In this photo taken Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, Auburn defensive back Blake Countess (24) and running back Kerryon Johnson (21) attends drills during NCAA college football practice at the Auburn Athletic Complex in Auburn, Ala. (Julie Bennett/AL.com via AP) MAG
AP Photo
September 01, 2015

AUBURN, Ala. (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 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.''

He's hoping the same holds true for his team.

NOTES: Receiver D'haquille Williams, who was suspended for six days early in fall camp, isn't necessarily going to start. He was listed as even with Tony Stevens on the depth chart. Malzahn said he is ''working his way back up.'' ... Sophomore Roc Thomas beat out highly rated junior college transfer Jovon Robinson and Peyton Barber as the starting tailback, but all three are expected to play. ... Malzahn said wide receiver Myron Burton Jr. has left the team in what the coach described as a mutual decision. Burton was MVP of the spring game.

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