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'Danger' is Tigers' middle name

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- It's not so hard to put Auburn in a hole. Keeping the second-ranked Tigers there is much more troublesome.

Unbeaten Auburn has had to climb back from sizable deficits, including once against No. 18 South Carolina, which couldn't hang onto a 13-point lead.

The Tigers would like a better start against the Gamecocks Saturday and not live on the edge with the Southeastern Conference championship -- and a shot at the national title -- on the line.

"We tell them every week, there's storms that you're going to have to weather every game," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "We told them that going into the Alabama game there's going to be a storm in this game that could be pretty violent and we're going to have to weather that storm. They hear that and they understand that."

The causes of the early troubles are plentiful: A vulnerable secondary busts coverages. An explosive offense sputters for a bit. Or maybe, linebacker Josh Bynes said, the Tigers just don't open in the right frame of mind.

"The only thing different between the first half and second half (is) our feet are on the ground, our mind-set is ready," Bynes said.

The Tigers trailed South Carolina 20-7 late in the second quarter on Sept. 25, but forced four turnovers and scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

That 35-27 win was just one of eight come-from-behind victories for Auburn this season, half of them after trailing by double digits. They rallied from a school-record 24 points against Alabama.

Chizik and the Tigers say they need to avoid another slow start against the Gamecocks, who can score quickly with receiver Alshon Jeffery and tailback Marcus Lattimore.

However, Auburn's resilience is a big reason the Tigers are one win from playing for a national title, maybe the biggest besides quarterback Cam Newton.

"I've never quite been around any group of guys that has that resolve and the ability to do that week in and week out," Chizik said. "I've never really seen it done this many times."

He credits defensive coordinator Ted Roof for making the right halftime adjustments, but also said the players eliminate mental errors like busted coverages in the second half.

Safety Zac Etheridge doesn't think Auburn's defense should be judged by the numbers.

"We get tired of hearing about the secondary not playing as well but when you look at it, with the game on the line, we get the job done," Etheridge said. "So we don't really go into statistics. We just play the game until the last seconds tick off the clock."

Then again, Auburn would rather not have the Jekyll-and-Hyde performances at all.

It would certainly have made life a little less stressful against teams like Clemson and Georgia, not to mention the Gamecocks and Crimson Tide. Or Mississippi State, Kentucky, LSU and Arkansas.

Some may question whether they are the best team in the country, but they're almost certainly the most accustomed to living on the edge.

It has become a badge of honor for the Tigers, who have three-point wins over Mississippi State, Kentucky and Clemson.

"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, we'll come back and win," Bynes said. "That's always on our mind, winning."

South Carolina fullback/tight end Patrick DiMarco remembers a different Auburn defense coming out of the locker room after halftime.

"They came out really intense in the second half, putting the pressure on us," DiMarco said. "We tried to move the ball, tried to run the ball, and get the clock going and everything. But we couldn't do it."

The Tigers have won their first 12 games in spite of lapses by their defense, which is mostly devoid of stars other than defensive tackle Nick Fairley. But they've managed to adjust when the game's on the line.

"I think their defense rises to the occasion when they need to," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said. "They've obviously given up some yards and some points here and there, but their offense has been so good that they're in the game."

It helps having a playmaking quarterback like Newton, who's a threat to run or pass for a touchdown at any time. And a fast-paced, explosive offense that starts sluggish at times but has been hard to stop when they can get the tempo going.

But give the maligned defense some credit, too.

Sure, the secondary is vulnerable. The Tigers rank 58th nationally in total defense and 106th against the pass. Eight of the last 10 SEC champions have ranked in the top 20 nationally in yards allowed, with only LSU (75th in 2001) lower than Auburn's current standing.

However, they get better as the game wears on.

After giving up 335 first-half passing yards to Alabama's Greg McElroy, Auburn limited the Tide to 67 total yards after that (and 0 for 8 on third-down conversions) in the 28-27 victory.

The Tigers have allowed a descending number of points in each quarter: From 110 in the first to 45 in the fourth.

"If we play the first two quarters like we do the last two," Bynes said, "we'd probably be one of the more dominant defenses in the nation."