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Tigers land safely in the desert for title game

After Auburn's skyscraper-sized plane landed beneath the glowing sky of a desert sunset, Tigers coach Gene Chizik was the first to walk down the portable staircase.

He went inside a white tent for a media session, shook a few hands and headed toward the fleet of buses waiting on the tarmac.

Auburn's players were still filing off the plane.

That's some contingent.

Bringing what seemed like half the state of Alabama with them, the top-ranked Tigers arrived a Sky Harbor Airport Monday evening for the Jan. 10 BCS national championship game against No. 2 Oregon (12-0) at University of Phoenix Stadium in nearby Glendale.

"We've been looking forward to this now for a lot of days," Chizik said. "We're very blessed to be here. We brought close to 400 people on that huge plane that you saw out there and we're excited to play in this game."

So, too, it seems are Auburn fans.

Back in Alabama, Auburn was sent off by a mass of well-wishers who gathered dozens deep around the team buses, yelling encouragement and taking photos.

Once they arrived in the desert, the Tigers were greeted by another large group, cheering and waving pompoms as they lined a red carpet between the plane and buses.

More adulation along the route to the hotel in central Scottsdale; dozens of fans lined the road north and about 150 were waiting at the team hotel, forcing officials to clear room for the bus to get into the parking lot.

Auburn's players and coaches soaked it in, inspired and ready to hit the practice field Tuesday morning.

"This is a business trip and a lifetime, possibly, opportunity — you don't know when you're going to get a chance to be here again," Chizik said. "Hopefully often, but you never know. And I think our guys know the importance of the game and how huge this is."

Auburn hasn't won a national title since 1957 and still feels the sting from 2004, when USC and Oklahoma played for the championship while the unbeaten Tigers weren't invited, relegated to the Sugar Bowl instead.

Auburn (13-0) was nearly unstoppable on its march to the national title game this season.

The Tigers had one of the nation's most prolific offenses and its best player in quarterback Cam Newton, who didn't allow a pay-for-play plot by his father derail his Heisman Trophy season.

The Tigers rolled through the regular season and put an emphatic cap on it in the SEC Championship, pounding South Carolina 56-17 behind Newton's six combined touchdowns.

That was a month ago, leaving Auburn plenty of time to think about the importance of the situation and the difficulty that lies in stopping Oregon's ants-out-of-the-anthill offense.

So far, the Tigers have handled it pretty well, overlooking all the distractions, attention and importance of the opportunity to get in nearly three weeks of solid practices.

"That's one of the reasons why we're playing in this game," Chizik said of his team's focus. "One of the great things our coaches have done and our players have been able to do is know what the circumstances are and take it one day at a time, focus on what the task at hand is."

Keep that focus for one more week, and that giant plane that landed Monday could become a flying party bus heading back to Alabama.