AUBURN, Ala. -- On Saturday, Auburn will try to win its first conference game in nearly two years. The last time the Tigers won a game in the SEC was Oct. 29, 2011, when they defeated Ole Miss, 41-23. They have have lost 10 straight since that victory.
“I’m very excited,” cornerback Jermaine Whitehead said. “It’s going to be a challenging game, a great game to open the SEC with. I just want to get an SEC win.”
For Whitehead, it’s more than just another conference game. There was a time when he thought he was going to play for Mississippi State, Auburn’s opponent on Saturday.
Whitehead grew up in Greenwood, Miss., which is just more than 90 minutes from Mississippi State’s campus. He attended Amanda Elzy High School, where he was a star for the Panthers. He played quarterback, running back, wide receiver, cornerback -- wherever the team needed him.
Coach Eric House remembers one game in particular in which the four-star athlete scored four different ways. He returned a punt for a touchdown. He returned an interception for a touchdown. He threw a touchdown pass. And he caught a screen pass and took it the distance for a touchdown.
It was no surprise that he had offers from a number of the SEC schools, as well as programs like Notre Dame and Stanford.
However, in April of his junior year, he called former Mississippi State assistant coach Melvin Smith and committed to the Bulldogs. At the time, he felt it was the best place for him. He had friends going there. His family wanted him to go there. It just made sense.
Eventually, though, Whitehead would change his mind. But it wasn’t Auburn that made him reconsider his initial decision, it was Ole Miss. As the two in-state schools fought over his services, Auburn stayed in contact with him and remained a potential option. He even made a few trips over to The Plains during their magical 2010 season.
“He had visited Auburn on his own,” House said. “He went to a couple football games. He said there was just something about the family environment there. I think that’s what really got his attention. He just really felt like it was a different atmosphere. He felt like the whole campus was one big family.”
After the season, Whitehead set up his official visits but saved the last one for Auburn. It was the weekend right before signing day, and the trip was enough to convince the former Mississippi State commitment to sign with the Tigers. He helped push Auburn’s 2011 recruiting class to No. 3 nationally in ESPN's rankings.
“I feel like it was a great place to come in and play as a freshman, which I did,” he said. “I think I contributed pretty well as a freshman, and that’s all I really wanted. That factor outweighed a lot of teams. I just had to make a decision and what’s best for myself. I ended up at Auburn. I love it. I believe in Auburn. War Eagle.”
Whitehead did see the field early. He played in all 13 games as a freshman and became the everyday starter at strong safety last season. But it hasn’t been easy. He watched from home last January as Mississippi State played Northwestern in the Gator Bowl. His team failed to win a conference game, and the Bulldogs were playing in a New Years Day bowl game.
It didn’t seem fair, but there were no regrets.
“Talking to him, he was just excited about the opportunity to play in the SEC,” House said. “He has no regrets. There’s something about saying the words 'War Eagle.' ”
A lot has changed in 2013. Melvin Smith, Whitehead’s former recruiting coordinator at Mississippi State, is now his position coach at Auburn. The Tigers are 2-0 and look like a team on the rise, while the Bulldogs could be headed in the opposite direction after how they played in the season opener against Oklahoma State.
There will be a lot on the line for both teams come Saturday, but Whitehead just wants to win. He’s not worried about what happened in the past.
“I want to definitely win the game,” he said. “I want to make as many plays as I can, help my team make as many plays as they can. It’s going to be a team win. Whether I get zero tackles or a hundred tackles, I think winning the game is the ultimate outcome.”