September 01, 2015

(AP) - The Auburn Tigers' best seasons lately have come when they entered the year under the national radar.

Sorry, Auburn. The challenge this season won't be trying to prove doubters wrong but living up to the lofty expectations of a team ranked No. 6 and regarded by some pundits as the favorite to win the Southeastern Conference.

Recent Auburn teams haven't fared so well as front-runners, but coach Gus Malzahn said the team's mentality has to remain the same whatever the preseason projections say.

''We have the same approach and I like where our guys are at,'' Malzahn said on Tuesday. ''They're not reading the press and predicting, all this stuff. They're worried about this first opponent, and they've got a good mindset.''

That first opponent is Bobby Petrino and Louisville on Saturday in Atlanta. Malzahn can try to temper expectations by pointing to the eight freshmen or redshirt freshman offensive players listed on the initial depth chart released Tuesday, including starting tight end Jalen Harris.

But keeping players from getting carried away with offseason praise and hype presents a different challenge from trying to overachieve. Malzahn has been part of two Auburn teams that have been to the national championship game, in 2010 as offensive coordinator and 2013 as head coach.

The 2010 team entered at No. 22, and Auburn wasn't ranked opening the season two years ago.

On the flip side, Auburn started out last season ranked fifth and went 8-5. The Tigers have gone 32-19 the last four times they opened as a top 10 team, finishing unranked twice and finishing in that territory only in 2006.

Playing in the loaded SEC West presents a far greater challenge than dealing with the expectations, of course. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson echoes his coach's sentiments that the Tigers aren't paying attention to the hype.

''We don't get caught up in that,'' Johnson said. ''We pretty much don't even watch it. We try to stay away from it. Our goal as a team is to just take it one game at a time and make our way back to the SEC championship.''

Johnson has been the recipient of high expectations, too. Despite starting only twice in his first two seasons, he's been mentioned as at least a potential longshot Heisman Trophy candidate.

The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder again said he brushes off such talk, but Malzahn thinks even Johnson is probably a little uncomfortable with the praise before he's had to consistently perform as the No. 1 guy.

''He started an opener and he's played, but there's nothing like it being your team and (having a) you're going to start for the whole season mentality,'' Malzahn said. ''We'll just see how it goes, but I like where's he's at. He's not reading the headlines. Matter of fact, I'm going to bet he's embarrassed on some of the predictions and the Heisman. He just wants to prove it. I think that because of that he's in a really good spot.''

After exceeding expectations in his first year by going 9-4, Petrino thinks the Cardinals can continue trending upward after defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and offensive counterpart Garrick McGee passed up opportunities with the Oakland Raiders and Oklahoma, respectively, to keep the coaching staff intact.

''I think that gives us a chance to take a step forward and get better,'' Petrino said.

Recruits are also buying into Petrino's appeal, and his current roster has been trouble-free off the field. The coach's task is turning everything into real victories for Louisville, which begins unranked and picked third in the ACC's Atlantic Division.

Louisville enters the neutral-site contest with new faces on both sides of the ball, especially on offense.

Petrino's biggest issue is deciding whether Reggie Bonnafon, Will Gardner or Kyle Bolin will start at quarterback against Auburn, and indications are it will be a game-day decision.

On the other side of the ball, Louisville's defense appears capable of being as stingy as 2014's sixth-ranked unit despite losing seven starters. All three QBs, meanwhile, have shown enough promise for Petrino to delay his choice as long as possible.

The question is how they'll respond to the big-game atmosphere against Auburn.

''We have a lot of newness, so it's almost like starting over as far as teaching and executing offensively,'' Petrino said Monday. ''But I really like our talent. It's just a matter of how quickly can we get them to operate at the execution (level) that we need. ...

''Normally in Year 2, you would say everybody understands what we're doing now and can take further steps ahead. But we really are young offensively.''

No matter what happens this weekend, Petrino has kept interest high among Louisville's fan base. The Cardinals sold out their 31,000-ticket allotment for Auburn, and the school last week announced a $55 million plan to expand capacity at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium by 10,000 seats to 65,000.

Judging from a recruiting class of talent from across the Southeast - including Georgia, Petrino noted Monday - winning remains a big selling point. Current players and coaches have certainly bought in, just the attitude they'll need to handle a first-half schedule featuring division foes Clemson and Florida State. First up is Auburn.

''It's fun to see (the players) grow,'' said Grantham, adding that he's ''moved on'' from the Raiders' interview. ''I enjoy being around them and that's probably the most exciting thing about being here.''

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