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Fun-loving Auburn fans wary of Cougars

AUBURN, Ala. – Come back in an hour and a half, Michael Garber says, because that’s when his tiger-striped party bus will actually be properly assembled, lit up and ready for friends to drink inside (and around) and passersby to gawk at.

It’s about 8 p.m. the night before Auburn’s season-opener against Washington State (4 p.m. Pacific, ESPNU), and Garber and a few of his pals – he answers his phone and confirms several more are on their way – are preparing the bus, nicknamed the “Tiger Prowler,” for a night (and day) of tailgating.

There are probably more than 100 RVs, campers and cars already occupying two large grass fields near the intersection of South Donahue Drive and Lem Morrison Drive – one is by reservation only, the other free to all – a 15-minute walk from Jordan-Hare Stadium, if you can stand the humidity.

Already, a large tent covers a nightclub-sufficient sound system that bangs out country music in the dark, while power generators hum, beer cans crack open and orange-clad fans of all ages get a head start on Saturday’s festivities.

But Garber, who is getting used to media inquiries and is somewhat of a cult figure among regular Auburn tailgaters, is the premier figure here. He steps inside the Tiger Prowler and gestures to a pair of speakers being stored next to two flat-screen TVs.

“It’s a 4,000-watt sound system,” he says, “and we use about 2,000 watts for the lights.”

How much did all that equipment cost him?

“It’s insured for $20,000,” he said, laughing, though he isn’t entirely sure of the final price tag for all his mobile phenomenon entails.

This is the second one he’s had. The first wasn’t quite as reliable, so he traded it for a boat, which he then traded for the current Tiger Prowler. He painted it himself – it’s orange with blue stripes all over – and installed a porch on the roof to supplement additional partiers.

A friend of his brags: “The LSU cheerleaders were on top of that last year. They were cute, too.”

Garber, who graduated from Auburn in 2010, lives in Florence, Ala., now. He’s not all that sure what to think of WSU, which seems to carry with it a mysterious air among tailgaters here. None of Garber’s friends think they’d be shocked if the Cougars pulled off an upset, and that seems to be the consensus from folks still cautiously optimistic about the home team after their 3-9 record in 2012.

Danny Tatum and Frankie Howell, friends who grew up together in Pike Road, Ala., a small town outside of Montgomery and about an hour from Auburn, stood outside an RV as they tracked a passing thunderstorm on a big-screen TV being powered by a Honda generator.

Asked of the general impression of the Cougars down here, Tatum says “We can’t take ’em lightly, because Auburn’s record was so poor last year. I don’t expect them to be a pushover.”

Tatum does tend to believe the humidity will be an advantage for Auburn, though WSU coach Mike Leach downplayed the heat when asked about it earlier this week.

“We kind of embrace the fact it’s been significantly hotter here (Pullman) the last couple weeks than it has been down there,” Leach said Tuesday.

Hotter, maybe. But even during WSU’s 10-day camp stint in Lewiston, where temperatures reached the upper-90s, the air wasn’t as heavy as it is in the South.

If Auburn wins, there still will be action at Toomer’s Corner, where fans have gathered for years after football victories to throw toilet paper into the two large oak trees on the corner of College Street and Magnolia Avenue.

But those trees are gone now, poisoned in 2010 by rogue Alabama fan Harvey Updyke – he served six months in prison for the deed – and removed in April by the city after rescue attempts proved futile.

In place of the trees are two mounds of bark, and a sign that promises there will be “two large replacement oak trees,” among other upgrades to that area. There are also several other signs that read: “This area is under 24-hour video surveillance.”

The final “roll” of the trees took place after Auburn’s spring game, which was attended by 83,401 people.

Temporary wire has been installed in place of where the trees once stood, so fans will still have something to “roll” after wins.

As Tatum said: “We’ll figure out something.”