Pared down from when Florida was included in the festivities, the Tigers still face a tough task every season and this year was no different. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik says that despite the rivalry and intensity needed to win each game, it's not that difficult to get the team ready to play.
"Those two games really make it fairly easy for your guys to get up," Chizik says. "There's not a whole lot you have to say. As tough as the conference is throughout the whole year, the two games that come down at the end that are Auburn's two biggest rivalries and basically come down to the two biggest battles are the Georgia and Alabama games. Is it hard to get them up for both of them? No, I don't know that it's hard to get them up for both of them, but it's a physical battle two weeks in a row. You better come prepared to deal with the physical part of the game."
Auburn dealt with the physical part of things just fine in back-to-back wins over the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide to close out the season a perfect 11-0. In beating Alabama 21-13, the Tigers allowed Alabama just 128 yards of total offense through three quarters and only a late touchdown pass allowed them to get in the endzone. Chizik says his group played good enough to win and that's all that matters.
"Once we settled down I thought we got back to a very business like attitude and ended up playing well," Chizik says. "It doesn't matter if it's an eight point win or a one point win or a half point win, when you beat Alabama you beat Alabama and that's all anybody is ever going to remember. That's all anybody ever cares about. When you're 11-0 it doesn't matter if you've won every game by one point or won every game by 30 points. You're 11-0. I think those are two things I think we can be proud about as far as accomplishments for the year."
Following the win the Tigers celebrated for longer than normal on the turf of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Hugs and high fives were abundant from the players and coaches, something Chizik says is a product of beating your biggest rival with all the chips on the table.
"It was kind of a two-headed monster," Chizik says. "Anytime you beat Alabama in a game of that magnitude at all your emotions run high. It's hard to explain. The feeling is just unbelievable. Then, to go a step farther, we end up the season 11-0 and undefeated in this conference, which is the best conference in the country. That's just so hard to do.
"Those two things combined, I thought it was a real emotional night for everybody. The coaches and the players, we've all hung in there together and fought through everything together. We've never doubted each other. It was just a culmination of a hard year of work. It was a real satisfying feeling."
Linebacker Travis Williams has been a big part of Auburn's success on defense this season.
During spring practice and much of two-a-days, the Auburn defense struggled to find an identity because of position moves like Jay Ratliff to defensive tackle from end and injuries to key players like David Irons Jr., but Chizik says that the unit persevered because it stayed the course. Never waivering in their belief of each other, the players and the coaches kept working towards a common goal and now they're one step away from reaching the top of the heap in the SEC.
"I don't want to say that it's been a huge surprise because I've always had a lot of confidence in our players," Chizik says. "We went through a lot of ups and downs in two-a-days and we went through a lot of ups and downs in spring practice. Spring practice was a time when we had to try to identify where our problems were.
"After spring practice we identified what some of those problems were and we had to move some people around to get some of our best people in the best spots with our defense. We took Travis Williams and moved him to mike linebacker. We took Quentin Groves, who was a mike linebacker, and moved him to defensive end. Two of those moves proved to be very good for us."
Replacing key starters like Karlos Dansby, Reggie Torbor, Dontarrious Thomas, Spencer Johnson and Demarco McNeil, Chizik says he knew there would be a learning process for this year's defense. One thing that helped that along was a favorable early schedule that gave the players a chance to fail without worrying about losing the football game.
"We were just looking for continuity and I think the schedule allowed us, defensively, to gain that continuity and to get better as the season progressed as a group," Chizik says. "As the season went I think we got better as a group. We got more confident as a group. On top of that they got used to playing with each other and believing in each other as the season progressed. That started after the LSU game and we just got on a roll from there."
Auburn finished the regular season as the nation's number one scoring defense, allowing just 9.6 points per game. In 11 games Auburn has allowed just one rushing touchdown, an unheard of statistic in major college football. The Tigers are fifth in the nation in total defense, allowing 267 yards per game.
One of the unit's top games this season came against Tennessee in Knoxville earlier this year. Auburn gathered in five interceptions in the game, four by senior safety Junior Rosegreen, and shut down the Vol attack on the way to an easy 34-10 victory. Chizik says that while Tennessee knows what Auburn is about on defense, you don't want to change what you do best in preparation for the SEC title game.
"The thing you could do right now that would not be favorable for your defense is if you tried to go in, because you're playing the same team twice and have two weeks to prepare, is to go in and change a bunch of things and try to re-invent the wheel and things of that nature," Chizik says. "I haven't played anybody twice in the same year, but I'm assuming we'll tweak things here or there. We'll go back and see what we did good and see what we did bad. Just kind of tweak it. We're not going to change what we do and Tennessee isn't going to change what they do. We've got two weeks to rest up and get mentally refocused. We'll just continue business as usual."