AUBURN, ALA. (AP) - Remember the Auburn Tigers? They're the reigning national champions.
Well, not THESE Auburn Tigers, exactly. These guys are ranked a decidedly modest 23rd, have as many as 19 new starters and a depth chart littered with players who watched the title run while in high school.
And they're not feeling especially loved.
"We feel a little disrespected that coming off a national championship, they're basically telling us that we're not talented enough to play football," defensive end Dee Ford said Tuesday. "They're forgetting the fact that we are football players. Yeah, they're sleeping on us. So we're just going to take that as motivation."
Or as fellow defensive lineman Corey Lemonier puts it: "Everybody's dogging us. Everybody's like putting us down. I don't feel any pressure. We've just got to go out there and just show them that we mean business."
So the Tigers have plenty of motivation. Experience, not so much.
They carry all kinds of question marks into Saturday's opener against Utah State. Gone are stars Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, along with virtually every other starter. Auburn has 27 freshmen and sophomores listed as first- or second-teamers.
The offensive line starts freshman Reese Dismukes at center and redshirt freshman Chad Slade. All four defensive line starters are sophomores, three of them backed up by freshmen.
Even if the Tigers prove too inexperienced to contend for another Southeastern Conference championship _ they were picked to finish fifth in the Western Division _ they can at least try not to have the worst follow-up season to a BCS national title.
The previous season's BCS champions have averaged 10.4 wins since its formation starting in 1998. The worst encore was LSU's 8-5 season in 2008.
If most pundits are correct, Auburn might be overachieving to match that record.
Coach Gene Chizik says he doesn't use such talk to fire up his players.
"I really haven't given it any thought," Chizik said. "My thing to my players is they've got to stay focused on what we're asking them to do in this building. That's been our mantra since I've been here. We've had all kinds of different situations since I've been here. Not really aware of what is swirling around out there, whether they think we're going to be 14-0 again or 0-14. Not really in tune with that."
OK, then what about the pressure that comes with being defending champs?
"We don't talk about pressure either," Chizik said.
He does concede that with 25-30 players seeing their first college action Saturday, it "ought to get extremely interesting."
Even at the relatively experienced running back position, freshman Tre Mason is next in line behind junior Onterio McCalebb and sophomore Mike Dyer. McCalebb is getting the starting nod ahead of Dyer, offensive MVP of the national championship game.
The secondary returns senior Neiko Thorpe, but he's moved from cornerback to safety. Cornerback T'Sharvan Bell, who started SEC and BCS title games, has a nickname for his group.
"It's Puppyville back there," Bell said. "We've got a lot of youngsters out there."
By Elaine Donnelly
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