The end of the college football regular season wasn’t what anybody at Auburn wanted, but with five weeks to get some key players healthy, the Tigers could be one of those teams in the postseason that nobody wants to face.
Auburn closed the regular season last Saturday with a 30-12 loss at Alabama in the Iron Bowl, a game the Tigers trailed just 13-9 at the half. Two weeks earlier, they lost 13-7 at Georgia. Their offensive backfield riddled with injuries, the Tigers managed just one touchdown in their last two SEC games. It was a far cry from when they were humming with a healthy Sean White at quarterback during the middle of the season. They won six straight games and averaged 43 points during the final five games of that spree.
The good news on the Plains is that Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told ESPN.com on Sunday that he expects to have everybody back healthy for the bowl game, most notably White.
“I’m proud of our team finishing second in the SEC West, the toughest division in college football,” said Malzahn, whose Tigers started 1-2 after early losses to Clemson and Texas A&M. “We battled through adversity and battled through injuries, and we’ve got a young team. I’m looking forward to our team being healthy again and getting ready for the bowl.”
Auburn (8-4, 5-3 SEC) is positioned nicely for a Sugar Bowl bid, particularly with the Tigers being much closer to full strength when the New Year’s Six bowls are played. The highest ranked SEC team behind Alabama in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s final rankings will get the SEC’s Sugar Bowl spot. Auburn was No. 13 last week. Florida was No. 15 and Tennessee No. 17. All three teams lost, and with the Vols losing to Vanderbilt, they’re likely to fall out of the rankings. The Gators face Alabama in the SEC championship game this Saturday, so that could potentially be a second straight loss for Florida.
LSU could be a team to watch. The Tigers, guided by newly named head coach Ed Orgeron, weren’t ranked last week but closed the regular season with an impressive 54-39 win over Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night. But one thing that should help Auburn if it gets down to those two teams is that Auburn beat LSU in their head-to-head matchup in September.
The College Football Playoff selection committee will unveil its latest rankings on Tuesday night.
The key for Auburn is getting White healthy, and Malzahn told ESPN.com on Sunday he’s confident White will be “full force and ready to go” for the bowl game. White has been plagued by a shoulder injury. He first sustained the injury in the win over Ole Miss, then sat out the first half of the win over Vanderbilt the next week, but came off the bench in the second half to help the Tigers pull out a 23-16 win over the Commodores.
White started at quarterback the next week against Georgia, but reinjured his shoulder on the first series and tried to play through the pain. He wasn’t effective and finished just 6-of-20 for 27 yards and an interception that was returned for a touchdown. He said after the game he should have let the coaches know how badly he was hurting.
The Tigers sat White for the final two games, including last week’s loss at Alabama.
“Sean hung in there and tried to play against Georgia, but just wasn’t close,” Malzahn said. “We weren’t going to rush him back after that, but he should be fine for the bowl game.”
It’s not only White that should be healthy for the bowl game, but three main cogs in the backfield -- running backs Kamryn Pettway (quad) and Kerryon Johnson (ankle) and H-back Chandler Cox (dislocated kneecap) -- will have time to recover after battling injuries in the second half of the season.
Pettway, the SEC’s leading rusher at 124.8 yards per game, returned against Alabama after missing the previous two games against Alabama A&M and Georgia and was held to 17 yards on 12 carries. Auburn finished with just 66 yards on 26 carries against Alabama’s top-ranked run defense after averaging nearly 300 rushing yards coming into the game.
Auburn’s defense, which finished the regular season ranked sixth nationally in scoring defense (15.6 points per game), will also get a boost for the bowl game when senior defensive back Josh Holsey returns. He leads the Tigers with three interceptions but missed the Alabama game with an ankle injury.
“It was a close group, and you could see that in the way our team battled against a challenging schedule,” Malzahn said. “We weathered the storm early. Our leadership took over, and the guys really responded. We look forward to getting everybody back and playing some more football this year.”