AUBURN, Ala. — Since rising to the top of the Bowl Championship Series rankings for the first time in school history, Auburn has tried to downplay the significance.
Good luck telling that to its opponents.
The facts are the facts, and they don’t bode well for top-ranked teams — at least not recently.
In each of the past three weeks, a No. 1 team has lost on the road to a conference foe.
Alabama lost at South Carolina, and Ohio State went down at Wisconsin, both as the top team in the polls. Last week, Oklahoma got tripped up at Missouri after debuting in the top spot in the BCS rankings.
Auburn, the new BCS No. 1, plays Saturday at Mississippi, hoping to end the streak.
“If we do our job,” Auburn quarterback Cam Newton said, “you can cut that statistic out.”
Like it or not, Auburn now has a target firmly on its back, one of the perils of being elevated to college football’s firing range.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” Tigers head coach Gene Chizik said. “Everybody reads it, everybody sees it, and everybody hears it. We fully expect to get everybody’s best shot. That’s what makes it fun.”
It’s the nature of sport. Teams have a tendency to get up for big games.
“I definitely feel like if we were on the other end, how excited we’d be able to play the No. 1 team,” right guard Byron Isom said. “Everyone we play from this point on is definitely going to bring its ‘A’ game. We’re going to make sure we bring ours as well.”
Previous No. 1s have faced difficult opponents after getting to the top spot. South Carolina was ranked No. 19 when it knocked off the top-ranked team. Wisconsin was No. 18 and Missouri No. 11.
Mississippi is only 3-4 this season and 1-3 in the SEC, but it remains a potential pitfall.
Rebels coach Houston Nutt has a history of pulling off unexpected upsets. He has beaten five teams ranked in the top five in his career, including a 50-48 triple overtime win against No. 1 LSU in 2007 while at Arkansas. In all five wins, Nutt’s teams were unranked.
SEC road games have proven to be difficult enough without the added pressure of being No. 1.
Auburn squeaked by in both of its road games this year, needing a late defensive stand in a 17-14 win at Mississippi State and a clock-killing drive and Wes Byrum’s field goal as time expired in a 37-34 win at Kentucky.
Comfort is always a concern in road environments, especially when it comes to crowd noise and communication.
“The noise can be incredible,” left tackle Lee Ziemba said.
But the biggest obstacle might be a matter of motivation. Teams tend to get territorial on their home field.
“You never want to get beat on your home turf,” Ziemba said. “You never think you’re going to get beat on your home turf. That’s the big thing.”
Chizik thinks his team’s veteran leadership should help. Auburn has 24 seniors, making the idea of being No. 1 less daunting.
“I think it helps; I don’t think there’s any question,” Chizik said. “Young guys these days, they hear it, see it, there’s no really getting away from it.
“I think being mature and being able to handle it and staying very grounded is the key.”