heartbeat. Man, it’s just amazing once everybody gets on the same page and you’ve got that genuine chemistry and camaraderie, it’s amazing what that team can do. Because, honestly, we weren’t as talented as that 2003 team.”
As frustrating as it was at the time, the adjustments Auburn made before its 13-0 run in 2004 were necessary.
While the defense strengthened on its own, quarterback Jason Campbell, running backs Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams, and the rest of the dynamic offense improved, too. That offense made defenders even more motivated to make a stop on third down, get the ball back and watch the powerful offense tear down the field and score.
Back to the future
Wide receiver Jeris McIntyre was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs after his senior season at Auburn in 2004. He’s always paid attention to his alma mater but has been more tuned in the last couple of years, with players of interest to watch.
McIntyre coached Auburn sophomore receiver Nate Craig-Myers and freshman running back Devan Barrett at Tampa (Fla.) Catholic High School. He’s picked up on what’s happening at Auburn now and has reminisced on his own playing days.
“I get that same vibe,” McIntyre said. “It was funny because in 2003, we had the more talented team, but we went through some growing pains that year and ’03 kind of set it all up for 2004. I think it’s similar to this past season where the talent was there, I think, on that team.”
These former players said they are more excited for the college season than they’ve been in years and eager to see what transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham can do in the SEC.
They support the hiring of Chip Lindsey as offensive coordinator. Even the schedule,with a trip to Clemson in Week 2 rather than slated for the season opener, could set up a great year, the alums agreed.
And now Auburn’s defense has a second season under coordinator Kevin Steele. Outperforming a top 25 scoring defense from 2016 won’t be easy, but the former Tigers said it’s possible.
“You can never put anything past anyone,” Rogers said. “They were a young defense last year. They had a lot of young guys who played roles in the defense. They have a lot of those guys coming in and getting another year under them. They can get better.
“I think their mindset shouldn’t be looking on what we loss. It’s now you’ve got an opportunity to see if you’re going to be better than the guy you’re replacing.”