Leading the SEC and third in the country in scoring defense, giving up just 9.4 points per game, the Tigers have been dominant since a shaky first half in the season opener against Georgia Tech.
Leading the way is first-year coordinator David Gibbs. As the team and coach have gotten more used to each other, the defensive efforts have gotten considerably stronger. The best performance this season came last Saturday night against South Carolina Saturday when the defense allowed just 199 total yards and seven points to the Gamecocks. Gibbs says that the improvement must be sustained if the Tigers hope to reach their preseason goal of getting back to Atlanta.
"We all know that we're just now beginning the gauntlet of what is going to be a hard road to defend our SEC Championship," Gibbs says. "This is the first step. Hopefully we're comfortable around each other because if we're not it's probably too late by now.
"We have to play with the same enthusiasm and the same emotion we played with last week. That is the key. I think everybody saw there was a different level of intensity on our side of the football that hasn't been here since I've been here. I'm glad that it showed up. It was a big relief.
"As a football coach you keep pounding and grinding and teaching and coaching the best that you can and at some point they either get it or they don't," Gibbs adds. "You either click or you don't click. For whatever reason that happens, and it happened Saturday night.
"To be honest I'm not sure it would have mattered who we played. Nobody is talking about us because they're talking about Alabama and Florida. That's kind of what happened there. It wouldn't have mattered who Alabama played Saturday afternoon, they would have whooped anybody in the country if they would have gone in there on that day with the things they've been through and the fever pitch.
"That's where we were," Gibbs says. "We hadn't really played anybody and all people did was talk bad about us since we lost to Georgia Tech. For whatever reason our kids clicked. Now you have to maintain that intensity. It was one game, it's over and done. You have to move on and keep that same level of intensity."
Gibbs works with Will Herring during a recent practice.
One reason for Auburn's improved play was the return of two key performers on the defensive front from injury. Both Stanley McClover and Josh Thompson played well in their first real action since the season opener. While Thompson did fine in his action, Gibbs notes that McClover still has a long way to go before he's ready to be a heavy contributor for the Tigers.
"Stanley has to keep working to get better and get healthy," Gibbs says. "He's still not healthy. He's out of shape. He's not in football shape, so this off-week comes at a good time for him. He was sucking wind the other night in the game and that's why we kept him in there at the end.
"Hopefully, through this week and next week, he'll be ready to go and when his time comes he'll get his snaps. Stanley has never been an every down guy and I don't think Stanley will ever be an every down guy. He's got to get where he can go in and be a factor. We're counting on him."
The reasoning behind Gibbs' comments is that McClover expends so much energy because of his emotional levels that it becomes impossible for him to do that for an extended period of time. That's the case with several other players on the defensive side of the ball and that becomes important when those same players are counted on in the kicking game.
"(Jonathan) Wilhite and Montae Pitts dominated the game on special teams," Gibbs says. "Those two guys dominated Saturday night on special teams. Fatigue caught up with one of them and it hurt us on defense because they played so long on special teams. There is some give and take there. Some guys can go out there and play all those snaps. Some guys just can't."
One of Auburn's most athletic players, Wilhite has garnered more playing time as the season has progressed. A cornerback who transferred to Auburn from Butler County Community College in Kansas, Wilhite has settled in to the style and physical play of the SEC and Gibbs says he's already one of his best players.
"I think I've said all along he's always been in the mix," Gibbs states. "I've always added his name to the Pitts, Patrick Lee competition. I've always said he's as good as they were and he still is. He keeps getting better. It usually takes junior college kids a little adjustment period and I think we've done it the right way with him bringing him along slowly. At the same time he can't play every snap on defense because he's so important to us on special teams. There is give and take there. We're pleased with him. He continues to improve."
As always there will be comparisons made at the end of the season between Gibbs and former Auburn coordinator Gene Chizik. Gibbs will probably be compared to other coaches around the country as well. While he admitted that's part of the way things are done, he says that without the right types of players a coach likely doesn't have the chance to get the job done.
"To me it's about the players, it's not about the coach," Gibbs says. "You point them in the right direction, but they've got to find a way to maintain that level of intensity. The defensive call does not matter. The one touchdown that we gave up was the safest call we have in our playbook and look what happened. Everybody didn't play with the same intensity and we gave up a touchdown.
We'll keep working," he notes. "One thing I've said since I got here, these kids work extremely hard. An off-week around here is probably not a normal off-week. It will be like training camp around here and we will get after it and try to get better."