AS THE DEBATE OVER their Orange Bowl worthiness intensified last week, Auburn players sought refuge in the quiet of the team's video room, spending extra time studying game tape. The film fest paid off in two ways: The Tigers were able to shut out BCS talk, and they were better prepared to stifle SEC rival Georgia's offense on Saturday. That much became clear in the second quarter when, on second-and-eight at the Auburn 25-yard-line, Bulldogs quarterback David Greene faked a handoff and receiver Reggie Brown stepped forward as if to block safety Junior Rosegreen. Upon seeing that, Tigers senior cornerback Carlos Rogers backpedaled out of run support and into pass coverage, anticipating that Brown would sprint downfield for a play-action toss. "We knew that they had a play called Crack-and-Go, and I saw it starting to develop," says Rogers, who leaped in front of Brown in the end zone to pick off the pass that could have tied the game at 7. "I think that interception took the air out of their offense."
It also stoked Auburn fans already clamoring for a BCS championship-game berth for their unbeaten team. The timely takeaway and Rosegreen's ferocious hit on Brown one quarter later (the receiver was knocked out of the game with a concussion) were among the decisive defensive plays in a game that Auburn (10-0) turned into a bullhorn blast at Top 25 voters. By beating No. 8 Georgia 24-6, the third-ranked Tigers climbed into a tie with No. 2 Oklahoma in this week's AP poll and edged closer to the Sooners and top-ranked USC in the BCS standings.
Credit the self-proclaimed No-Name Defense for making voters think twice. Compared with the 2003 unit that finished fifth in the nation in fewest yards allowed (281.6 per game) and had three players drafted into the NFL, the '04 defense struck many before the season as a worrisome mishmash of undersized and untested players. But what was perceived as a weakness has evolved into a strength: With no stars to rely on, every defender is carrying his share of the load. The Tigers have 23 players with at least one tackle for loss, 14 with 20 or more tackles and 13 with one or more sacks--and the squad leads the nation in scoring defense (9.3 points per game). "They play hard, and they're very, very fast," says Auburn defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, who preaches a swarming style. "They're all effort guys."
The quintessential effort guy is Rogers, who covers more turf in a week than a Jordan-Hare Stadium groundskeeper. In addition to playing more like a roverback than a traditional corner, Rogers is on the field for every special teams down. Against Georgia, he had a season-high eight tackles, two for loss, plus one sack and that momentum-shifting pick. "It's tiring--I live for TV timeouts," says Rogers. "I do everything at an all-out sprint."
Auburn is going to have to maintain that intensity to have a shot at breaking into the BCS top two. This Saturday the Tigers head to Tuscaloosa to meet Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and on Dec. 4 they'll be in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game, most likely against a Tennessee team looking to avenge a 34--10 loss on Oct. 2. Rest assured, Auburn's defense will be logging plenty of time in the film room in the coming weeks. --Kelley King