While Ole Miss has remained unbeaten in SEC play, the Auburn-LSU winner will have control of the division with games still remaining with the Rebels. That's something Auburn senior tackle Mark Pera says makes this week one of those SEC players dream about being a part of.
"This is always a big game, especially when you go down there," Pera says. "That's especially true because this is a night game and playing on ESPN. This is definitely one you look forward to because whichever team wins this weekend controls its own destiny about going to Atlanta. This is a big game."
Auburn enters the game on a roll offensively, leading the SEC in scoring offense in league games, averaging 32 points per game. That is a far cry from earlier this season when the Tigers struggled to get back to the line of scrimmage most of the time on offense, suffering 13 sacks in the first two games alone. Pera says that some soul searching and hard work got them back on track and ready for the stretch run of the 2003 season.
"We definitely have a lot more confidence than we did at the beginning of the season," Pera says. "The first couple of games rattled us a little bit, but we were able to pick it up and go out and do what we know how to do and that's power running and throwing play-action. We have been playing great and Jason (Jason Campbell) has been making the calls for us. The last couple of weeks I think we have progressed well as an offense."
Much of the offense's production the last three weeks can be attributed to the running game, and in particular junior tailback Carnell Williams. Against Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi State Williams has rushed for 496 yards and eight touchdowns to garner three-straight SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors. Pera says the Cadillac's drive on and off the field make it fun to go out and play each week, especially when he's running the ball the way he has lately.
"Carnell is always full of energy," Pera says. "The last couple of weeks he has just been playing awesome. It's the best I have ever seen him play. After breaking his ankle it's just awesome to see him come back like that. He just always brings energy and keeps everybody focused on what's at hand. He gives us that little extra something on the field."
Another back who had a strong performance vs. Misssissippi State was fullback Brandon Johnson. A lead blocker to the fullest, Johnson put down opponent after opponent on Saturday in one of the best blocking exhibitions seen in an Auburn football game. Pera says the offense as a whole has gotten on the right track blocking for Williams and the rest of Auburn's stable of running backs, but he sees the entire offense getting better beginning with quarterback Jason Campbell.
When people look back on the 2003 season the terrible start and Williams' extraordinary play will be remembered, but this team could also be remembered for several unselfish team players that did whatever was asked of them to get the job done. One of those is sophomore Steven Ross, who began his year at tight end. After moving back and forth this season to offensive tackle, he got his first start at strong tackle on Saturday and responded with a great performance in the win over Mississippi State.
"Steven had played tackle before, but it was at weak tackle," Pera notes. "They moved him there on Tuesday and told him to go out there and play against Mississippi State on Saturday. He played great. He played his best game as far as playing offensive line. That was his best game yet. On such short notice to come out there and play a game like that was big. It allowed us to get Marcus (McNeill) ready to play the LSU game."
While this game isn't a must-win showdown like it was two seasons ago when the Tigers traveled to Baton Rouge only to see LSU advance to the SEC Championship Game, Pera says this one is just as important because Auburn hopes to remain unbeaten in SEC play. No matter the outcome, Pera says he is confident fans will see a better Auburn team than the one they saw two seasons ago in Baton Rouge.
"This is a different team this year," Pera says. "I think we're ready to go down there and play our best game yet. That's what it's going to take to beat these guys, our best game of the year."