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A spirit that is not afraid

COLUMN | Auburn has what it takes to knock off the Tide

Smoke Monday (21) celebrates an Auburn touchdown during Auburn vs Alabama, on Nov. 27, 2021, in Auburn, Ala.
Smoke Monday (21) celebrates an Auburn touchdown during Auburn vs Alabama, on Nov. 27, 2021, in Auburn, Ala.

Auburn has unfinished business. It galloped and crane-kicked all the way to the halftime tunnel with a 7-0 lead in last year's Iron Bowl, but Bryce Young and eventual national runner-up Alabama crushed the Tigers' hearts with a four-overtime win.

Auburn has bowl eligibility to earn, an Iron Bowl that looks as winnable as ever and its first three-game win streak of 2022 on the line when it trots into Tuscaloosa next week. As interim head coach Carnell Williams says, "We got action!"

Auburn has fire again, and Williams was the spark, but I'm not gullible enough to think a team can pull off a historic upset strictly off of team morale. Bryan Harsin consistently preached the importance of execution, but Auburn continued to underperform under his leadership. Following the coaching change, the Tigers are firing on all cylinders like never before. Auburn is playing to its strengths, and it is playing for one another.

"We know we're playing with house money, being able to play loose, free," said junior defensive lineman Colby Wooden. "We're just anxious to get on the field and show what we can do." 

When has Auburn ever let being lopsided underdogs faze it? Do I need to remind you of 2019? It wasn't that long ago. Auburn entered as the No. 15 team, and Shaun Shivers bulldozed his way into the end zone, stealing a win from playoff hopeful, No. 5 Alabama. How about 2017? Auburn was No. 6 but was still seen as a long shot to beat the undefeated, No. 1 Tide: Auburn won 26-14.

Still no? How about 2013, when Chris Davis zig-zagged 100 yards into the end zone to turn Jordan-Hare Stadium into a madhouse as No. 4 Auburn ended another top-ranked Alabama team's perfect season? 

You got me, all of those miraculous wins were in Jordan-Hare, and Auburn was in the top 15 all three times. Auburn hasn't gone into Bryant-Denny Stadium and left with a win since 2010, when Cam Newton led Auburn to a 17-point comeback en route to a National Championship. But then again, that's also the last time Alabama had a three-loss season. History tends to repeat itself.

Let me argue that this year is different. Not because Auburn is more talented or more prepared than previous years, but because the Tigers have a golden opportunity to close out something they didn't have the composure to finish last year. For the first time in a while, they are truly excited. They're hungry for an upset.

The players think this year is different, too. When asked how making a bowl game this year would compare to last season, Wooden pointed out that the 6–6 record and a bid in the Birmingham Bowl last year was a disappointment after losing the final "five, six, seven?" games of 2021. It was five, but whether it was five or seven, it was a letdown for the Tigers. This year, they feel like they've had to really earn it after a 3-5 start, making it that much more meaningful.

"To get to a bowl game, I feel like it would just show that anything is possible. Looking at where we were middle of the season, nobody thought we could even climb back to even make it to .500," Wooden said. "I'd say (making a bowl game this year would feel different) because we had to scrape and grind for this one more. Last year, you know, we went on a losing streak last five five, six, seven games, but this year, we had to fight for this one more."

Nov 27, 2021; Auburn, AL, USA; Colby Wooden (25) and Marcus Harris (50) reacts after a play during the game between Auburn and Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jacob Taylor/AU Athletics

Team accountability has appeared out of the mist under Williams. All units are rallying together and deciding to fight, as co-offensive coordinator Will Friend said. The fan base believes, and Cadillac is "fired up," as always.

Auburn has scored 57 points in the second half in the past three weeks – more than it had in the six weeks before that (47).  It took Williams no time to figure out the solution to Auburn's second-half woes, and he made that clear after the win versus Western Kentucky, where Auburn was tied 17-17 at half.

"Man, those guys went in there, and I honestly left the room and let them handle it," Williams said. "I heard them talking about self-inflicted wounds, not doing what they were coached to do, not playing team ball, that was it, that was it."

That's it, indeed. Auburn isn't overcomplicating things. The coaching staff is simply giving their playmakers the ball and getting out of the way. That's all it needed to do all along.

Like I said, it's not just passion and energy, it's those things plus Auburn rushing for 259.3 yards per game in its last three contests on 47.6 carries a game. 

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Auburn tried to implement a more balanced offense in the first half versus WKU, with 16 passes and 18 runs, but once it went to a 19-to-4 run-pass ratio in the second half, it racked up 181 rushing yards, 110 more than in the first half. Overall, the offense produced 210 second-half yards, 46 more than the first half. They are playing to their strength for the first time since 2019.

If the ball is in the hands of Tank Bigsby, Jarquez Hunter or even Damari Alston as they rumble up-field, Williams knows the ball is in good hands. Add Robby Ashford's improved ball security into the picture, and Auburn is as dangerous of a team as there is in the nation. 

Yes, Auburn ranks just 46th in the nation with 4.6 yards per carry, but it is tied with Hawaii at 19th in the country in yards a carry in its last three games, at 5.4. That is second to only Florida (5.7 YPC) in the SEC, and 2.5 yards more than Alabama (2.9 YPC) over the last three games prior to last week. 

Tank Bigsby breaks free down the field in Jordan-Hare Stadium against Texas A&M on November 12, 2022. 

There are 24 seniors on this team, and if the 24-0 second-half of Senior Day was any indication, the Tigers have a mission to fulfill in Tuscaloosa. They aren't planning to finish their season on Saturday.

"Look, we're gonna play Auburn football whether that's (against) the Dallas Cowboys or the University of Alabama and the great Nick Saban," Williams said. "These kids not gonna blink. We're gonna celebrate (beating Western Kentucky) tonight. We're gonna flush it tomorrow and we're gonna prepare for the Iron Bowl. We are excited for this opportunity. We want to send these seniors off, man. They deserve our best."

Noah Griffith | Assistant Sports Editor

Noah is a senior in journalism from Salem, Alabama. He joined the Plainsman in August of 2021 after transferring in from Southern Union Community College.

Twitter: @NoahGG01

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