No. 22 Auburn opens to mixed reviews

The Auburn Tigers enter this season with a No. 22 ranking and

are predicted to finish third in the Southeastern Conference

Western Division by league media, which would be a two-spot

improvement from last season.

One national commentator even picked Auburn to win the West over

preseason No. 1 Alabama. Second-year coach Gene Chizik doesn’t mind

that kind of talk at all.

”The bottom line is our expectations of ourselves should be

really high,” Chizik said on Tuesday. ”Our football team hears

those things, and we know at the end of the day that doesn’t mean

anything. You have to earn it on the field every week.

”At the same time, they need to know that the expectation level

out there for other people as they look on is high as well. I think

that that’s a healthy thing.”

The Tigers seem willing to embrace either underdog status or

raised expectations.

There’s cause for both ends of the perception spectrum.

Auburn has a new quarterback in Cameron Newton and starting

tailback in Mario Fannin, but high expectations for both.

The Tigers have newcomers all over the depth chart who figure to

play and three starters – right tackle A.J. Greene, tight end

Phillip Lutzenkirchen, defensive tackle Zach Clayton – who have

made a combined two career starts. Plus, starting linebacker Daren

Bates converted from safety in the offseason. Four walk-ons also

are listed on the depth chart.

Making matters tougher, the Tigers continue to get overshadowed

by in-state rival No. 1 Alabama.

”Any time you turn on the TV or turn on the sports talk radio

show or anywhere, they’re talking about the other team,” Newton

said late in preseason camp. ”Of course we know that they’re an

excellent team as well. We feel like we’re not being mentioned as

we should be.

”We’re just going to do what we’re coached to do, and our No. 1

thing to do is win. And I guess if you win games, you’ll silence

all the critics.”

Perhaps the best news for the Tigers is that safeties Zac

Etheridge and Aairon Savage have returned from serious injuries to

reclaim their starting jobs.

Savage has missed the past two seasons with a torn knee ligament

followed by an Achilles’ tendon tear. Etheridge had a scary neck

injury in a collision against Mississippi late last season.

”We’re extremely excited about having both of those guys back

on the field for all that they bring to the table as people

first,” Chizik said. ”They’re great kids, they’re great leaders.

That’s not even to mention the experience that they bring to the

table, which is huge.”

Bates said the team isn’t focused on headlines and TV time, or

lack thereof.

”We don’t have to fight for the attention but I just think we

need to get to the championship,” he said. ”That’s what we’re

working on, to get from good to great. That’s really our

intentions, just to get there.”

Linebacker Craig Stevens doesn’t think the so-called lack of

respect is anything new.

Stevens points to last year’s 41-30 win over West Virginia as an

example of why Auburn sometimes feels jilted. His 15-yard

interception return for a touchdown – the Tigers’ fifth pick of the

game – clinched the win.

”A lot of people overlook Auburn,” Stevens said. ”That was

one of the most exciting games that week. We played hard and ended

up pulling it out in the end. I remember all of us went home and

turned on ESPN trying to see the highlights. They showed

everybody’s highlights and then they came to us, they just showed

scores, no highlights, no nothing.

”At times we feel like we’re overlooked as a team and as

players out there. We know as long as we make plays and just

continue to do well, sooner or later people will take notice.”