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July 21, 2011

Tigers ignoring outsiders, focused on team

At last year's Southeastern Conference Media Days in Birmingham, the Auburn Tigers weren't even close to being a favorite to win the BCS National Championship.

Head coach Gene Chizik said he met a man last year who told him he would marry his girlfriend when the Tigers won the title, likely assuming it was a safe bet and he would remain a bachelor.

According to Chizik, both the the man and his girlfriend saw Wes Byrum's kick from 19 yards out sail through the uprights as time expired for the championship win.

"They're now married today," Chizik said.

At this year's SEC media event, Auburn is yet again not a favorite to win national title.

In fact, after losing two dozen seniors and three juniors who played key roles in Auburn's 2010 success, the Tigers aren't even a favorite to win the SEC West.

However, that information means nothing to the Tigers. Players didn't care about predictions last year, and they certainly don't care this year.

"I think a lot of people in the media, they get misconstrued that being young is a lack of talent, and it's not at Auburn," said sophomore defensive end Nosa Eguae. "We have a lot of talent, and come Sept. 3, we're looking to show off that talent on a stage."

According to Eguae, defending a national championship is simple.

"You do it one day at a time,"Eguae said. "You focus on the small things. That's what the coaches are focusing on."

Aside from a "lack of talent," rumors regarding NCAA violations related to former quarterback Cameron Newton have talking heads abuzz.

Again, the Tigers don't care.

"People can think what they want, but we know our program, and we know what goes on there," said junior tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen.

Chizik doesn't care, either.

"I'll make this real clear," Chizik said. "The NCAA on more than one occasion has said that Auburn has done nothing wrong in the recruitment of Cam Newton. Nothing's changed. Again, can't control everybody's microphone. Can't control everybody's opinion. Don't try to."

Chizik, who has never been one to comment on rumors, adamantly said Auburn runs its football program in accordance with NCAA rules.

"I feel great about where we are as a football program," Chizik said. "I sleep really good every night that my head hits the pillow. That's what I can control. So I know we're every day doing things the right way. That's what I can put my time and energy into. So that's what I do."

Since Chizik is confident in how the current football program is operating, he sees a lot of promise in what is to come on the Plains.

"Our recruiting class right now is really, really going well," Chizik said. "We've had two top-five back-to-back recruiting classes. We don't expect this one to be any different. Again, there can be different rumors, innuendos, all those things that go with it. We've got one goal in mind: keep pressing ahead, keep doing the things we know is right, which is what we try to do on a daily basis. All that stuff unfolds favorably for us as we move forward. Recruiting for us, I'm extremely excited where we're at. We have to ramp it up more, and we will. I don't expect this class to be any different than the previous two."

On the field, doubters question Auburn's ability to be productive without its do-everything, Heisman Trophy winning quarterback and Lombardi Award winning defensive tackle Nick Fairley.

Offensively, junior receiver Emory Blake has faith in the prowess of coordinator Gus Malzahn.

"It's personnel, and personnel changes, but Malzahn's offense doesn't change," Blake said. "We have a different quarterback, different line, but the same results."

Lutzenkirchen echoed the same sentiment.

"The thing about a Coach Malzahn offense is that he'll play to our own strengths," Lutzenkirchen said. "Last year, with Cam at quarterback, we used him as a rusher. The year before, we were a play-action team first. We could go back to that. We'll just have to see this fall."

Defensively, players are simply focused on doing their job and not worrying about who was lost from the previous season.

"We just go out and prepare to win another national championship for Auburn University and we don't worry about anything else," Eguae said.

Typically, each team has seniors representing it at SEC Media Days. Auburn bringing three juniors with it instead may have raised eyebrows, but youth doesn't faze this team.

Juniors, particularly the ones present in Birmingham today, have proudly taken on leadership roles and are determined to guide their teammates to success.

Inexperience and youth, much like other traits that outsiders use to describe this year's team, doesn't mean a thing to the Tigers.

"Just because you're young doesn't mean you can't be a leader," Blake said.

Chizik said the good thing about this year's team is that the players know what "great" looks like.

"They also know we're a far cry from that," Chizik said.

With that in mind, Chizik and his team knows there is a lot of work to be done between now and Sept. 3.

"But make no mistake about it, the standard for Auburn University and the goals for Auburn University, no matter if we were going to play 22 freshmen, have not changed," Chizik said. "That is to graduate our players and win championships."


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