The Auburn Tigers are again 4-2 and showing signs of a turnaround going into the Arkansas game.
The No. 21 Tigers are trying to avoid a repeat of last season’s deflating outcome Saturday against the No. 17 Razorbacks. They lost that game 54-46 in four overtimes to start a 1-4 finishing swoon in Southeastern Conference games.
Auburn (4-2, 1-1) rides a three-game winning streak into the rematch, including SEC West victories over LSU and Mississippi State.
The defense has been consistently solid and the once-struggling offense has come to life in beating Louisiana-Monroe and the Bulldogs by a combined 96-21. The Tigers entered the Top 25 before last week’s open date, but recent history proves it’s way too early to proclaim this a successful season.
“The good thing about this team is our leadership is very strong,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “The leadership will definitely keep everybody grounded. They’re on a mission. They really helped us through the tough times. There were no chinks in our armor, and it really starts with our leaders. They’ve got a good pulse for our team. Our younger guys really listen to them.”
And the offense, especially, is full of younger guys. Underclassmen have accounted for 88 percent of the Tigers’ offensive yards during the first half of the season, led by a trio of sophomores — quarterback Sean White and tailbacks Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson.
They’ve helped lead a turnaround since a 1-2 start that included competitive losses to No. 4 Clemson and No. 6 Texas A&M.
Malzahn has since handed over play calling duties to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, with positive results so far. He said the Tigers have improved “quite a bit” since the Texas A&M loss.
The defense has gone three straight games without allowing a rushing touchdown for the first time since 2008. White has completed 77 percent of his passes over the past three games, stabilizing the offense and his own status as the No. 1 quarterback. Malzahn played three quarterbacks early in the season opener against Clemson.
But now come two bigger tests — the Razorbacks ( 5-2, 1-2) and at No. 23 Mississippi. Auburn could emerge as an SEC West contender or a team scrambling to secure a winning record like last year.
White sustained a knee injury against Arkansas but led a last-minute drive toward a tying field goal in the fourth quarter to force overtime. Not pulling that game out “still makes me mad,” Malzahn said.
It’s one of several close games Malzahn and Auburn players could point to during the offseason as a key to reversing the Tigers’ fortunes.
“That was kind of one of our messages during the summer is finish games like that,” guard Alex Kozan said. “Find a way to put ourselves over the edge and win those games.”
NOTE: The open date allowed injured players like center Xavier Dampeer and Johnson to heal from ankle injuries. Dampeer has missed the past two games. Johnson was limited to three carries against Mississippi State but is practicing this week.