KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- For four years, Jason Campbell has been chewed up and spit out by Auburn fans convinced that he was the biggest impediment between the Tigers and greatness. They saw great defense, great running backs -- and a liability under center.
For four weeks, Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer have been celebrated by Tennessee fans convinced that they were the child saviors who would vault the Volunteers back to greatness. They saw the golden arm and quicksilver feet that could lift the older players around them.
Saturday night in stunned Neyland Stadium, the senior quarterback everyone doubted schooled the freshmen quarterbacks everyone touted on College Football 101. The score was Auburn 34, Tennessee 10, and the QB numbers were these -- Campbell was 16-of-23 for 252 yards, two touchdowns and a late interception; the Baby Vols were a combined 18-of-40 for 186 yards, one TD and five interceptions.
Even in a year when freshmen are making a major national impact, this game confirmed every hoary gridiron bromide about the value of experience over youth.
"All week long I heard about how great their two quarterbacks are," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville crowed. "I wouldn't trade either for the one we got. He did a tremendous job controlling the game."
After exposing the Vols' secondary with 240 first-half passing yards and two touchdowns, Campbell's pertinent lessons for the rooks were these:
It's not how good your good plays are. It's how bad your bad ones are.
Until the game was out of reach, Campbell never committed a gaffe more serious than throwing incomplete passes. He needed an early bailout from wide receiver Courtney Taylor, who ripped a potential interception return for a touchdown from the arms of safety Brandon Johnson, but this continued a season-long trend of ball security. Campbell hasn't thrown an interception since the season opener.
Ainge and Schaeffer combined to turn the ball over six times, including a fumble at the Vols' 1-yard line and an interception in the Auburn end zone. Ainge came into the game a precocious fourth in the nation in passing efficiency, with eight TDs and just one pick, but left it having quintupled his interception total.
After the game's second series, Auburn safety Junior Rosegreen came to the sideline and told defensive coordinator Gene Chizik that Ainge was telegraphing his throws. "I can read his eyes," Rosegreen told his coach. "I know where he's throwing that football."
Did he ever. Rosegreen tied an SEC record with four interceptions and tied wideout C.J. Fayton as the Vols' leading receiver.
One quarterback is almost always a better plan than two.
Campbell knows about sharing snaps, having done so with Daniel Cobb his first two years at Auburn. Campbell finally took over the job near the end of his sophomore season and the Tigers responded. He's been The Man ever since, despite enduring consistent criticism until this redemptive season.
"The kid is coming into his own, guys," said offensive coordinator Al Borges, the fourth O.C. Campbell has played for at Auburn. "He's not the quarterback people have criticized over the years. ... I'm not calling him the next Joe Montana, but his progress and poise have been a big part of our success as a team."
Tennessee shuffled its rotation for this game, going with Ainge to start and Schaeffer in relief, and it never worked. Ainge began the game with three incompletions -- an odd series of plays, given Tennessee's talk all week about how it had to establish itself physically after being brutalized up front last year at Auburn. The next time Ainge took the field, Auburn led 7-0. By the time Schaeffer made his first appearance the Tigers led 14-3 and Ainge had fumbled on the Vols' 1.
Remain willfully bland. Especially on the week of a big game.
Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer has pretty well quarantined his quarterbacks from the media, but Ainge took his once-a-week chance to talk and said too much about the Tigers. The quote that became must reading in the Auburn locker room:
"They're corners are pretty good, and I think their secondary thinks they're pretty good. ... They're big, strong, physical people, but I think we have the best receiving corps, one through eight, in the country. And they haven't faced a team like us yet."
"(Ainge) was talking a lot of trash in the paper," Rosegreen said. "We knew he signed a big check he couldn't cash."
Erik Ainge will next be available to the media in 2007.
Campbell is allergic to braggadocio. He wouldn't know how to toot his own horn if you held it to his lips.
"I'm a team player," he said impassively. "I just stay within my team. I know what I can do."
Here's what he can do now, in the "Gulf Coast" (think West Coast meets southern Alabama) offense Borges has installed:
He can check off coolly with 107,828 voices in his earholes. Tuberville credited Campbell with making a couple audible calls that helped produce the Tigers' shocking 31-3 halftime lead.
He can throw the deep ball with delicacy -- to wide receivers and running backs alike. Auburn took senior tailback Ronnie Brown and made him Reggie Bush Lite last night, lining him up in the slot and at wide receiver and throwing deep to him wheeling out of the backfield. When the Tigers might have been tempted to sit on the ball and a 24-3 lead late in the first half, Campbell hit Brown down the sideline for 38 yards, sparking another touchdown drive.
He can roll with punches and endure changes. From Noel Mazzone to Bobby Petrino to Hugh Nall to Borges, Auburn has had its own drama called The O.C. Campbell has never turned cynical and remained receptive to the constant turnover in tactics.
"He's so receptive to the changes I've made," Borges said. "I was concerned about his learning curve, because no two guys coach quarterbacks the same way. You don't know how he's going to handle that. Some guys handle it well and some don't.
"He handles it. And when he doesn't, he fakes it well. Under center he's very unperturbed. That's what you want in a quarterback," he said.
After it was over, Mr. Unperturbed dispensed some avuncular advice to the newbies in orange.
"You're gonna have your good days and you're gonna have your bad days," Campbell said. "They've got to keep a level head."
Keeping a level head will be hard for Auburn fans to do over the coming weeks. The schedule positively screams that the Tigers will be hosting Georgia on Nov. 13 in a game with national championship implications.
Between now and then are three home games and a trip to Ole Miss. True, one of the home games is against an Arkansas team that has made Auburn miserable more often than not in recent years -- but this Tigers team seems to have overcome whatever intangible issues plagued it last year.
That Auburn squad began the year No. 1 in some polls and finished it with a disappointing 8-5 record and a coach who came within inches of being fired -- reinforcing the long-held opinion in the South that this program simply cannot handle high expectations. This year, coming from off-radar, the Tigers seem to be thriving.
At the very least, they had a good time celebrating in a largely deserted Neyland Stadium last night when the final gun sounded.
"The only thing better than making 87,000 people happy," said wide receiver Courtney Taylor, roughly quoting the capacity at Jordan-Hare Stadium, "is making 110,000 mad."
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.