Auburn will face Penn State at noon CST on New Year's Day at the Capital One Bowl at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium. McNeil and the Tigers are hoping for a better result than in the Jan. 1, 2001 game when the Tigers were outscored 31-28 by Michigan.
"I didn't think we were going to be here after we played Alabama, but things worked out," the junior defensive tackle said. "We fell to the slot in Orlando. We are very fortunate. We are very thankful to be going to a bowl like this. When we went down there a couple of years ago we had a great time, but we didn't get the job done on the field. This time, we are going down there to try to win a bowl game."
Demarco McNeil was the first lineman to ever be named Alabama's Mr. Football after a remarkable high school career at Blount suburb of Prichard.
The Nittany Lions have a 9-3 mark and feature one of the nation's top players in tailback Larry Johnson along with talent and depth on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Penn State is coached by veteran Joe Paterno, who has had very good success in bowl games. His teams are 14-5 in New Year's Day bowl games. Auburn and Penn State have met just once on the football field and the Nittany Lions put a whipping on the Tigers in the rain and mud at the Outback Bowl in Tampa seven years ago.
McNeil is looking forward to the matchup. "It is fun going up against someone that you don't know on a one-on-one basis, or playing somebody from a different region, especially since we are going to be interacting with them, getting to know them. It is definitely different."
Like their coach, who has carved out a distinct niche for his Nittany Lions over the years with no frills uniforms as well as vanilla offensive and defensive styles, McNeil says Penn State's offense looks to be based on timing and execution. "They don't run too many plays, but the plays that they run they run well," McNeil says. "Everybody knows they have a great running back, but they also have a great offensive line and a quarterback (Zack Mills) that masters the game pretty well. It is going to be a tough task for us to stop them."
From watching video of the Nittany Lions, McNeil says they remind him "a little of Arkansas," a team that put a surprising 38-17 whipping on the Tigers back on Oct. 12th. "Everyone knows how much trouble Arkansas gave us," McNeil says. "It is definitely going to be a challenge for us to go and try to stop Penn State, stop their running game. I think we are going to be up for the challenge."
The teams that have had success against Penn State have slowed Larry Johnson, who rushed for 2,015 yards this season at eight yards per carry. "We have just got to hit him early," McNeil says. "He has got great open-field speed. We just can't let him get going. If he gets going, it will be 8-10 yards before you get contact. Then, it is going to be a long day for us. We have just got to hit him early and head him off."
McNeil is well aware that Paterno (336-99-3 in 37 seasons) is considered one of college football's all-time great coaches. "Coach Paterno is definitely a legend," McNeil says. "I guess he is the winningest coach in D-I. You know he is going to have his guys ready for the game, but we are not necessarily playing Coach Paterno. We are just playing Penn State. We're going to try to go out there and do our best.
McNeil says he likes the fact that the Auburn defense will go to Orlando in good shape physically. In the game the Tigers really struggled vs. Arkansas, McNeil was limping with an injury as was the other starting interior defensive lineman, Spencer Johnson. The defensive ends were also banged up. Plus, the linebackers were less than full speed, too. The group recovered and was in much better shape for the stretch run that included a 17-7 regular season finale victory at Alabama.
"Everyone is getting healthy," McNeil says. "Spencer is playing good ball right now and I am pretty healthy, and we have got Reggie (defensive end Reggie Torbor) coming along pretty well so we are definitely going to come in healthy--probably the best we have felt since the USC game."
McNeil is home in Mobile for a couple of days off before heading to Orlando to resume bowl practices on the 26th. He says it is definitely a happier holiday in his hometown after being part of a team that whipped its in-state rival. "Oh, it definitely felt better," he says. "That is all folks were talking about. They weren't talking about what happened against Arkansas or Florida. There were some questions about the Georgia game, but most of the people were talking about the Alabama game. It felt pretty good."
Tiger Ticket Extra: Like everybody else on defense, McNeil was curious to see Auburn's newest running back in action during bowl practices on campus. Brandon Jacobs is a 6-4 1/2, 253-pounder from Coffeyville, Kan., Community College who was rated the nation's top juco player this past season. He graduated early and has already enrolled at Auburn. "He is definitely going to make an impact on our team and the SEC," predicts McNeil, who had his hands full trying to tackle the huge back in practice this past week. "We are looking for big things to come from Brandon." McNeil says it is good that Jacobs and juco transfer Tony McClain, a defensive end, were able to come to campus early to meet their new teammates and make the bowl trip to Orlando. We are definitely going to get to know them, especially this time of the year with the bowl game," McNeil says. "You try to make them feel part of the Auburn family."