AUBURN, Ala. (AP) The Auburn Tigers have been here before.
For the second straight season, the sixth-ranked Tigers have an open date following a road loss to an SEC West rival after being unable to climb out of an early 21-0 hole. They have issues to work out, fundamentals to clean up and maybe some young players to nurture toward bigger roles.
This time it’s a 38-23 loss to No. 1 Mississippi State when Auburn (5-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) committed four turnovers. Last year, the Tigers turned it over three times in a 35-21 loss at LSU early in coach Gus Malzahn’s first season.
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”We know a lot more about our team this year than we did last year, but there’s still things that we can improve on and get better at scheme-wise, possibly personnel-wise,” Malzahn said.
”It gives us a good chance to evaluate everything, to put together the best plan that we feel like gives us a chance to be successful in the second half. And the second thing is to get some of our guys healed up for the stretch run.”
A big difference this time is Auburn already knows it will be a strong contender for the new College Football Playoff if it wins the final six games, starting next week against South Carolina. The selection committee releases the first of its weekly Top 25 rankings on Oct. 28.
”We’ve just told our players that all these polls and stuff, they don’t mean anything until late in the year,” Malzahn said. ”If we’re fortunate enough to keep winning and be in that mix, then we obviously will pay a lot more attention to it.”
Last year’s team was unranked and unproven before rebounding strongly to win the SEC title and play for a national championship. The Tigers revamped their offense to better capitalize on quarterback Nick Marshall’s strengths after the LSU game and wound up with the nation’s top rushing team.
Freshman defensive back Nick Ruffin said the coaches and players don’t bring up last season much. Ruffin said the players moved on quickly from the loss to the Bulldogs.
”No one is hanging their heads still,” he said. ”Everybody has moved on. We’re making sure those mistakes that we made in the last game, they will not happen again.”
Fellow freshman linebacker Tre’ Williams said the Mississippi State game ”really opened our eyes.” It followed a dominating win over LSU.
”We went into Mississippi State with a lot of confidence,” Williams said. ”I think we kind of overlooked the team and they’re really good. We came out with the loss, but that didn’t really change anything. We’re starting to come back together. We’re practicing hard and we’re going to be ready.”
Compared to last season, the off-week changes figure to be much less dramatic. The extra practice time could help several freshmen who have cultivated bigger roles, including tailback Roc Thomas, Ruffin, Williams and offensive lineman Braden Smith. Smith, the backup left tackle, played a handful of snaps as a blocking tight end against Mississippi State and has worked some this week at guard.
Thomas has had nine carries the past two games against LSU and Mississippi State behind Cameron Artis-Payne. Corey Grant, who Malzahn calls ”one of the fastest guys in college football,” has run the ball only five times in those games after playing a much bigger role early in the season.
Malzahn was asked if defenses had been keying on Grant since he’s known more as a perimeter runner.
”Corey’s probably had more between-the-tackle carries than he has outside the tackles,” the coach said. ”As coaches, we were wanting to Roc or Peyton (Barber) both some more touches even back to the LSU game, but the situation never presented itself.
”We’re fortunate to have four guys we feel good about and each game we’ll have different plan.”