November 21, 2012 9:18:54 AM
AUBURN, Ala. -- Jeff Whitaker understands the Auburn University football team's situation entering the Iron Bowl. He's aware of the criticism that has been heaped on coach Gene Chizik and that the Tigers are huge underdogs going into the game with No. 2 University of Alabama.
The Auburn defensive tackle just doesn't need the extra motivation.
"It's Alabama-Auburn. We're not afraid because of your record or because they're Alabama," Whitaker said on Tuesday. "If there's one place that's not intimidated and afraid, it's going to be Auburn, no matter how the country looks at them. If there's one place and one team and look at them and say, 'They're just guys,' it's Auburn.
"They're doing a good job over there. We show respect for that. This rivalry was going way before me, you, coach (Nick) Saban, coach Chiz. We'll just keep this thing rolling."
The Tigers (3-8, 0-7 Southeastern Conference) are 31.5-point underdogs for Saturday's game in Tuscaloosa. The Tide (10-1, 6-1) is playing for a shot at SEC and national titles.
Auburn's preseason ambitions have been crushed under a barrage of defeats and troubles on both sides of the ball. The tough season has left uncertainty about Chizik's job status after the game two years after a national title season that included the biggest comeback in Iron Bowl history -- from down 24-0 to winning 28-27.
Chizik, who wore an orange BCS championship pullover to his news conference, is making $3.58 million annually and would be owed $7.5 million via monthly installments as of Dec. 1 if he's fired.
Auburn President Jay Gogue has said he will evaluate the program after the season. Athletic director Jay Jacobs has declined requests for comment.
The Tide's Saban said it's the nature of the profession that coaches can go from a national title to the hot seat so swiftly, but praised Chizik.
"All I know is playing against him, it's always a tough game," Saban said. "They're always well coached and they're always well prepared, and that's all I can really comment about. I think that sometimes that the standard that everybody wants all of us to play to is not something that is a continuum.
"It's a process that's constantly evolving and sometimes you get a few things that happen maybe that don't go in your favor, it can affect the kind of results that you get. And some of them you can control and some of them you can't. Whether I like it or not, it is the world that we live in. I fully understand that two years from now if we don't continue to have a good team, then I'll be in the same seat that other people are in now. It's the nature of the beast in our profession."
Auburn hasn't fared well in games against highly ranked competition the past two seasons, other than a 12-10 loss to No. 8 LSU early this season. Counting last year's 42-14 Iron Bowl defeat, the Tigers have lost five SEC games by four or more touchdowns the past two season.
The last two SEC contests have been huge routes at home -- 63-21 to No. 9 Texas A&M and 38-0 to No. 3 Georgia.
A win in this year-round rivalry certainly would improve the Tigers' mood going into the offseason.
Chizik said he expects his team's best game -- and needs it to win.
"We certainly know that anything can happen in a rivalry game, but for us to be able to go and win the game we're going to have to play by far the best football game we've played all year and play it with a lot of energy and emotion and passion and play great in terms of execution as well," he said.
"We'll be ready to play, and they'll be excited about playing. They already are, and our team understands what this game means to so many people other than themselves. They understand that."
Whitaker said the Tigers are also aware of the speculation that "coach Chiz" could be fired after the season. It's not clear how much the outcome of this game will factor into Gogue's decision.
"We're not even looking at it like that," Whitaker said. "We're not going to too much harp on that. The way coach Chiz has been about all this, it's been about the rivalry.
"We've got much love for coach Chiz."