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January 3, 2011GLENDALE, Ariz. -- "Hold the rope."
Time and again during Auburn's run to the BCS title game, Roof has had to remind his players to grip tight ... don't give up ... never surrender, no matter how dire the circumstance. And Auburn has been in some tight spots this season.
"We have talked about not letting go of the rope a lot," Roof said. "This league [the SEC] is so physical. There are no weeks off. Each week is a physical war."
The Tigers remain standing. Yes, the ballyhooed offense led by Heisman-winning quarterback Cameron Newton hogs the headlines. But Auburn's defense has done its part by being resilient in the face of adversity, and it just may be the overlooked defenses of both teams that end up deciding who wins the national championship.
"We really have hung our hats on being resilient," Roof said. "We have given up a couple plays at times. But when you play the kind of schedule we do, that happens. They have been really good about not dwelling on that, staying together, staying positive and moving forward. That says a lot about our kids and their character and belief in each other."
That character and belief was pushed to the limit at times this season, as the Tigers have had to battle back from four double-digit deficits:
In all four of those games, the defense made key halftime adjustments to help Auburn rally.
"They don't get enough credit," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said of the Tigers' defense. "Their stats may not show it, and they aren't this or that. But when it's time to stop someone, they do. They are good, not great, on defense.
"We scored 31 on them. Arkansas scored some points on them . They got down vs. Alabama, but when it came time to stop them, they did. And it starts with [defensive tackle Nick] Fairley. You better be aware of him and get four hands on him. He's tough."
Fairley won the Lombardi Trophy this season for his sheer disruptive force. But he is the lone true star on a mostly star-less Tigers defense that didn't have any other defenders earn first- or second-team All-SEC honors from Rivals.com.
For Auburn, the sum has been greater than the parts. Still, players such as linebackers Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens, end Antoine Carter, safety Zac Etheridge and cornerbacks Neiko Thorpe and Demond Washington have had their moments for a unit that keeps offenses off-balance with a mixed blend of styles.
"I wouldn't categorize them as a blitzing team," Sanders said. "They like to keep things in front of them and rally to the play. They're not overly aggressive but they're not afraid to blitz. They pick their spots. You planned on getting zone or man-free coverage, and you adjusted to the blitz."
Roof, a former Duke head coach, had just finished his first season as defensive coordinator at Minnesota in 2008 when he got a call from Gene Chizik, who recently had been hired at Auburn. Roof had no existing relationship with Chizik, but that didn't stop him from jumping at the opportunity to work at Auburn.
"This place is filled with great tradition," Roof said. "And I wanted to be a part of that."
While Auburn's defensive stats aren't eye-popping, they must be put into context to be appreciated. Auburn didn't face the three of the four worst offenses in the SEC -- Tennessee, Florida and Vanderbilt.
"There are a lot of things that go into statistics," Roof said. "The statistic that matters most is wins and losses for our football team. We know we have a responsibility to do what we have to do to help the football team win. That's the bottom line. I don't really worry about it.
"I believe what I see on tape and coach kids, and I love what I do and I love doing it at Auburn."
Circumstances in some games have dictated how Roof has had to call his defense. When Auburn has owned big leads, Roof didn't want to give up a big play, so he stayed with less-aggressive defenses.
"When you have had a year like we have, you have to move on to the next one quickly," Roof said. "You have to correct what went wrong and move forward. You can't sit back and enjoy the wins like some people can."
Roof and Auburn will revel for a lifetime if they can win the national championship.
AUBURN DEFENDERS TO WATCH
T Nick Fairley, 6-5/298, Jr.
LB Josh Bynes, 6-2/235, Sr.
S Zac Etheridge, 6-0/213, Sr.
E Antoine Carter, 6-4/256, Sr.
LB Craig Stevens, 6-3/229, Sr.
OREGON DEFENDERS TO WATCH
LB Casey Matthews, 6-2/235, Sr.
E Kenny Rowe, 6-3/230, Sr.
FS John Boyett, 5-10/190, Soph.
LB Spencer Paysinger, 6-3/234, Sr.
CB Cliff Harris, 5-11/170, Soph.