Will try to balance focus with fun
By ANDY BITTER
AUBURN, Ala. — Ben Tate saw Auburn’s bowl destination projected by numerous media outlets after the regular season ended. Most said Nashville, Memphis or Shreveport. Some even said Birmingham.
The running back paid no attention.
“I look at the stuff, but nine times out of 10 the media has been more than wrong,” Tate said with a laugh.
As it turned out, Auburn leaped to the top of the 7-5 heap in the SEC, grabbing a surprise Outback Bowl bid against Northwestern on New Year’s Day.
“It just shows Auburn still has a lot of respect — more than I thought we did,” Tate said. “I was pretty surprised, but, at the same time, I was happy.”
Auburn’s players were overwhelmingly pleased with their bowl destination as they returned to the practice field for the first time in more than two weeks Saturday. Rain forced the Tigers indoors for a split session, with the defense going first and the offense second in the John H. Watson Fieldhouse.
Auburn had not practiced since a 26-21 Iron Bowl loss to Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 27.
“We had to get some of the rust off since today was our first day back,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “We need to get focused and back in that football mentality.”
The time off helped several players heal up from nagging injuries, most notably sophomore linebacker Eltoro Freeman, who practiced after sitting out the Iron Bowl with a ankle/foot injury.
“He’s not a full 100 percent, but, compared to where he was a couple of weeks ago, I think he’s made significant strides,” Chizik said. “He needs to continue to do that if we’re going to play him in that bowl game the way we need to play him.”
Auburn has seven more practices scheduled before Christmas. The Tigers will work again today before taking Monday and Tuesday off for final exams, returning to the field again Wednesday.
The additional practices give Auburn the benefit of allowing more inexperienced players to get reps, a luxury teams are not afforded during the regular season, when preparation time is scarce.
“Whoever we feel strongly has a chance to really come in next year and play and help us, guys who are redshirted or not, we do want to get them some extra reps in the next 12 days,” Chizik said.
But Auburn’s primary goal heading to Tampa is still to win the game, to send the seniors out with a victory and to go into the offseason on an optimistic note.
Chizik stressed to the team a major difference between finishing a season with 8-5 record versus a 7-6 mark.
“Nothing good comes out of losing,” linebacker Craig Stevens said.
Still, Chizik said the team has to strike a balance between trying to win the game and having a good time in Tampa.
“We want them to feel like it’s a reward, not a punishment,” Chizik said. “All the things we have to do to win a football against a very tough team, we have to do that. We have to practice hard. We have to focus. There is that fine line between that and being able to have some free time, some off time, and have fun. We’ve got to find that balance.”