No. 22 Auburn opens season to mixed reviews, still overshadowed by rival

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The Auburn Tigers enter this season with a No. 22 ranking and are predicted to finish third in the Southeastern Conference Western Division by league media, which would be a two-spot improvement from last season.

One national commentator even picked Auburn to win the West over preseason No. 1 Alabama. Second-year coach Gene Chizik doesn't mind that kind of talk at all.

"The bottom line is our expectations of ourselves should be really high," Chizik said on Tuesday. "Our football team hears those things, and we know at the end of the day that doesn't mean anything. You have to earn it on the field every week.

"At the same time, they need to know that the expectation level out there for other people as they look on is high as well. I think that that's a healthy thing."

The Tigers seem willing to embrace either underdog status or raised expectations.

There's cause for both ends of the perception spectrum.

Auburn has a new quarterback in Cameron Newton and starting tailback in Mario Fannin, but high expectations for both.

The Tigers have newcomers all over the depth chart who figure to play and three starters — right tackle A.J. Greene, tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen, defensive tackle Zach Clayton — who have made a combined two career starts. Plus, starting linebacker Daren Bates converted from safety in the offseason. Four walk-ons also are listed on the depth chart.

Making matters tougher, the Tigers continue to get overshadowed by in-state rival No. 1 Alabama.

"Any time you turn on the TV or turn on the sports talk radio show or anywhere, they're talking about the other team," Newton said late in preseason camp. "Of course we know that they're an excellent team as well. We feel like we're not being mentioned as we should be.

"We're just going to do what we're coached to do, and our No. 1 thing to do is win. And I guess if you win games, you'll silence all the critics."

Perhaps the best news for the Tigers is that safeties Zac Etheridge and Aairon Savage have returned from serious injuries to reclaim their starting jobs.

Savage has missed the past two seasons with a torn knee ligament followed by an Achilles' tendon tear. Etheridge had a scary neck injury in a collision against Mississippi late last season.

"We're extremely excited about having both of those guys back on the field for all that they bring to the table as people first," Chizik said. "They're great kids, they're great leaders. That's not even to mention the experience that they bring to the table, which is huge."

Bates said the team isn't focused on headlines and TV time, or lack thereof.

"We don't have to fight for the attention but I just think we need to get to the championship," he said. "That's what we're working on, to get from good to great. That's really our intentions, just to get there."

Linebacker Craig Stevens doesn't think the so-called lack of respect is anything new.

Stevens points to last year's 41-30 win over West Virginia as an example of why Auburn sometimes feels jilted. His 15-yard interception return for a touchdown — the Tigers' fifth pick of the game — clinched the win.

"A lot of people overlook Auburn," Stevens said. "That was one of the most exciting games that week. We played hard and ended up pulling it out in the end. I remember all of us went home and turned on ESPN trying to see the highlights. They showed everybody's highlights and then they came to us, they just showed scores, no highlights, no nothing.

"At times we feel like we're overlooked as a team and as players out there. We know as long as we make plays and just continue to do well, sooner or later people will take notice."