The Eyes Of These Tigers

FAYETTEVILLE -- Asked what the deal is with red-hot Auburn this season, LSU coach Nick Saban did not hesitate.

"This is the hardest playing team with the most tenacity that we've played against all year," he said.

Yep, there's something much different about Auburn this season.

Sure, there are the obvious twists: A new offensive coordinator (Al Borges), style (West Coast), and, seemingly, quarterback.

"Down on the Plains" just doesn't sound right, not with senior quarterback Jason Campbell finally clicking as a fourth-year starter.

But what's really changed down in Auburn is the eyes of the Tigers. When you tune in to CBS for today's matchup with Arkansas in Jordan-Hare Stadium, you'll see they're wide-open, intense and focused.

Scanning film, seventh-year Arkansas coach Houston Nutt has seen it.

"Yes," Nutt said. "Absolutely. Great energy."

Last season, Auburn started at No. 6 in The Associated Press poll before being dusted off - largely because of a bone-dry offense - by USC and Georgia Tech by a combined 40-3. After Week 2, the Tigers were punted from the poll.

This season, Auburn is off to a 6-0 (3-0 in the Southeastern Conference) start, including the 10-9 win against defending national champion LSU on Sept. 18 and the 34-10 dismantling of the Volunteers at Tennessee on Oct. 2. The Tigers have risen from relative obscurity to No. 4 in the AP poll, their highest ranking in a decade.

While the drive of running backs Carnell "Cadillac" Williams (13 career 100-yard games) and Ronnie Brown have been key, it is Campbell who has triggered the explosion. The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder has tossed 10 touchdowns against just 2 interceptions this season and ranks sixth nationally in passing efficiency.

Saban said Campbell has "come of age" and Nutt said he's "playing his best ball."

Said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville: "People are playing better around him, too. The receivers are catching better. We've been able to make plays, whereas last year we didn't.

"Last year, we had a good football team that was very inconsistent on the offensive side of the ball. Teams were loading the box against us. Now we're making plays downfield. The new offense gives us a chance each week."

The defense, too.

Auburn has yet to give up a rushing touchdown, has 11 interceptions (second-best in the country) and during last weekend's 52-7 rout of Louisiana Tech, the Tigers had an astounding nine sacks even though they subbed liberally.

"We have a little bit different defense this year," Tuberville said. "Last year, we were a little bit stronger, more physical. But this year, we're quicker and faster. All our linebackers can really run. And on this level, that's what you look for."

Tall secondary guys, too. The Tigers have some big-timers like 6-foot-1 senior cornerback Carlos Dansby (39 career pass deflections, 53-yard TD return last week) and 6-foot senior strong safety Junior Rosecrans (5 interceptions this season).

"That's kind of a luxury," Tuberville said. "We don't have the 5-8, 5-9 guys, and that's allowed us to play lot of zone, a lot of man ... to mix it up and be fairly successful."

Auburn is deep on the defensive front, where the Tigers rotate 8-10 guys to keep them fresh and speedy.

"Well, I think the No. 1 thing is they play hard and really compete well," said Saban of Auburn defenders. "I wouldn't say going into the game that, 'This is the most powerful team we play against relative to Florida or Georgia.'"

Instead, Saban (whose Tigers mauled Auburn 31-7 last season) used words like "grit" and "tenacity" to define this year's Auburn defense.

Tuberville, who Auburn foolishly tried to run off last year, said one of the major differences in this season and last is simple.

"Last year, I think we put too much on 'em," he said. "This year, we're more relaxed. We know there are some areas that we know we're not as good as some teams are. But we practice hard and that carries over to our games. Our guys have fun playing, fun practicing."

Fun winning.

With acknowledgment to the rest, this Auburn run really goes back to what Saban was saying.

"This team is really competing with a lot of character is the major difference," Saban said. "I think just the way they compete in the games.

"They really are a hungry team."

Nutt is 4-2 against Auburn, but not against Tigers like these.

If the Hogs aren't at the top of their game today, this Auburn team will eat them alive.

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