AUBURN, Ala. (AP) The Auburn Tigers fumbled away the game, and probably their chances of landing in the playoffs or repeating as Southeastern Conference champions.
Now, the challenge for the ninth-ranked Tigers is to make sure that doesn’t affect how they perform in a season-ending stretch that includes road games against their two biggest rivals.
Auburn (7-2, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) has no time to wallow after a 41-38 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday. The Tigers face No. 16 Georgia on Saturday and play No. 4 Alabama two weeks later.
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”We’ve got a lot of champions,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. ”We’ve just got to try to improve, but it’s not going to affect us in a negative way the rest of the year.”
The Aggies (7-3, 3-3) came in as 23-point underdogs but Auburn had no answer for freshman quarterback Kyle Allen and made mistakes with penalties and turnovers. After living dangerously in wins over South Carolina and No. 10 Mississippi, the Tigers lost two unforced fumbles in the final three minutes against a team that had dropped three straight SEC games.
Last year’s national runner-up, Auburn had been No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings but needs help from other teams to keep its hopes alive. And that’s assuming the Tigers don’t falter again with two big obstacles ahead.
They fell six spots in the AP rankings on Sunday. The playoff standings come out Tuesday.
Auburn started badly with a fumble on its first offensive play and gave up a pair of long touchdown passes to Allen in the first two-plus minutes.
Even more disturbing for the Tigers was its ending, when the mundane turned disastrous.
A zone read play led to a fumble near the goal line after a botched exchange with Cameron Artis-Payne. The play had been a big weapon for Auburn and quarterback Nick Marshall since last season.
”We’ve been real successful with that numerous times, and we’re not going to second-guess ourselves on that one,” Malzahn said.
Artis-Payne said he came up with the ball first but the Aggies’ Julien Obioha had it by the time the scrum was sorted out.
Then, center Reese Dismukes, a senior with 45 career starts, snapped the ball while Marshall was still checking to a different play at the line of scrimmage.
Dismukes and Malzahn chalked it up to miscommunication.
”We’re not going to blame any one person,” the coach said. ”We fought hard and we just didn’t get it done at the end.”
The Tigers’ problems caught up with them after two down-to-the-wire wins since a loss to No. 1 Mississippi State. They’ve allowed 11 passing touchdowns in the last three games, including four by Allen in the first half.
The next task for defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and his players is trying to contain Georgia tailback Todd Gurley, who’s returning from a four-game suspension.
The Tigers rank 58th nationally in total defense. Equally troubling for them: They’re 105th with 10 fumbles lost and 106th in penalty yards per game.
Also leading receiver D’haquille Williams sustained a right knee injury. Malzahn didn’t have an update on his status after the game.
Now, Auburn is just hoping to somehow climb back into playoff contention with wins and some helpful upsets.
”We’re just going to keep working,” guard Chad Slade said. ”If that happens to come up, we’ll be ready for it.
”We’re just taking it one game at a time and hoping for the best.”