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October 24, 2010
Tigers No. 1, but staying focused
Auburn may be sitting atop the BCS poll this week, but it seems that the Tigers couldn't care less.
In fact, one player didn't even know about the No. 1 ranking until questioned about it during an interview.
"I wasn't aware of that," said junior safety Mike McNeil.
McNeil said the ranking is good, but the team will not lose focus of the task at hand: improving.
"We're happy with where we're at, but we're not satisfied," McNeil said. "We've got to keep pressing and keep grinding to get better."
The current ranking is the highest its ever been throughout the current players' careers, which is impressive considering Auburn wasn't even bowl eligible two years ago.
"It means a lot," said senior linebacker Craig Stevens. "But Coach (Gene Chizik) always says you can't focus on (the ranking) because once you start to, that's when teams start to backslide because you begin to think you're better than what you really are."
That philosophy is especially true on Stevens' side of the ball. Although the defense is coming off a performance that saw it hold LSU to 17 points and 243 yards of total offense, it took eight games for the Tigers to put together what defensive coordinator Ted Roof and Chizik considered the best game to date.
Each week the team's goal is to play better than it did the week before. Roof believes the team did that against LSU, but the usual goal is still in place going into Ole Miss this Saturday.
"Our focus is on improving," Roof said. "That's our focus. How can we play better next week than we did last week? We've got to get better and focus on moving forward and the improvement, and that's what we're going to do."
According to Roof, there's no concern about having to sell the idea of improvement to the defensive players. Even though the Auburn defense recorded three sacks for a loss of 25 yards, an interception, nine tackles for loss, six quarterback hurries and three pass breakups, game film revealed a number of issues that need to be addressed.
"When you turn on the tape, they see the mistakes," Roof said. "The beautiful thing about tape is that you get to rewind it and go over it and over it. That tape doesn't lie. It doesn't buffalo you. It is what it is on tape. And there are a lot of things that we've got to get better at and our players understand that."
That mentality has resonated with Stevens. Roof described Stevens' performance against LSU, a game that saw him contribute six tackles, as his best game yet, but Stevens was quick to brush off the compliment.
"I just look at it as a game I played well," Stevens said. "But I can always play better."
This time two years ago, the Tigers were coming off their fourth loss of the season and went on to finish the season with an embarrassing shutout loss to their in-state rival and without bowl game eligibility.
In early October 2008, then-Auburn offensive coordinator Tony Franklin was canned after the loss to Vanderbilt indicated that his spread offense plan had failed miserably.
Rumors of team dissension were running rampant and by the end of the season, the head coach was out of the program along with the majority of his staff.
But since head coach Gene Chizik was hired to lead the football team that December, a lot has changed on the Plains, especially in the locker room.
When asked what is the biggest difference between this year's team and the one from 2008, McNeil used one word: togetherness.
"That year we had a good team as well, but we lost a bunch of close games, had a lot of injuries and circumstances," McNeil said. "Right now, the circumstances are in our favor and we need to use them to our advantage."
Against LSU, cornerback Neiko Thorpe started the game despite playing with a bulky cast that protected his broken wrist. He recorded six tackles and was inches away from making a pick early in the first quarter.
Roof believes that Thorpe's motivation to play through the injury speaks volumes.
"I think it's a sign of how much the guys care about one another and how much they care about the team," Roof said. "That's a big deal. Our guys care about one another. I think when you start playing, you don't play for yourself; you play for each other, you play for your school, you play for your people and it's a big deal. I think out guys understand that there are many more things more important than individuals."
Safety Zac Etheridge was a sophomore during that forgettable season and played in all 12 games. He has seen the progress of the team's chemistry as well as its ability.
"We always knew we had the players," Etheridge said. "We could just never click it and get everybody together. Right now we're clicking and we're all on the same page. It's just a great turnaround and we don't want to look back. We're looking forward. That was two years ago, so we don't look for any of that to be happening this year."
*** Strongside linebacker Daren Bates appeared to injure his shoulder in the second quarter of the LSU game. Jonathan Evans provided backup and Roof was pleased with how he played. Roof wants Evans' opportunity to be a reminder to all backup players that the team is one injury away from needing their services.
"(I want them to know) 'Hey these coaches say that all the time, but it happened, so when my number is called, I better be ready because I owe it to the football team,'" Roof said.
*** Bates being out this week is a possibility. But the Sam and Will linebacker positions are somewhat interchangeable in the Auburn defense, so if a player can play one, he can play the other. Stevens is one of those players.
"His experience and his versatility give us a little bit of flexibility there and we'll sit down and evaluate that," Roof said.
*** T'Sharvan Bell is another player who is out with an injury (hamstring). True freshman Chris Davis stepped up in his place. He recorded three tackles and a pass breakup. Roof was happy with his performance.
"He didn't fold," Roof said. "He didn't cower down. The magnitude of what some people may have perceived that game, he just went out there and competed and played football. I'm real proud of him for that."
*** Defensive tackle Nick Fairley has 7.5 sacks this season. Although he doesn't actively want to hurt the quarterback, he has given Arkansas' Ryan Mallett a concussion, injured LSU's Jarrett Lee's wrist and body slammed Jordan Jefferson, a guy with a 6-foot-5, 225-pound build. Fairley said defensive line back Tracy Rocker always asks why he tries to slam the quarterback.
"When you're in a fight and you slam 'em, it takes the heart out of them," Fairley said.
*** Fairley added that the LSU offensive line was getting worn down toward the end of the game.
"The offensive line, I just kept going at 'em. That's all I was doing to them yesterday, just bullying them, move 'em quick left and right and I guess they got tired of me pushin' on them," Fairley said. "A couple times they were like, 'Oh well.'"
*** Fairley mentally prepares himself for games by thinking about the reason he is playing football. That reason is his family. Fairley has nine brothers and sisters and he said they have experienced a number of deaths in the family. One of them was his grandfather who passed away when Fairley was 14 years old.
"One of his dreams was to watch someone in his family play on TV," Fairley said. "He wasn't able to do it. That drives me a lot, too."
*** Fairley swears he didn't hear the whistle before his hit on Jefferson.
"From the looks of it, only one referee blew the whistle. The guard didn't stop, so I wasn't going to stop, you know?"
*** By the sound of it, late hits aren't exactly something Fairley is all that concerned about.
"Sometimes I am, but sometimes, you know, I did all this work. I've got to hit 'em," Fairley said.
*** LSU's Lee scurried out of bounds on the fourth down toward the end of the game on Saturday. Fairley has an idea of what was going through his mind at the time.
"He was like, 'Let's get out of here, let's go back home,'" Fairley said. "That's the kind of mindset it was looking like he had."
*** The Tigers will be off from practice on Monday. Chizik will hold his weekly press conference on Tuesday at 11 a.m. and the team will practice at 5 p.m.