With two losses on the season, Auburn is still alive.
Jordan-Hare Stadium turned to bedlam as Auburn stomped top-ranked Georgia in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, with head coach Gus Malzahn’s squad scoring 40 against the nation’s third-best defense.
The Tigers are now two weeks away from playing Alabama in another marquee Iron Bowl that will determine the winner of the SEC West.
If Auburn can pull away at home against another top-ranked team, it will play Georgia again in Atlanta for the SEC Championship and a shot at the College Football Playoff.
With his team’s destiny in his hands and a shot at Auburn’s third national championship berth with him in seven years, Malzahn says his team’s recent success is due to its loss to LSU four weeks earlier.
“After the LSU game, that was a defining moment about which way we were going to go,” he said. “Our leadership took over, and we continued to prove after that second half that we were a good team.”
Despite a 23-point first half, Auburn failed to score a single second-half point to
“There are certain things that you learn from, and there are certain mistakes that you make and you try not to make the same mistake twice,” he said. “The mindset of keeping the hammer down is something we have. So far we have done that.”
With a 16-7 lead over Georgia at halftime, Malzahn “kept the hammer down” by scoring an additional 24 points to seal the victory.
In addition to maintaining an aggressive mindset, Malzahn says his offensive line, as well as special teams play, will continue to have a pivotal role in the team’s success moving forward.
“I think this year you’ve seen this [offensive line] improve each week,” he said. “You’ve seen that group grow, and they’re playing their best football right now.”
The offensive line, offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said, has been playing offthe success of Marquel Harrell.
“I’ve been really pleased with him,” Lindsey said. “I think he’s one of those bright young players who’s ready to take that next step.”
Running back Kerryon Johnson, who Malzahn said is deserving of Heisman Trophy votes, has also continued to be a definitive
For defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, Johnson is reminiscent of former college football greats Barry Sanders and Mark Ingram.
“The great ones have an ability: They’ve got
Johnson currently leads the SEC in rushing with 1,035 yards and 15 touchdowns, tied for fourth in the nation. He finished the game with 167 yards on 32 carries and was the first running back this season to rush for more than 100 yards against the Bulldogs.
“Since I’ve been here, he’s really smart and he’s really intelligent,” Lindsey said. “I think he’s a complete running back. I’m glad he’s on our team.
“I think he makes everyone associated with Auburn proud.”
Steele added that, in addition to Johnson’s contributions, the energy of the defense has been a focal point in the team’s 8-2 season.
“The big thing is energy and enthusiasm
Another thing that brought the team together, Steele said, was the common identity that each player had built with each other from spring training.
“I think our guys know their own identity,” he said. “Everybody shows up at the stadium and is disappointed when anyone gains a yard.”
While Steele knew early on that dominance could become a normality, injuries affected early season play.
Now, with linebacker Tray Matthews making a return with three tackles and a tackle for loss in the Tigers’ win, Steele believes his team knows the task at hand and the confidence required to be successful.
“You know when you’re doing your job, and you know when you’re affecting things in a positive way,” Steele said. “That gives you confidence, and that breeds confidence.”
This Saturday Auburn will take on Louisiana-Monroe before entering Thanksgiving week.
Malzahn said his team’s focus is improving on special teams.
Louisiana-Monroe kick returner Marcus Green has 628 kick return yards and three touchdowns this season. Against Georgia, the Tigers allowed sophomore Mecole Hardman 147 yards on five returns.
While adding more to their special teams, Malzahn expects running back Kerryon Johnson, who had 167 yards on 32 carries in the win, to continue having more carries despite injury concern.
His durability, he said, was comparable tothat of former Auburn running back Tre Mason.
“He probably could have carried it another 10 times the other night,” Malzahn said. “[Mason] was exactly the same. Some guys get stronger, and he’s got that ability.”
With a win over Georgia, much of Auburn’s preparation is expected to be placed on the Iron Bowl, where the Tigers play the Crimson Tide for a spot in the SEC Championship.
If Auburn defeats Alabama, the Tigers will travel to Atlanta to play Georgia once again for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Wide receiver Ryan Davis, who finished with four receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown against the Bulldogs, said the team has moved away from the team’s recent victory to focusing primarily on the Warhawks.
“We don’t have time to worry about the game before,” he said. “Next think you know, it’s Monday and you’re getting ready for the next one.”
Even with Louisiana-Monroe presenting a roadblock to Auburn’s playoff implications, Davis says this week’s preparation is much of the same.
“Same preparation as you would any other week,” he said. “The Iron Bowl doesn’t matter if you don’t win this game.”