Just two weeks ago, Auburn was 7-1, fresh off a last-minute victory at No. 4 Ole Miss, and one of the few teams in college football that controlled its own destiny. There was a growing belief that the Tigers could navigate through their treacherous schedule and represent the SEC in the four-team playoff.
That’s all gone now. Back-to-back losses have knocked Auburn out of both the playoff hunt and the SEC West race. The team hit its low point Saturday with a 34-7 loss at Georgia, the worst loss under Gus Malzahn since he took over last season.
“Anytime you get beat convincingly, as a head coach, you’re going to try to solve the issues moving forward,” Malzahn said. “We just have to be big boys. We got it handed to us, and that’s uncharacteristic. We have to bounce back.”
The losses might have been uncharacteristic for Auburn, who had lost only three games under Malzahn, but the struggles began much before the last two weeks.
It was evident last month when the Tigers suffered their first loss at Mississippi State. They turned the ball over on their first two possessions and fell in a hole that they could never climb out of. The offense turned the ball over four times in the game, and the defense, which had been so good up until that point, allowed 469 total yards and 38 points to the Bulldogs.
It has been those same problems -- slow starts, turnovers and a lack of defense -- that have plagued Auburn over the past month.
Quarterback Nick Marshall and his four touchdowns helped the Tigers survive a scare against South Carolina, though the defense still allowed 551 total yards. And if not for a fumble at the goal line by Ole Miss, Auburn might be below .500 in conference play right now.
The magic finally ran out against Texas A&M last week. In a game where the Aggies jumped out 14-0 and led 35-17 at the half, Auburn battled back and still had multiple chances to win. But it fumbled that opportunity away not once, but twice in the final minutes. The late turnovers compounded by the slow start and the inability to get stops cost the Tigers.
This past Saturday’s game might have been the most surprising, though. Auburn had never lost back-to-back games under Malzahn, and instead of responding to adversity like it had time and time again, it was run out of the building by a Georgia team that was dismantled by Florida just two weeks ago.
“I’d say probably this is the first time we didn’t [respond to adversity],” Malzahn said. “We responded last week. We just didn’t get it done at the very end.”
How does this team respond now? They’re coming off-to-back losses. They have no shot at winning the conference or making the playoff. They’re basically playing to see which middle-of-the-road bowl game they can earn an invitation to.
“All you can do is control what you have moving forward,” Malzahn said. “We’re disappointed we got beat. We expected to play better, and we didn’t. In college football, you have to go on to the next week.
“The thing about Auburn and why I’m here is we’re going to have high expectations. That’s just the way it’s going to go. You’re disappointed when you don’t reach some of your goals, and that’s part of it. But we’re always going to have high expectations.”
That expectation now is to beat Samford this Saturday and finish the season with a win at Alabama in the Iron Bowl. If anything could salvage a disappointing season for Auburn fans, it would be a win against their in-state rival.
However, unless the Tigers clean up some of the issues that have hurt them over the last month and a half, there won’t be an opportunity for a kick-six at the end of the game.