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
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
”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.”