Surging No. 11 Auburn looks to stay hot vs. Vanderbilt

Those stories and rumors about Auburn coach Gus Malzahn being on the “hot seat” early in a season seem much more like hot “air” these days.

Now, Malzahn's name is on a list of 18 on the midseason “watch list” for the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award.

That's because the Tigers (6-2, 4-1 SEC) find themselves very much in contention in the SEC race and will take a five-game winning streak and No. 11 national ranking into their home game against Vanderbilt Saturday. Kickoff is at noon ET at Jordan-Hare Stadium with ESPN handling the broadcast.

With only the Commodores (4-4, 1-3 SEC), struggling Georgia (4-4, 2-4 SEC) and FCS foe Alabama A&M the next three weeks, the Tigers look to be headed for a showdown with No. 1 unbeaten Alabama in an Iron Bowl tilt on Nov. 26. That contest could have a West Division title and berth in the SEC Championship game on the line, depending on how Texas A&M (7-1, 4-1 SEC) and LSU (5-2, 3-1) fare in their remaining games.

A resurgent running game has been a big factor in Auburn's rebound.

Since managing to rush for only 154 yards in a win over LSU, Auburn has gone for 410 against Louisiana-Monroe, 228 against Mississippi State, 543 (yes, 543) against Arkansas, and 307 last week against Ole Miss.

That's despite the fact that sophomore running back Kerryon Johnson, the starter, was out for all of one game and most of another with an ankle issue. Sophomore Kamryn Pettway simply stepped up and more than filled the gap, rushing for 169 yards against Mississippi State, 192 against Arkansas and 236 against the Rebels.

This stretch comes on the heels of going the previous season without a carry in an H-back role.

With projected starter Jovon Robinson dismissed before the season, the Tigers needed someone to step in at running back and give Johnson some backup. Running backs coach Tim Horton told offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee he was confident Pettway was the one for the job. Pettway has more than exceeded expectations.

“I don't think Tim or any of us knew he'd get on this tear,” Lashlee said, “but he just done a good job of going downhill.”

The success of the running game has kept the pressure off Auburn sophomore quarterback Sean White, and White has responded. He completed 15 of 22 passes for a season-high 247 yards against the Rebels.

“Sean White is coming into his own,” Malzahn said. “You can tell his confidence. He made some throws tonight under pressure, one to Stanton Truitt, I don't know how many people could have made. It was a great play.”

Vanderbilt, too, has experienced quite the resurgence recently.

The Commodores have won their last two games (17-16 over Georgia, 35-17 over Tennessee State) and have put themselves in contention for a postseason spot, just two wins short of bowl eligibility. After the trip to Auburn, the Commodores finish at Missouri and at home against Ole Miss and Tennessee.

“I like where this team is,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said as the Commodores headed into their bye last week.

Even more encouraging: the Commodores showed some life in their offense in their most recent outing, rushing for 358 yards and passing for another 143 for a season-high 501 yards of total offense in the win over Tennessee State.

It was only the second time this season that the Commodores have outgained an opponent, and they lost that other encounter, 13-6 to Florida.

Running backs Ralph Webb (125 yards on nine carries) and Khari Blasingame (100 on 14 runs with three for touchdowns) had big days against Tennessee State.

“Those offensive linemen, they really did a good job moving people,” Blasingame said. “Those holes were huge. You could have put a truck through those things.”

Against Auburn, however, the Commodores will be up against one of the league's top run defenses. Since giving up 231 yards to Texas A&M and 220 to LSU in back-to-back games, Auburn has yielded only 233 rushing yards total in its last three games.