Auburn Still Flying Under The Radar

FAYETTEVILLE -- Auburn might have been the best team in the nation last year, but never got the chance to prove it.

And we'll never know.

It was left out of the BCS Championship Game and had to settle for a Southeastern Conference title, a win in the Sugar Bowl and a 13-0 record.

Still, not too shabby.

There was little doubt the Tigers were in the upper echelon of excellence in 2004. Every one knew it, every one prepared for it.

So, essentially there was little reason to overlook Auburn which proved to be head-and-shoulders better than any team in the conference from start to finish.

Given the fact the Tigers had four first-round draft picks -- three were on offense alone -- last spring, many didn't figure they would be this good, this early.

They were wrong. Maybe.

Flying under a low radar, No. 21 Auburn has suddenly elevated its stock with a 4-1 record and 2-0 start in the SEC.

There are a couple of reasons for that.

First, Auburn might be much better than most figured and second, they have a lot of cast members left from their storybook season last year.

At least so far, there hasn't been much drop off in talent, despite losing four marquee players to the NFL.

More than anything, Auburn has been consistent.

Get this, dating back to the 2003 season, the Tigers have won 19 of their last 20 games.

One thing to remember about Auburn's fast start this season is the fact it's played all its games at home.

"That's been a factor, I think," said Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville. "We've got six games left, four of them on the road. We look forward to going on the road for the first time this season."

First stop, Fayetteville.

Auburn meets Arkansas (2-3, 0-2) at 6 p.m. Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium for its first road test.

"You know, we won a lot of games on the road last year," Tuberville. "We have a lot of those kids back this season. That experience should help us.

"When you go on the road, you have to block out all crowd noise. I know it's going to be noisy in Fayetteville. It should be for the home team. We'll just have to concentrate and execute.

"We'll see what happens."

Despite losing a lot of star-spangled talent from last year, the Tigers don't seem to be faltering in the statistical categories.

Auburn leads the nation in kickoff returns -- Devin Aromashodu is second to Arkansas' Felix Jones (32.1) in the SEC with a 31.5 average -- averaging 36.4 yards per return.

It is second in the nation in scoring defense (9.4) to Virginia Tech (9.0) and it's first in the SEC in scoring offense (averaging 38.0 points per game) and pass defense (148.6).

Those offensive figures are kind of mind-boggling when one considers Auburn has had to replace quarterback Jason Campbell and running backs Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and Ronnie Brown. All three were first-round picks last April.

Sophomore Brandon Cox has stepped in for Campbell under center and Kenny Irons and Brad Lester have carried the bulk of the load overland.

Cox is ranked third in the league in passing (240 yards per game) and fourth in the league in passing efficiency -- he's 69 of 110 for 960 yards and 6 touchdowns -- with a 62.7 completion percentage.

"Brandon has come a long way since the opener (a 23-14 loss against Georgia Tech)," Tuberville said. "He's gotten more conformable with things and I think that shows."

Irons is 10th in the SEC in rushing with 319 yards and 5 touchdowns. He's averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Lester, who led Auburn in rushing against South Carolina with 53 yards and learned Monday he'd get his first start Saturday, has 242 rushing with a 6.7 per-carry average.

Another offensive weapon is 6-foot-9 senior, 322-pound offensive tackle Marcus McNeill, who got more votes than any player in the balloting by the media for the preseason All-SEC team during the annual media football days in late July.

Ben Obomanu is Auburn's leading receiver (16 catches for 180 yards and 3 touchdowns. Courtney Taylor has 10 catches for 127 yards.

"I like our receivers and I'm excited about Brandon throwing to them" Tuberville said. "They are very athletic and have a lot of speed. Main thing, they have a lot of experience.

"They are the strength of our offense."

Defensively, Travis Williams, a 6-1, 212-pound senior linebacker, is one of Auburn's best head hunters. He's third on the team in tackles with 24. He's also forced 2 fumbles, had 1 sack and intercepted a pass.

Will Herring, a 6-4, 222-pound junior free safety leads the tackle charts with 29.

Auburn is coming off a bye week last Saturday. It beat South Carolina 48-7 in its last game on Oct. 1.

"I'd like to beat everybody like we beat South Carolina, to be honest with you," Tuberville said. "We're not going to play that well every week. We're not a great football team but we've improved.

"Obviously, we've gotten better since the first game of the season. We don't look back on what we did or look to the future.

"We're going to take it day-by-day."

"Our momentum was going pretty good going into the bye week, but used last week to get some guys healthy. We added a few things to the playbook on offense and defense.

"We had the opportunity to work on things against Arkansas. We went full speed. We had a lot of energy. We've got five more after this one, a lot on the road."

"We'll be fully rested."

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