NCF Nation: Josh Bynes

Auburn’s football team finally got some presidential treatment Wednesday.

The defending national champs visited the White House and President Barack Obama for a ceremony in the East Room.

[+] EnlargeKodi Burns and Barack Obama
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez MonsivaisKodi Burns gave President Obama an Auburn jersey during the team's visit to the White House.
According to a release from the school, President Obama commended the Tigers for their undefeated season during a 25-minute ceremony.

“It wasn’t always an easy road,” Obama said. “This team played one of the toughest schedules in all of college football last year. In nine games, they came from behind to win -– including after being down 24-0 on the road to Alabama. Unbelievable. That was an unbelievable game. I watched that game. I’m busy, but I watched that game. That was unbelievable.”

Talk about inflating the significance of this rivalry.

Kodi Burns presented the president with an Auburn football helmet and a Tigers jersey with Obama’s name on the back.

“As soon as President Obama got elected, I remember telling my parents, friends and everybody that one of my goals in life was to be able to meet him," Burns said. "It felt great seeing him in person. Being at the White House was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Added Cam Newton: “It was special,” he said. “It is something that you look at on TV and you just wish and wonder what that feels like. Now we’ve been blessed enough to have this opportunity to meet President Obama. The whole experience was incredible.”

Auburn coach Gene Chizik said he and President Obama discussed the devastation in Alabama caused by the horrific tornadoes in late April. The president toured the destruction two days after the storms, while Chizik and a strong Auburn contingent helped with some of the relief efforts shortly after the storms hit.

“It has been great to be at the White House with the national championship football team,” Chizik said. “What a great honor and privilege this has been for the Auburn family. It’s so neat that so many of our seniors could come back. This is one of the last times this group will be together and what an honor it is to be together here at the White House and celebrate an unbelievable season.”

Auburn sent 150 individuals, including around 90 players from the 2010 championship team.

“It’s a great day for these players,” Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said. “Nobody gave them a chance at the beginning of the year, and to be at the White House is really special for these players, coaches and the Auburn family. It’s been great to see so many seniors come back for this special occasion. It’s been like a reunion for the team.”

The team also toured the nation’s capital, including the Lincoln Memorial, an extremely special moment for wide receiver Emory Blake.

“I walked up the stairs and saw the plaque where Dr. King was standing when he gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech,” Blake said. “I took a picture of it with my phone and I will definitely save that because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see where history was made.”

Members of Auburn’s football family weren’t the only Tigers in town. After the ceremony, the team signed autographs and posed for pictures with Auburn fans who were invited.

“This was an awesome experience and I’m so glad I decided to come,” Josh Bynes said. “It was overwhelming to actually see the president in person and to shake his hand. This was probably the one and only time in my life that I will ever be in the White House. It’s been an exciting experience and I’m glad I came.”

Fairley, Auburn D clamp down on Ducks

January, 11, 2011
FairleyChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesAuburn's Nick Fairley finished with three tackles for a loss and a forced fumble against Oregon.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Fairly or unfairly, he’s gained a reputation as a dirty player.

Oregon coach Chip Kelly didn’t go down that path late Monday night after watching Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley set up camp in the Ducks’ backfield.

“Nick Fairley proved he was the best defensive lineman in the country. It was a tough matchup for us,” Kelly said following Auburn’s 22-19 win over Oregon in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game.

An impossible matchup would be more like it.

Fairley has pretty much been unblockable all season. He was again against the Ducks and then some.

The 6-5, 300-pound Fairley finished with three tackles for loss and a forced fumble, and he was part of the swarm of Tigers that buried Oregon’s Kenjon Barner at the 1 on fourth-and-goal late in the third quarter.

“He’s a great player, just a baller,” safety Mike McNeil said of his Lombardi Award-winning teammate. “He’s special. He’s a big, silly guy.”

Fairley had another one of those plays in the game that’s not going to help his reputation of being fond of extracurricular activity after the whistle. He shoved Oregon’s LaMichael James in the helmet after the play had been blown dead and was hit with a 15-yard personal foul penalty.

But Fairley is such a disrupter up front that those plays are obscured.

What everybody will remember is that Oregon simply couldn’t block Fairley, and the Tigers did what they’ve done defensively all season.

Make clutch plays and clutch stops.

“Man, our defense … we showed America everything we’ve done each and every Saturday out there on the field,” Fairley said. “Like I said, we’ve been doing this for 14 weeks.”

To truly appreciate what Auburn’s defense was able to do, think of it in these terms: The Tigers were able to beat the top scoring team in the country without scoring a single touchdown in the second half.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik said defensive coordinator Ted Roof had a phenomenal game plan.

“Our defense was focused for one month,” Chizik said. “They went out and practiced every day to win a national championship, every day. There was not a day that I can sit there and look at, boy, we were just terrible today.”

Senior linebacker Josh Bynes grew weary of hearing about everything this Auburn defense wasn’t.

He told his teammates, in no uncertain words, that they were going to be the best defense in the country on Monday night.

“Offense won’t be able to win every game for us,” Bynes said. “We showed that in the SEC championship when everyone said it would be a 99-89 game, and it was a 56-17 game because defensively we stepped up and played like it was our last down.

“And, today, we did the same thing. I think that’s what this defense and this team was built on, the resiliency of going out there and playing to the final whistle.”

Auburn's 'D' bucking the SEC trend

January, 10, 2011
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Auburn is trying to become the seventh different SEC team to win a BCS national championship on Monday night.

If the Tigers can defeat Oregon, they would deviate from the norm in the SEC.

The past BCS national champions from the SEC all had glitzy defensive numbers. Auburn’s defensive numbers are average at best.

“The only thing that matters to us is what that scoreboard says at the end of the game,” Auburn senior linebacker Josh Bynes said. “For 13 games, it’s said the right thing. We’re about making the plays it takes to win games, not impressing anybody by what kind of numbers we put up.

“This defense has answered every challenge that has come our way. We’ve got one more.”

While Auburn has been lights out defensively in the second half, the Tigers rank 55th nationally in total defense (362.1 yards per game) and 54th in scoring defense (24.5 points per game).

How does that compare to the past BCS national champions from the SEC?

Take a look:

  • Alabama 2nd in total defense (244.1 yards per game)
  • Alabama 2nd in scoring defense (11.7 points per game)
  • Florida 9th in total defense (285.2 yards per game)
  • Florida 4th in scoring defense (12.9 points per game)
  • LSU 3rd in total defense (288.8 yards per game)
  • LSU 17th in scoring defense (19.9 points per game)
  • Florida 6th in total defense (255.4 yards per game)
  • Florida 6th in scoring defense (13.5 points per game)
  • LSU 1st in total defense (252 yards per game)
  • LSU 1st in scoring defense (11 points per game)
  • Tennessee 17th in total defense (303 yards per game)
  • Tennessee 9th in scoring defense (14.4 points per game)

So, if you’re keeping score, the past six SEC national champions averaged giving up just over 270 yards per game and 13.9 points per game.

Auburn’s defense this season is allowing 92 yards and 10.6 points more per game than the average of the six previous BCS national champions from the SEC.

Despite that discrepancy, Auburn coach Gene Chizik said he has confidence in his defense – period.

“Have we played exactly the way we want to play all year? No, we’ve made some mistakes,” Chizik said. “We’ve got some young guys playing out there, certainly in the back seven. We’ve had some injuries that have dictated that. But we feel really good about our defense. They are playing with confidence. They feel really great about the plan. They’ve had a great month of practice, and we feel really good about it.”

Josh Bynes has been Auburn's rock

January, 8, 2011
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Cam Newton is Auburn’s best player and highest profile player.

[+] EnlargeJosh Bynes
John Reed/US PresswireLinebacker Josh Bynes has been a vocal leader for Auburn this season.
Nick Fairley is Auburn’s best defensive player and the Tigers’ most dominant player physically.

Josh Bynes is one of the Tigers’ most selfless players, and in his own way, the player who’s been at the center of putting this dream season together.

A senior middle linebacker, Bynes is the unquestioned leader on this team. He’s vocal. He’s demanding. He’s productive. He’s smart, and he’s the guy everybody on this team feels comfortable going to if there’s a problem.

Simply, he’s the kind of player every team needs if it’s going to win a championship.

“We knew back in the spring that we had the makings of something special. Really, you got that feeling back in the offseason with how committed everybody was to this team,” said Bynes, who’s led Auburn in tackles the past two seasons.

“My role was to make sure all the pieces came together.”

Over and over again this week, Bynes has been quizzed by the media about other players on Auburn’s team. He’s been the go-to guy when somebody wanted to know more about Newton or Fairley or anybody else on the team.

It’s a tribute to Bynes because he has such a keen feel for this team and for the players on this team.

But his teammates are quick to point out that Bynes’ iron-clad leadership is one of the chief reasons the Tigers will play Monday night in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game.

The chemistry on this team has been outstanding all season long, and Bynes is a big reason why.

“There are a lot of things, some might call them little things, that he does for this team that people outside the team wouldn’t know about,” said Craig Stevens, Bynes’ fellow senior linebacker. “But they’re the things that add up to being where we are now. He’s always going to have your back out there on defense, and we’re going to have his back.”

As the Tigers’ play-caller on defense, Bynes faces what will be one of his greatest challenges on Monday against an Oregon offense that runs plays at warp speed.

There are times when the Ducks don’t go 15 seconds before getting off the next play.

That’s not much time for Bynes to make his normal checks and get everybody lined up correctly.

The key, he says, is staying cool.

“We know our assignments. We’ve repped them over and over again,” Bynes said. “We’re going to have time. We just have to trust in our preparation and trust in each other.”

It’s a trust that Bynes has demanded from this team and a trust that has worked beautifully for the Tigers for 13 games.

Now, they’re down to one game, the most important game they’ll play all season.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Auburn senior linebacker Josh Bynes wonders if the two defenses should even show up Monday night after hearing all the predictions of a wild shootout in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game.

He reminded everybody that he heard similar rumblings prior to the SEC championship game.

The final in that game: Auburn 56, South Carolina 17.

“We knew for a fact it wasn’t going to be a 50-48 game or 99-98 game like everybody else was saying, just like they’re saying about this game, that there’s going to be fireworks and everything else,” Bynes said. “We really won’t know until we step between those white lines, and that’s going to make the difference.

“Regardless of what the media say, friends say, girlfriends, boyfriends, everybody out in the world …,” said Bynes, who was interrupted by several chuckles at his boyfriends reference.

“Women watch the game, too,” he said, smiling.

He then finished his point.

“Regardless of what everybody is saying, it’s all going to be said and done between the white lines,” Bynes said.

And while a lot of people point to Auburn’s rather mundane defensive numbers nationally, the number Bynes points to is that the Tigers have outscored opponents 128-48 in the fourth quarter and overtime this season.

“We know how to finish as a team,” Bynes said. “Last year, that was our problem. In games such as Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, games we lost because we didn’t finish … that could have possibly been a national championship season last year if you think about those games we didn’t finish.

“That’s what this team is about. We’re all about finishing, and that’s why we’re here now.”
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Oregon is No. 1 in the nation in scoring and No. 1 in total offense. Auburn is No. 4 in scoring and No. 7 in total offense, so the Tigers aren't so far behind.

But when you talk about the Auburn offense, it starts and finishes with this: Cam Newton.

When you talk about the Oregon offense, it starts with running back LaMichael James and then it goes on and on and on.

What's toughest about the stopping the Ducks offense?

[+] EnlargeOregon's LaMichael James
Craig Mitchelldyer/US PRESSWIREYou can point to LaMichael James and his 1,851 yards from scrimmage and 22 total touchdowns as the reason for Oregon's success. But he's not the only thing that makes the Ducks' offense go.
"Probably our tempo," center Jordan Holmes said. "We just keep going and going and going. Even when things aren't going as planned, we just keep doing our thing and eventually the defense gives way."

Agreed Auburn linebacker Craig Stevens, "It's always hard to emulate an offense going that fast." Added Tigers linebacker Josh Bynes, "Their pace is unmatched by anybody in the nation. I haven't seen a pace like that against any opponent this year."

No, it's not the tempo. The tempo is challenging, but Auburn's offense plays with fast tempo, too. So then what is the hardest thing for a defense to deal with?

"The misdirection," Oregon linebacker Spencer Paysinger said. "[QB Darron Thomas] is really good at hiding the ball with his fakes and his play-actions."

But that's not really it, either. It's the pressure the Ducks put on a defense to maintain gap discipline while dealing with a fast-tempo offense that uses a lot of misdirection.

"That's where they get people," Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "You can see people take their eyes off them, people missing gaps, and it's a touchdown, not a 4-yard gain anymore." Agreed Stevens, "It's their ability to exploit defenses. Anytime a guy mis-fits, it seems like a guy is always able to find that hole and hit it and it turns into a big run or big pass."

Oregon is a dominant running team -- 304 yards per game -- that isn't too shabby throwing the ball -- 29 touchdown passes, No. 16 in the nation in passing efficiency. And it has star players; see James, a Heisman Trophy finalist and the nation's leading rusher.

But when you talk about the Oregon offense in terms of its most potent weapon, it's really about how everything blends together. While even the Ducks can't agree on what makes the offense most difficult to stop, the buy-in is complete under coach Chip Kelly, the mastermind behind the scheme. The players' confidence suggests they see their offensive success as, well, inevitable.

"We are in a situation right now where our guys believe 100 percent in what they are doing," coordinator Mark Helfrich said.

That starts not with James, but with quarterback Darron Thomas. James calls the sophomore, first-year starter the "point guard of the offense."

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
AP Photo/Rick BowmerOregon coach Chip Kelly is the mastermind behind the nation's No. 1 offense.
Thomas was expected to be No. 3 this year behind starter Jeremiah Masoli and senior backup Nate Costa. But when Masoli was kicked off the team, Thomas was a surprise winner in a close quarterback competition with Costa.

Even as the starter, early in the season he was expected to play the role of caretaker and distributor. He's become much more than that. His passing numbers were significantly better than Masoli's in 2009, and he earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors.

Oregon players thought Thomas was going to be good. Just not this good.

"He's done some things this year that have definitely surprised all of us," Holmes said.

Thomas' top target is Jeff Maehl, who doesn't look the part -- his haircut inspired more than a few "Jeff Spicoli" references from reporters meeting him for the first time. He caught 12 touchdown passes this year, a number of them fairly spectacular.

But he's one of nine Ducks who've caught TD passes.

Further, the rushing attack isn't only about James. Four other Ducks rushed for more than 200 yards. Thomas and backup running back Kenjon Barner combined for more than 1,000 yards and 11 TDs on their own. Seven different Ducks scored rushing TDs.

Then there's the offensive line. Oh, those poor, poor Ducks linemen. They just aren't big enough to get the job done.

"We are probably the smallest offensive line in the Pac-10," Holmes said. "We're outweighed by 10 to 40 pounds on a weekly basis. So [the national championship game] is no new thing."

That itty-bitty line -- average weight: 296 pounds -- led one of the nation's best rushing attacks while yielding only eight sacks, fifth fewest in the nation.

It's fair to say that Auburn's defense is going to win the "eye test" with Oregon's offense. The Tigers look better getting off the bus, as reporters like to say. But Roof thinks the Ducks look pretty good on film.

"On top of being really, really talented, they have a great scheme, they're well coached and they're very disciplined," he said.

That's the Ducks' best offensive weapon: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

SEC's Super Seniors

December, 10, 2010
As we wind down the season and point toward the bowl games, I wanted to pay homage to the seniors in this league.

Yes, there are a ton of talented underclassmen in the SEC, many of whom are destined to leave early for the NFL.

But seniors are important in every program, and senior leadership is critical.

Here’s my tribute to the 12 seniors on each team in the league who rose above and beyond this season in terms of on-the-field performance, leadership and sacrificing for the good of the team.

We’ll call it our SEC’s Super Seniors, and it’s something we hope to do every season:

[+] EnlargeFlorida safety Ahmad Black
AP Photo/Phil SandlinFlorida safety Ahmad Black led all defensive backs for most tackles in the SEC.
Ahmad Black, S, Florida: Not even Urban Meyer was sure Black was going to make it at Florida when he first arrived. He wasn’t very big, nor exceptionally fast. But he’s proven to be a staple in the Gators’ secondary for the last three seasons. Black led Florida with 102 tackles this season, leading all SEC defensive backs. He was third on the team with 10 tackles for loss and also had three interceptions and three forced fumbles.

Josh Bynes, LB, Auburn: You talk about instant energy. Bynes was Mr. Pick Me Up all season for the Tigers, who fed off his intensity and his passion. He was the guy who rallied the defense all those times when Auburn fell behind by big margins, and he was an invaluable presence in the locker room. A three-year starter, Bynes led Auburn this season with 71 total tackles and also had three interceptions, including two big ones in the Arkansas game.

Jonathan Cornell, LB, Ole Miss: He’s not real loud. In fact, he’s pretty quiet. But Cornell did his talking with his play this season, putting up All-SEC numbers and winning the respect of everybody on his team by the way he went about his business each day. Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt called him the “backbone,” and Cornell was indeed a steadying presence in what was a tough season for the Rebels. He led the team with 80 total tackles and was fifth in the league with 14 tackles for loss.

Akeem Dent, LB, Georgia: Without a doubt, Dent was one of the more underrated players in the SEC this season. He was second in the league with 122 total tackles. First-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will tell you that Dent was invaluable to that defense this season from his middle linebacker position. He called all the signals, made the checks and made one key stop after another for the Bulldogs.

Mike Hartline, QB, Kentucky: Despite his arrest early Friday morning, Hartline came through with the most productive season of his career and was a rock for the Wildcats both on and off the field. The first part of his career had been marred by injuries and inconsistency, but Hartline stayed the course and put up huge numbers this season. He was second only to Ryan Mallett in the SEC with 3,178 passing yards and also threw 23 touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

Spencer Lanning, PK/P, South Carolina: Lanning was more than just a kicker for the Gamecocks. He was a strong voice in the locker room and demonstrated the kind of work ethic that was infectious. As a kicker, he was one of the best dual-threats in the country. He was 16-of-23 on field goals, ranking him fourth in the league, and was fifth in punting with a 44.2-yard average. Not bad for a guy who started his career without a scholarship and wound up becoming a captain.

Greg McElroy
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAlabama quarterback Greg McElroy had the most productive season of his career.
Greg McElroy, QB, Alabama: One of the smartest guys you’re ever going to meet on a football field, McElroy had his most productive season of his career. His 19 passing touchdowns broke Alabama’s single-season record, and with 2,767 passing yards, he has a chance in the bowl game to break the single-season record for passing yards. McElroy has been a leader ever since he stepped into the starting quarterback role last season, compiling a 23-3 record as a starter.

Nick Reveiz, LB, Tennessee: Here’s another guy who started his career without a scholarship. But he quickly went from playing on the scout team to leading the Vols in tackles. A true inspiration with how he fought back from a serious knee injury last season, Reveiz piled up 94 total tackles this season and was the defensive quarterback on the field. He made big plays, got teammates in position to make plays and made a profound impact on everyone around him with the way he competed on every down.

Kelvin Sheppard, LB, LSU: The Tigers had a few veteran players to build around on defense, but they were also very young in a lot of spots. Sheppard was the centerpiece of the defense in every way. A fiery leader, he brought out the best in all of his teammates and wasn’t afraid to get in guys’ faces when it was warranted. His 108 total tackles ranked him third in the SEC. Included were 11 tackles for loss.

Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State: The names have changed in Mississippi State’s backfield the last two seasons, but the Bulldogs’ productivity in the running game just keeps churning along. Sherrod has been a big reason why. One of the best left tackles in college football, he was a multiple winner of SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors this season and is one of those guys everybody on the team looks up to for guidance.

John Stokes, LB, Vanderbilt: Headed to medical school, Stokes has been the quintessential student-athlete during his career at Vanderbilt. He also had the best season of his career on the football field. Injuries had plagued him in previous seasons, but he came fighting back to finish third on the team with 78 total tackles. With Vanderbilt being such a young team, Stokes was there every step of the way providing his senior leadership.

D.J. Williams, TE, Arkansas: The recipient of the Disney Spirit Award as college football’s most inspirational player, Williams had a dream senior season. The Hogs are going to the Sugar Bowl, and he also won the Mackey Award as the top tight end in the country. He leads the team with 49 catches and has become a much more complete tight end over the last couple of seasons. Moreover, he’s been the consummate team guy and is a big reason Arkansas’ team chemistry has been so good.

No more living on the edge for Tigers

December, 4, 2010
ATLANTA -- Obviously, Auburn was tired of the drama.

Then again, maybe the Tigers finally decided that living on the edge wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Better yet, maybe there was something else in play Saturday, a deeper meaning to Auburn’s 56-17 destruction of South Carolina in an SEC championship game that was never really in doubt.

That is, unless you count the Gamecocks’ drive right before halftime to seemingly swing momentum to their side.

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Darvin Adams
AP Photo/ Thomas GraningDarvin Adams hauls in a 51-yard touchdown on the final play of the first half, a Hail Mary that put Auburn up 28-14.
That momentum was gone in a matter of seconds, thanks to Cam Newton’s 51-yard touchdown heave that Darvin Adams caught on a deflection on the final play of the half.

It’s the play everybody will remember from this game.

But this was Auburn’s game from the outset, the Tigers at their finest and the version of the Tigers they say everybody can expect to see when the stakes get even higher five weeks from now.

That’s right, and don’t think the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game wasn’t on anybody’s mind in and around that Auburn locker room as the Tigers celebrated their first SEC title since 2004.

It’s fair to say there were a few mentions of Oregon.

“If we play like this in the next game, I don’t feel like anybody can stop us,” said Auburn junior defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who was pretty unstoppable himself Saturday.

For that matter, Auburn’s entire defense was, and for a change, the Tigers didn’t wait until the second half to clamp down.

South Carolina did manage two touchdowns in the first half, but had the ball twice more inside the Auburn 35 and came away empty-handed each time.

“People say our defense is suspect. I’ve been hearing that all year,” Fairley huffed. “All that does is give us motivation to go shut people down.”

With the Tigers reeling off 28 unanswered points during one of their patented runs, all the Gamecocks could muster in the second half was a field goal.

“Coach (Gene) Chizik told us there was no need to be playing from behind this time,” said Adams, who set an SEC championship game record with 217 receiving yards. “This is a game we wanted to hit them from the jump.”

Sure enough, the Tigers (13-0) scored touchdowns on their first three possessions.

Even though the Gamecocks fought back, it was obvious they weren’t going to be able to match the Tigers touchdown for touchdown, especially with the defense playing one its most complete games of the season.

“We came out this game from the ground running,” Fairley said. “That’s the way you’re supposed to play, all four quarters. We wanted to let the world know that our defense is not a joke. That’s what we proved tonight, that our defense is no joke.”

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Cam Newton
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAuburn players carried quarterback Cam Newton on their shoulders following the Tigers' win over South Carolina in the SEC title game.
Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said it was refreshing just to finally be able to enjoy a fourth quarter.

“You don’t know how much that Alabama game aged all of us,” Malzahn said.

That comeback from 24 points down in Tuscaloosa was the fourth time this season the Tigers had rallied from at least a two-touchdown deficit to win the game.

“We weren’t going to put ourselves in that position again,” Auburn senior linebacker Josh Bynes said. “I’ve been saying that if we play like we do in the third and fourth quarter in the first and second, we can be the most dominant defense and the most unbeatable team in the nation.

“It showed today.”

Consider it a message sent, too.

From afar, Auburn has had its eye on Oregon for some time, and you can bet Oregon has caught a few of the Tigers’ highlights here and there.

The offensive approaches of the two teams are similar. Only when they hit the half-century mark do they even begin to think about shifting back into third gear. Their defenses have been maligned at times, and they like to play at a pace better suited for speed skating.

“They’ve been finishing their opponents off all year, just like us,” Bynes said. “It’s the two best teams in the nation going at it, and we’ll see who’s the best.”

And while nobody was taking for granted what an SEC championship would mean to everybody on the Plains, Bynes used a golf analogy to describe where it goes from here for the Tigers.

That’s despite Bynes admitting, behind one of his familiar smiles, that he doesn’t even play golf.

“This was like a nine-hole golf tournament,” Bynes said. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s nine holes you’ll remember for the rest of your life, and now we’re on the back nine. How are we going to finish the game? How are we going to finish this season?

“That’s what we’ve got to do when we go to Glendale. We finished that front nine. Now, let’s go finish this back nine and be national champions.”


An SEC championship game that has it all

December, 1, 2010
It’s an SEC championship game that has it all.

What’s not to like about the Auburn-South Carolina matchup on Saturday in the Georgia Dome?

The drama surrounding Auburn quarterback Cam Newton only thickened Wednesday when the NCAA announced Newton’s eligibility had been reinstated after Auburn briefly declared him ineligible Tuesday for violating NCAA amateurism rules.

That means game on for Newton and Tigers, who can advance to the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 10 with a win over the Gamecocks.

“We haven’t gotten ahead of ourselves all year, and we’re not going to start now,” Auburn senior safety Zac Etheridge said. “The only thing that matters is South Carolina, nothing else.”

While the teams are different, the feel surrounding the game is a familiar one.

It’s the first time since 2004 that either Alabama, Florida or LSU hasn’t played in this game.

Yet, it’s the fifth straight year that the game has carried national championship implications. The last two contests were essentially play-in games between Alabama and Florida.

This year, it’s a play-in game for Auburn, which is working on a perfect season, not to mention a season of living on the edge.

The Tigers' comeback from 24 points down last Friday at Alabama was standard operating procedure. They rallied from two-touchdown deficits in three other games this season, including their 35-27 win over South Carolina back on Sept. 25 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
AP Photo/John RaouxSteve Spurrier has led the Gamecocks to the first SEC championship game in school history.
“That’s how we’ve been doing games all year, finishing and coming out and knowing in the second half, regardless of what the scoreboard says, that we'll come back and win,” Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes said. “That’s always on our mind -- winning.

“No matter, any shape, form or fashion, as long as we know we're on top at the end of the day on the scoreboard, that's what we're going to fight for and that's what we'll fight for until we get there. That’s what we've been doing all year, and that’s the kind of attitude this team has.”

Indeed, it’s been that kind of season for the Tigers, who last won an SEC championship in 2004 and haven’t won a national championship since 1957.

For the Gamecocks, it also has a chance to be a dream season, even though there’s no trip to the BCS National Championship Game at stake.

They’re making their first-ever trip to the SEC championship game and are led by a guy who knows his way around this game.

Steve Spurrier, in his sixth season as the South Carolina coach, played in seven SEC championship games when he was at Florida. He won five of them, and counting the title he won in 1991 before the inception of the SEC championship game, he collected six SEC championship rings in his 12 seasons as the Gators’ coach.

If the Gamecocks can pull off the upset Saturday, that would give Spurrier seven SEC titles, which would move him into sole possession of second place all-time behind only Bear Bryant, who won 14 SEC titles (13 at Alabama and one at Kentucky).

Spurrier, who also won a national championship at Florida, said the SEC championship game ranks behind only the national championship game in his mind.

“For us in the SEC, this is as big as it gets,” Spurrier said.

The Gamecocks (9-3, 5-3) haven’t appeared to be star-struck by being on what Spurrier calls the big stage. Granted, the true test comes Saturday at 4 p.m. when they kick it off.

But whereas they have historically faded down the stretch, they’ve only seemed to get stronger this season, starting with their 36-14 battering of Florida in the Swamp on Nov. 13 to clinch the East title.

Moreover, the South Carolina players have embraced the historical significance of it all.

“We have the opportunity to open up doors for Carolina football and this program,” sophomore receiver Tori Gurley said.

Some might say the Gamecocks have already done that by keeping homegrown stars such as Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery and Stephon Gilmore at home the last two years.

“We wanted to be part of building something new here,” Jeffery said earlier this season. “That’s why we all came.”

What’s not new is the anticipation that surrounds this game. That’s the case every year.

But throw in the Newton saga, the Head Ball Coach’s return and the fact that a fifth straight national championship for the SEC could be on the line, and it’s a game that can’t get here soon enough.

Second time around for the SEC title

November, 30, 2010
For the sixth time since the inception of the SEC championship game in 1992, we have a rematch of a regular-season meeting.

And in four of the five previous rematches, the team that won the first game also won the title game.

That bodes well for No. 1 Auburn, which has a lot more at stake than merely winning its first SEC title since 2004. If the Tigers can beat South Carolina for a second time this season on Saturday in Atlanta, they will move on to Glendale, Ariz., to play in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 10.

To do that, the Tigers have to beat a South Carolina team playing its best football -- a team that took them to the wire the first time in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Auburn rallied from a two-touchdown deficit in the first half to win that game 35-27 back on Sept. 25, but both of these teams are different than they were nine weeks ago.

For starters, South Carolina had no idea what it was dealing with in Auburn quarterback Cam Newton.

[+] EnlargeAuburn quarterback Cam Newton
AP Photo/Butch DillAuburn quarterback Cam Newton's performance against the Gamecocks on Sept. 25 opened a lot of eyes.
In reality, the Auburn coaches weren’t completely sure what they had in Newton at that point, either, even though he’d already shown flashes of greatness the week before in the comeback win against Clemson.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik said Tuesday that Newton’s performance against the Gamecocks was “eye-opening,” and for good reason. Newton rushed for 176 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries and was 16-of-21 passing for 158 yards and two touchdowns.

“It was a learning moment for us as coaches on what he was going to be able to do,” Chizik said.

It was the first of four straight games against SEC opponents that Newton carried the ball at least 25 times.

In a lot of ways, it was his coming-out party.

The Gamecocks had few answers for him in that game. But, then, very few teams have. He’s two rushing touchdowns away from becoming just the second player in NCAA history to pass for 20 touchdowns and run for 20 touchdowns in the same season.

But when Ellis Johnson aligned his defense to stop Newton nine weeks ago, he did so thinking Newton was going to fall in love with the pass.

So the Gamecocks wound up dropping a bunch of defenders, played a good bit of zone, and Newton proceeded to have a field day running against that alignment. He had a 54-yard touchdown run on Auburn’s first possession, and the Tigers finished the game with 334 rushing yards.

Newton was also effective throwing the ball, tossing a pair of touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.

While the Gamecocks are sure to play Newton differently than they did the first time, the Tigers say they have a better feel for what South Carolina will try to do on offense.

They’re sure to see more of freshman running back Marcus Lattimore, who carried the ball only three times in the second half of the first game.

But Auburn also did an excellent job of not allowing Lattimore to ever get started. He finished with just 33 rushing yards on 14 carries.

The Gamecocks did all of their damage through the air against an Auburn pass defense that has given up yards in chunks all season, but always seems to deliver when needed.

And whereas Lattimore wasn’t much of a factor in the first game, sophomore receiver Alshon Jeffery had his way with the Auburn secondary. He had eight catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns.

Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes said the key is not allowing both players to have big games.

“It’s just like when we played Alabama. Julio (Jones) had a great day,” Bynes said. “But we definitely stopped the run. They knew the running game wasn’t it. It was more the passing game Alabama wanted to emphasize.

“So I think it was the same thing earlier in the year when we played Lattimore. They couldn’t run the ball, so they threw the ball and (Jeffery) was the guy to throw to. It’s going to go either way.”

The other thing that’s different about South Carolina is that junior quarterback Stephen Garcia is playing better and doing a better job of protecting the football and not taking as many sacks.

The Gamecocks turned the ball over on their final four possessions of the game back in September, but Garcia was only in there for two of them after fumbling the ball away for a second straight time. Spurrier pulled Garcia and went with freshman Connor Shaw, who threw a pair of interceptions on the Gamecocks’ final two drives.

“I think it's going to come down to the team that plays the best, plays with the fewest turnovers, fewest crucial penalties and makes the big plays," Spurrier said. "So far, they've had a knack of making the big plays every game. A few games we've not quite done that.

“Every game stands on its own merit, and we'll see how this one plays out.”

Auburn's defense right on time yet again

November, 26, 2010
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When it was all over, Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof could smile.

He was even in a mood to crack a joke.

“I think it’s safe to say that we’re a second-half defense,” Roof said with a wry smile.

Not only that, the Tigers are an opportunistic defense. They’re a resilient defense. They’re a defense that can transform from really bad to really good in a half. They’re a defense that makes adjustments and executes those adjustments with precision.

[+] EnlargeT'Sharvan Bell and Greg McElroy
AP Photo/Butch DillT'Sharvan Bell sacks Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy in the fourth quarter. McElroy would not return. The Auburn defense held Alabama to just 67 yards of offense in the second half.
Most of all, they’re a defense that wins games.

How else do you explain the Tigers’ defensive turnaround Friday in their stunning comeback from 24 points down to ambush Alabama 28-27 at Bryant-Denny Stadium, snapping the Crimson Tide's 20-game home winning streak?

This was no run-of-the-mill turnaround, either.

This was a full-fledged transformation. We’re talking Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.”

Of its 379 yards of total offense in the first half, Alabama had 235 yards after the catch on 19 receptions. It looked like a 7-on-7 drill out there.

But in the second half, the Crimson Tide managed just 67 yards -- period.

“We don’t really pay attention to numbers,” Auburn safety Zac Etheridge said. “We just go out and keep fighting. A lot of people are saying, ‘Is the defense good enough?’ But we know we’re going to get the job done in the second half.

“That’s what we do. We finish games.”

Forget that Auburn was ranked 60th nationally in scoring defense entering this game and 50th in total defense.

When it matters, the Tigers might as well be ranked first.

They haven’t allowed a point in the fourth quarter in their past two games.

Alabama’s only points in the second half Friday came after the Tigers fumbled a punt away at their own 27 in the third quarter. But the Crimson Tide had to settle for a field goal.

“We knew in the first half they gave us all they had,” Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes said. “They threw all their punches, all the hooks, all the uppercuts and everything they could. We knew they weren’t going to change anything in the offense and were going to run the offense they know how to run and we were going to play the defense we know how to play.

“We were going to go out there and play physical and hard and go out there and win this game, and that’s what we did.”

Roof said it’s the best half of football his defense has played all season. The first half might have been one of the worst.

“Our guys are fighters,” Roof said. “That’s what they are. They have great competitive spirit and great heart, and when you have that, you don’t quit. If you just keep playing hard, something good will happen.

“So far, so good.”

Roof thinks it all started in the second quarter with Antoine Carter’s hustle play. The senior defensive end chased down Mark Ingram on the tail end of a 41-yard pass and was able to poke the ball loose from behind, and it squirted all the way through the end zone for a touchback.

“That was the start of getting our feet back under us,” Roof said.

Equally big was Nick Fairley’s sack of Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy just before halftime. The Crimson Tide looked like they were about to make it 31-7 at the half, but Fairley shot through a gap and pounced on McElroy. The ball popped loose, and Fairley was there to recover.

Just with those two plays, the Tigers saved themselves six points … and probably more.

“Defenses are going to always bend and give up a big play here and there,” said Fairley, who had two more tackles for loss to raise his SEC-leading total to 20. “As long as we don’t keep breaking, we’re good.”

Roof said one of the unsung qualities about his defense this season has been its ability to adjust.

The same goes for Auburn’s defensive staff when it comes to making the right adjustments, especially at the half.

In the second half Friday, the Tigers attacked a lot more and were much more aggressive when it came to pressuring Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, who was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the final minutes.

“There’s some tweaks in everything you do,” Roof said. “Our kids did a great job adjusting, flying around and hanging in there. The resiliency they have is something. They believe if they keep playing hard, something is going to happen and it did.

“It’s one thing to make adjustments. It’s another thing to go take them onto the field, and they have all season.”

Here’s something else the Tigers have done all season: Live on the edge defensively.

But with December football on the docket and a trip to the BCS National Championship Game in sight, who cares about the way it looks?

Or for that matter, who cares about numbers?

Right now, the only numbers that count are 12 up and zero down.


Auburn still has to prove itself on road

November, 22, 2010
As good as Auburn has been this season, as explosive on offense and as clutch on defense in the fourth quarter, the Tigers have had a relatively easy road away from home.

That all changes Friday.

Auburn’s path to a national championship goes through Tuscaloosa, much the same way as Alabama’s path a year ago went through Auburn.

The Tigers have passed every test that has come their way this season.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Don McPeak/US PresswireCam Newton and the Tigers have their work cut out for them as they travel to face the Crimson Tide.
They’ve overcome adversity. See the 49-31 win over Georgia two weeks ago at home when all the Cam Newton allegations were swirling and the university went into lockdown mode about his status leading up to kickoff.

They’ve been money in the fourth quarter. Counting the overtime win against Clemson, the Tigers have outscored their opponents 107-45 after the third quarter.

They’ve beaten five teams that have been nationally ranked at some point this season.

They’ve shown the propensity to come from behind and win, battling back from two-touchdown deficits against Clemson, South Carolina and Georgia. They also trailed Arkansas by six points early in the fourth quarter and came back to win.

They’ve weathered obvious deficiencies on defense to make key plays and key stops during clutch situations. See the four takeaways in the fourth quarter against South Carolina. See Josh Bynes’ two interceptions against Arkansas in the fourth quarter. See Nick Fairley’s dominant stretch in the fourth quarter against LSU, including a game-turning sack with just less than seven minutes to play.

They’ve been a juggernaut on offense, rushing for 307.9 yards per game and scoring 35 or more points in five of their seven SEC games.

They also have a great player leading the way. Newton is bearing down on becoming just the second player in NCAA history to pass for 20 touchdowns and rush for 20 touchdowns in the same season.

It goes without saying that Gene Chizik’s Tigers have answered every challenge this season.

Now comes the hardest of all … getting it done on the road.

Auburn’s road wins this season have come over Mississippi State, Kentucky and Ole Miss. Kentucky and Ole Miss have won a combined three games in the SEC this season, and the Mississippi State game was the second week of the season before the Bulldogs started to play their best football.

The Kentucky and Mississippi State games were decided in the final seconds. Auburn had its way with Ole Miss in a 51-31 game that was never close after halftime.

At home, Auburn has been as strong as any team in the country.

On the road, the jury is still out. But it’s a jury that reconvenes on Friday.

Alabama has won 20 consecutive games at Bryant-Denny Stadium, which is tied for the second-longest winning streak in school history at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

If that’s not enough, Alabama has given up only one rushing touchdown during its 20-game winning streak at Bryant-Denny Stadium while scoring 43 of its own.

So, clearly, Auburn has its work cut out in an Iron Bowl that can’t get here soon enough.

The Tigers are faced with having to pass their toughest road test of the season against their fiercest rival to remain in the national championship race.

Chizik said the best thing about his team all season has been that it’s found a way.

We’ll see if the Tigers can find a way one more time in their most hostile venue yet.

Auburn takes its turn at handling No. 1

October, 27, 2010
Getting past the whole No. 1 curse is tough enough.

But Auburn has something else working against it this week when it travels to Ole Miss.

Putting three straight games together in this league has been a bear this season, especially when the first two were emotionally draining games over nationally ranked opponents and that third game just happens to be on the road.

That’s the challenge for the Tigers, who’ve taken down No. 6 LSU and No. 12 Arkansas each of the last two weeks at home.

“It’s only going to get tougher from here, and I don’t care who we play,” Auburn senior linebacker Josh Bynes said. “We know other people are going to turn their game up, which means we’ll turn our game up. We don’t have any choice.”

It’s been well-chronicled how short-lived the No. 1 spot nationally has been for teams this season.

In fact, No. 1 teams have gone down each of the last three weeks.

Alabama lost to South Carolina as the No. 1 team in both of the polls back on Oct. 9. That next week, Ohio State ascended to No. 1 in the polls and promptly fell to Wisconsin.

This past weekend, Oklahoma went into Columbia, Mo., after debuting at No. 1 in the first BCS standings and lost to Missouri.

Now, it’s Auburn’s turn to see if it can make that No. 1 label in the BCS standings stick.

“If we do our job, you can cut that statistic out,” said Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who in eight games as a starter has become perhaps the most recognizable player in college football.

He insists he has the maturity to handle the spotlight, and more importantly, this team has the maturity to handle it.

But, then, handling the spotlight is one thing. Handling the grind of this league is quite another.

It caught up to Alabama in that third game earlier this season. The Crimson Tide went on the road to beat nationally ranked Arkansas, then came back home to beat nationally ranked Florida, but faltered that next week at nationally ranked South Carolina.

LSU had escaped at home against Tennessee, played its best game of the season that next week on the road against nationally ranked Florida, and after breezing past McNeese State in a nonconference game, fell short at Auburn that next week.

Auburn is one of four teams in the SEC that will be playing its ninth straight game this weekend without a bye. The others are Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi State.

Mindful of the wear and tear such a stretch can have on a team, the Auburn coaches scaled back a little bit in Tuesday’s practice. It’s normally the most physical practice of the week, but the Tigers worked in helmets and shoulder pads instead of their usual full pads.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t get after it, but nobody needs to tell Chizik or anybody on his staff how key this week is. If the Tigers can get past Ole Miss, they get a semi-break with Chattanooga coming to town the next week.

After that, it’s Georgia at home on Nov. 13, a bye week and then Alabama on Nov. 26.

The only thing on Chizik’s mind is getting better as a football team, and more specifically, becoming a more complete football team.

“We’re too sporadic,” Chizik said. “In some games, we play lights out and do some nice things. And some other games, we really struggle. So we've got to improve defensively. There’s no question about that.

“Special teams-wise, it’s been good. But last week, we lost the special teams battle to LSU, and for us to be a really good all-around, solid football team, it’s going to take field-position issues that we’ve got to win. Right now, we're not winning as many as we need to. Special teams are going be a big factor as we go forward.”

Not to mention handling the grind.

Newton, Auburn get it done again

October, 16, 2010
AUBURN, Ala. -- The way this Auburn football team insists on living dangerously may be entertaining to watch, but it’s hard on the old ticker.

Josh Bynes ought to know. He’s lived it now for seven straight weeks.

“Yeah, it’s nerve-racking, because we know we can’t keep putting ourselves in this position,” said Bynes, the Tigers’ senior linebacker. “But there’s just something about this team. When we have to have it in the fourth quarter, somebody’s always there to make it happen.”

[+] EnlargeCameron Newton
AP Photo/Dave MartinCameron Newton rushed 25 times for 188 yards and three touchdowns, including this score. He also passed for 140 yards and a touchdown.
That somebody Saturday on defense was Bynes, who had interceptions on back-to-back possessions to send Arkansas packing for good in a 65-43 score-a-thon that marked the most points ever scored in a non-overtime SEC game.

Here’s something else it marked: The official Cam Newton for Heisman Trophy campaign.

If there’s anybody playing better football right now than Newton, he’s not on this planet.

“All I know is that I’m glad he’s on our team. I don’t know where we’d be without him,” said Auburn safety Zac Etheridge, who contributed to the No. 7-ranked Tigers’ 28-point blitzkrieg in the fourth quarter with a 47-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

Newton accounted for four touchdowns against the No. 12-ranked Hogs. He churned out 328 yards of total offense, including 188 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. He also threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Emory Blake.

For the season, Newton has now rushed for 170 yards or more in four different games and has accounted for 25 touchdowns -- 13 passing and 12 rushing.

To put those numbers into perspective, former Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan holds the school record with 26 touchdowns -- and he did that during his Heisman Trophy-winning 1971 season.

“I don’t have the opportunity to watch everybody in America, but I can tell you this: Number 2 (Newton) is one spectacular football player … and I’m not one to go out on a limb,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “But everybody in the world sees it. It’s not like I’m telling anybody anything new.”

The 6-6, 250-pound Newton was magical in the open field, making Arkansas defenders miss, and showing the moves of a tailback. But when the Tigers needed him in the passing game, he also delivered and finished 10-of-14 for 140 yards.

“A guy that big isn’t supposed to be that shifty, but he is,” said Bynes, shaking his head in amazement.

For three quarters, Newton and the Auburn offense bailed out a defense that was shredded by Arkansas’ passing game. Most of the damage was done by Arkansas backup quarterback Tyler Wilson, who played brilliantly in relief of Ryan Mallett, who was knocked out of the game in the second quarter with a concussion.

Wilson hit 15 of his first 16 passes and finished with 332 passing yards and four touchdowns.

His 23-yard touchdown pass to Greg Childs less than a minute into the fourth quarter and ensuing two-point conversion pass to Childs gave the Hogs a 43-37 lead.

The Tigers were on their heels defensively and looked like they were in trouble.

[+] EnlargeGene Chizik
AP Photo/Dave MartinAuburn coach Gene Chizik's Tigers got three turnovers in the fourth quarter against Arkansas.
“That’s the thing about this team that’s different than a lot of the ones I’ve been around,” said Trooper Taylor, Auburn’s assistant head coach and receivers coach. “When things go wrong or we start giving up some plays, you don’t get any of this, ‘Oh man, here we go again.’

“Instead, you have the offensive guys coming up to the defensive guys and vice versa and they’re telling each other, ‘I’ve got your back, or I’m going to make this play, or we’re going to get this stop.’ That’s the way it is with this team.

“We are truly one.”

The Tigers (7-0, 4-0) have also been the truth in the fourth quarter.

They’ve outscored their opponents this season 69-21 after the third quarter, which includes the overtime period against South Carolina.

And in their last two games against nationally ranked foes -- the other one being South Carolina -- they’ve forced seven turnovers in the fourth quarter.

“Our football team is resilient. Our defense is resilient,” Chizik said. “We know we didn’t play well all night, and there are probably numerous reasons why. We will see that tomorrow on film. But when it was the fourth quarter and we had to make plays, and when we had to get turnovers, we got three.”

That’s not a bad trait to have, even when you do give up 566 yards of total offense.

And having Newton at quarterback is the quintessential equalizer.

“We play as a team, and we play all four quarters,” Newton said. “There’s nobody pointing fingers on this team, and there’s no selfishness on this team. Whatever it takes to win, we’re going to do.”

Until somebody figures out a way to stop Newton, the Tigers are probably going to keep on winning.

Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette summed it up best Saturday.

“You’ve got to give that guy a lot of credit,” Bequette said. “He’s a great player.

"He’s going to do that to a lot of people.”

Tigers come to life in fourth quarter

October, 16, 2010
AUBURN, Ala. -- Just when you thought Arkansas backup quarterback Tyler Wilson was on his way to shattering all sorts of passing records, Auburn does what it's done all season.

The Tigers, getting two big interceptions by senior linebacker Josh Bynes, shook off Wilson's heroic efforts and pulled away for a wild 65-43 win over the Hogs on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium to stay unbeaten.

Wilson, filling in for the injured Ryan Mallett, carved the Auburn secondary apart for much of the game, and the Hogs went ahead 43-37 early in the fourth quarter on the strength of his fourth touchdown pass of the game.

But from there, it was all Auburn, which scored 28 unanswered points in the kind of fourth quarter that's become old hat for this team. Bynes had interceptions on back-to-back possessions, and Zac Etheridge also returned a fumble 47 yards for a touchdown.

The Tigers (7-0, 4-0) have another big test next weekend when LSU comes to town.

The 108 points scored by the two teams marks the most points ever scored in an SEC non-overtime game.