AU's top defensive end, Reggie Torbor, was limping with a bad knee and Jay Ratliff, who had been converted from tight end to defensive end, was banged up, too. Steven Bouldin, who came out of the spring as a backup defensive, decided to give up football over the summer.
Auburn's lack of depth was one of the major keys of the game as eventual Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer had all day to throw against the Tigers, making them pay on the way to a 24-17 victory in the Coliseum.
This year could be a different story as the Tigers field a deep, talented and healthy front four that is ready to take on USC and new quarterback Matt Leinart. Focusing on this game for the better part of three months since beginning summer conditioning workouts, McNeil, the senior leader for the Tigers up front, says now the hardest part is getting to the kickoff on Saturday.
"You don't want to peak too early," McNeil notes. "We still have some things to learn and some film to watch on USC. We're not at a boiling point right now."
A matchup between Top 10 teams, Saturday's 5 p.m. kickoff features some of the top players in the country facing off against each other. Because of that this game will be the focus of many of the major sports networks in the country, including CBS. The network will televise the game and have their pre-game and post-game coverage live from Jordan-Hare Stadium. While this game is huge, the always under control McNeil says his Tigers can't treat it any differently than they do any other game this season.
"We're trying not to put all our eggs in one basket," McNeil says. "USC is a great team, but we just don't want to lose a game. It's not necessarily that we're putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to win a national championship, we're just trying to win one game. The season doesn't end according to how this game turns out. We're just going to go out there and do the best we can."
Demarco McNeil, linebacker Dontarrious Thomas and Spencer Johnson wait for defensive signals last year at USC.
A player who has gone through just about everything imaginable to play this season, including knee surgeries and countless hours of rehab, McNeil has won the support and admiration from his teammates. One of his biggest fans is sophomore Tommy Jackson, who backs up the senior at noseguard.
"I don't think anyone could," Jackson says when asked if anyone could understand what McNeil has gone through to play. "Just the things you do to get ready for a game are enough, but no one really knows what it takes for Demarco. I can't even fathom what he went through. You can only respect somebody like that. Admiration, that's what I feel."
Leading the way this season, seniors like McNeil, Johnson, Dexter Murphy and Reggie Torbor have set the standard for the way things should be done in the future. Never failing to answer a question or help out with technique, the quartet hopes to have their teammates ready to play this season have them feeling like they belong.
"To me the older guys are really something good to look up to," Jackson says. "They give good leadership. They had good leadership last year, but these guys are like a family. They are really like your older brothers. They work so hard and it makes you want to work harder. When I see my older brother working it makes me want to work too.
"It's like a chain reaction," Jackson adds. "It's fun to see that. The want to win and the fight they have is amazing. The continuity here is just so different than any team I've ever been on. It's like a family. Some people say you don't really find that in college, but here you really have that."
Down almost 20 pounds from last season into the 280s, Jackson has been impressive this preseason and has worked hard to improve his pass rush. Because of his work and the continued improvement of Wayne Dickens, Ben Grubbs and true freshmen Tim Duckworth and Josh Thompson, the Tigers are deeper up front than any time in many years. Coach Gene Chizik, Auburn's Coordinator, notes that could be a big factor in Saturday's game because of the expected heat and humidity for the late afternoon kickoff.
"It's invaluable," Chizik says. "Right now if you can go two to three-deep in the defensive line and be adequate there with those second and thirds in there then you have a chance to hold up for four quarters. That's especially true early in the season when everything is so hot. We feel good about being where we are."
Watching play after play of USC on film, McNeil says that you can't help but be impressed with the talent they have. Trying to slow down an offense that was on a roll to end the 2002 season, McNeil says there is one main goal in game one for the defensive line--pressure the quarterback.
"It's very important," McNeil says. "USC is a team that goes mostly on rhythm. They have a primary receiver on it seems like every play. Hopefully, we can throw them off that rhythm and get them to make mistakes. They are a great offense, but we're just going to try to disrupt them."