Thursday’s game in Lexington was minutes away from being the latest in a series of unfortunate events for the Auburn Tigers.
Auburn started its season with high expectations, which — in hindsight — was based solely on several assumptions.
Following Will Muschamp’s hire in December, many predicted the Tigers defense — which ranked No. 66 overall in the FBS — would see an improvement. Instead, Auburn entered Thursday’s game ranked No. 87 overall having allowed 412 yards per game.
The Tigers offense was expected to flourish with new starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who shined in sporadic appearances as Nick Marshall’s backup during his first two seasons. Instead, Johnson struggled and was benched for redshirt freshman Sean White before Week 5.
D’Haquille Williams — once regarded by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the 2016 NFL Draft’s wide receiver prospect — was dismissed by the team earlier this month for making “mistake after mistake” during his time with the program.
And, in the most absurd of all things Auburn, I even saw Gus Malzahn’s name listed on CoachesHotSeat.com’s Bottom 10 rankings.
So naturally, a loss to Kentucky would have been another low point in the Tigers’ tumultuous season. Albeit an improved, solid Wildcats team, the loss would still resonate to a fan base whose expectations were “College Football Playoff or bust.”
Fortunately, Gus Malzahn and co. survived with a 30-27 victory in Lexington. Auburn’s offense was led by a stellar performance from Peyton Barber who recorded 92 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.
White threw for 255 yards on 17-of-27 passing and looked like a veteran starter. It was the offensive performance many expected from a Malzahn-coached team in preseason and one he himself called Auburn’s best of 2015.
“All three phases helped us win this game. We probably played our best overall game of the year,” Malzahn said. “We wanted to be more aggressive. We’re starting to settle in. We’re starting to get some rhythm. We wanted to come out and have an aggressive mindset. [White] did a good job making some plays through the air.
“We had some explosive plays, really for the first time all year. We actually got into a rhythm. We were very good on third downs in the first half. We got into a rhythm probably for the first time all year that looked like an Auburn offense. That’s encouraging moving forward.”
Despite allowing 497 yards, Auburn’s defense was a crucial part in Thursday’s win. The Tigers forced an interception in their own end zone that could have tied the game.
Auburn’s defense also stepped up on the Wildcats’ final possession. The Tigers forced an incomplete pass on third down and Justin Garrett sacked Patrick Towles on fourth down with 25 seconds remaining.
Thursday not only marked Auburn’s first SEC win of 2015, but the moment in which the program found itself at the crossroads. Earlier this week, I mentioned that this game had huge implications for both programs based on historic success — or lack thereof.
Historically, Auburn is a juggernaut in the SEC while Kentucky is a basketball-first school who happens to field a football team in the fall with minimal past success. Despite this being one of the better Wildcats teams of the past decade, an Auburn loss would have been monumental.
Auburn doesn’t lose to Kentucky, regardless of what the overall records were entering Thursday’s game. Now, instead of a 3-3 (0-3 SEC) record, the Tigers sit at a respectable 4-2 and could shake up the SEC West standings with a team that looks to be improved with each passing week.
Sure, the Tigers are far from the complete team many expected in preseason and will likely miss the SEC Championship Game. But Auburn could finish with an improved record and build toward a successful 2016 campaign with a solid finish.