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Auburn defies expectations early
Prior to every home game at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, an eagle soars around the stadium and lands perfectly at midfield as the crowd of 87,451 strong chants “War Eagle.”
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During Saturday’s pregame festivities, the bald eagle Spirit flew to the sky of Jordan-Hare, violently smacked into a Plexiglas window above the 20-yard line, and then somehow recovered mid-route to remarkably complete its flight at midfield. It was a study in resiliency. Spirit wasn’t graceful, wasn’t pretty, and certainly didn’t do things according to plan — but it got the job done in the end.
I couldn’t dream up a more appropriate mascot for the 2011 Auburn Tigers.
Say what you want about the manner in which this team has won its first two games, but the Auburn Tigers are 2-0 midway through September, with two hard-earned victories under their belts. The defending champs have defended their crowns in a curious fashion — with warts, bruises and violent head-first crashes into Plexiglas. But they’ve completed their flights upright in each of their two games, now with as many wins as any other powerhouse program in the country.
After their opening weekend last-minute miracle win over lowly Utah State, the Tigers overcame an afternoon full of embarrassing defensive mishaps to defeat 25th-ranked Mississippi State on a last-second goal-line stand on Saturday.
The Bulldogs compiled 531 yards of offense on a listless Auburn D all afternoon, but came up one inch short in the end. Who made the game’s final goal-line stop? Why, Ryan Smith, a backup safety with just three career tackles, of course.
No, Cam Newton and Nick Fairley aren’t walking back into that Auburn locker room anytime soon. But the way the Tigers have won their first two games, we’re probably better off with them in the pros, anyway. After all, Auburn’s given us two of the most entertaining finishes of the young season. The more the better, if you ask me.
This Auburn squad may wear the same uniforms as the one from last year, but they’re completely different. The 2010 Tigers were the bullies of the SEC, wearing varsity jackets and wide smiles. The 2011 squad are the wide-eyed kids picked last on the playground. They’re young, naïve and inexperienced. If they were anything else, they probably wouldn’t have tricked themselves into believing they could have stolen those wins in the end.
“Are we a great football team right now? No. Not even close. But the identity of the team is starting to form week by week because they will fight,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said after Saturday’s 41-34 victory. "They will not look at the scoreboard, and that's been one of the trademarks that we've really tried to instill in these guys that we are not looking for the scoreboard until it says zero-zero because everything else in-between does not matter. I think they are buying into that.''
Wool, meet eyes.
The young Tigers were forced to replace 18 starters from their BCS Championship squad this season, and spent the entire offseason hearing and reading about it. They were picked by numerous publications to finish last in the SEC West, and the SEC writers predicted them to finish fourth out of the five teams in the division — with zero first-place votes (even fifth-place Ole Miss had two) — at the SEC Media Days back in July. Whereas most defending champions get at least a tiny “respect” cushion in the following season’s summertime polls, Auburn was ranked 19th in the USA Today preseason poll to start the year; the lowest ranking for a defending champ since the publication started doing polls in 1991.
Chizik didn’t flinch when the rankings came out, reminding the all-knowing media in August that their lack of respect was nothing new, “If I’m not mistaken, this time last year nobody used ‘Auburn’ and ‘championship’ in the same sentence,” he said. “So that’s what makes college football so great. Everybody’s got opinions and everybody loves this time of year to predict who’s going to do what. So that’s all good. I don’t have the time or energy to worry about it.”
Nor do his Tigers, who are somehow 2-0, after two wild early September finishes. Seven-point underdogs at home on Saturday, they’re winners of 17 straight games and owners of the longest such streak in the country.
This Saturday, the rare “little defending champions that could” travel to Clemson’s Memorial Stadium for another game where they’ll be picked to lose.
And that’s just fine.
They’ll respond by flying into the Plexiglas a few times en route to yet another successful landing.
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