This is the time of the season where the rubber starts meeting the road for the Auburn Tigers (4-2, 2-1 SEC).
Auburn is currently ranked No. 21 in the AP Top 25 and is third in the SEC West behind undefeated No. 1 Alabama and undefeated No. 6 Texas A&M. The Tigers have a huge home matchup against No. 17 Arkansas (5-2, 1-2 SEC) this weekend and if they win, they’ll be able to make up some important ground on either the Crimson Tide or Aggies. The two undefeated SEC West powers are playing each other this weekend, which means one of them is guaranteed to lose.
After starting off the year slow with losses to Clemson and Texas A&M, Gus Malzahn’s Auburn squad has found a way to bounce back and put themselves in the thick of the SEC conversation. The Tigers have won three in a row – beating No. 18 LSU, Louisiana Monroe and Mississippi State – but the final stretch of the season provides some huge challenges.
Yes, Arkansas lost a few weeks ago to Alabama, but the Razorbacks bounced back in a big way with a 34-30 win over No. 12 Ole Miss. Speaking of Ole Miss, after the Arkansas game, the Tigers will have to travel to Oxford to play the Rebels, which is never easy.
Throw in a game against a tough Georgia team on the road sandwiched in between winnable games at home against Vanderbilt and Alabama A&M and it’s easy to see that Auburn is heading into quite the gauntlet to end the season. And we haven’t even mentioned the Iron Bowl yet, which very well could be a play-in game for the SEC title game depending on how things shake out for the rest of the season. The Crimson Tide are by far and away the best team in the country, but Texas A&M very well could beat Alabama, and the Crimson Tide’s game on the road at LSU will be an interesting one. That game, much like the Iron Bowl, is a huge rivalry game and we’ve seen in the past that no matter the records, rivalry games – especially in the SEC – are basically toss-ups. Anything can happen.
So with that all said, it’s not exactly unrealistic to think that the race in the West may tighten up a bit, which makes this is a very important stretch of the season for Auburn.
After starting off the year not looking much of anything like a contender, the Tigers have played themselves back into the conversation. Right now they’re on the edges of it, but big wins in the next two weekends could go a long ways towards proving to the college football world that they are for real.
Composure and poise is going to be vital for Auburn as it takes on two very tough SEC opponents, and according to Malzahn, that’s something that the player leadership on his team has brought to the table so far this season. Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com recorded the coach’s thoughts from his Tuesday press conference.
“The good thing about this team is our leadership is very strong,” he (Malzahn) said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “The leadership will definitely keep everybody grounded. They’re on a mission. They really helped us through the tough times. It really starts with our leaders. They’ve got a good pulse for our team. Our younger guys really listen to them. They found a way to practice and be ready to practice every practice. There hasn’t been any kind of practice where I’d say, ‘Aw, we just survived through practice.’ And that’s tribute to our leaders. As far as things are going better now, this is a well-grounded team and there won’t be any issues as far as patting ourselves on the back.”
Leadership will be important for Auburn, but the same thing can be said for consistency. Auburn needs to continue doing the things it does well. Stick to the game plan and stick to the script. And for the Tigers, that means sticking with the rush.
Auburn is currently third in the SEC in rushing offense, putting up 262.83 yards per game on the ground, with 14 rushing touchdowns. The only two teams rushing better than the Tigers are Texas A&M (274.33) and Alabama (265.71), and as you can see, it’s not by much.
It does point to a trend in the SEC, though. The two top teams in the conference rush the ball at a high level, and that’s good news for Auburn – because the Tigers do as well.
With that in mind, there’s even more good news for the Tigers. Sophomore Kamryn Pettway led the way for Auburn against Mississippi State with 169 yards and three touchdowns. His backfield mate, Kerryon Johnson – Auburn’s leading rusher – was injured, but Malzahn said on Tuesday that he’s hopeful that Johnson will be able to play against Arkansas.
“I think after today we’ll have a better idea of his status. I think the positive thing is he did practice Sunday,” Malzahn said.
Arkansas isn’t exactly great against the run on defense – the Razorbacks are giving up 175.86 yards per game on the ground and have given up the most rushing touchdowns in the SEC – so Auburn’s running game being back at full strength is a scary thing. And if that’s the case, it couldn’t be happening at a more important time for the Tigers.
Are they contenders or pretenders? We’re about to find out, and it starts with Arkansas.