Ryan Black commentary: Win over A&M proves Auburn a legitimate national title contender

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 25, 2013 

Auburn Texas A&M

After moving from the middle to the weakside, Kris Frost will enter the fall as a starter.

TODD J. VAN EMST — Auburn University

AUBURN, Ala.Dee Ford’s candor is admirable.

In today’s sports world, coach-speak unfortunately dominates. From “taking it one game at a time” to “only focusing on the opponent in front of us,” the grip that tired, bland clichés hold on the sports world is unquestioned. Ford, thankfully, wanted no part of that. Auburn’s senior defensive end knew his team had leaped to No. 11 in the latest Associated Press poll following its 45-41 victory over Texas A&M last week.

And he wasn’t afraid to admit it.

“Of course you look at it,” he said. “You can't help but hear about it from fans, Twitter (and) with all the social media. We try to block it out. But I think I would be lying if I told you I didn't look and see that we were No. 11 in the nation. That's pretty huge.”

That doubles as an apt description for the Tigers’ win over the Aggies: huge. Or if you prefer, pick another synonym.

Perhaps “enormous” or “monumental?”

Regardless of the verbiage employed, it was easy to interpret the game’s significance.

It was Gus Malzahn’s first signature victory as head coach. It gave the Tigers their first road win in two years. It was revenge for last season’s embarrassing defeat to the Aggies, which saw the visitors march into Jordan-Hare Stadium and decimate the Tigers 63-21 — though the “payback” angle was understandably muted in the joyous postgame celebration.

Those pale in comparisons to the game’s biggest takeaway: Auburn is a legitimate contender.

Not only can these Tigers win the SEC West and the league title, but with a little help, a national championship push can’t be discounted, either.

Or as Ford put it after the game, “We’re fighting for different things now.”

The Tigers had already won a few battles thanks to their 5-1 start, most notably earning back the respect of those outside the program who had written them off after last season. Now 6-1 and with five games left in the regular season, Auburn will try to carve out a place for itself on the short list of national title game hopefuls.

All the Tigers have to do? Keep doing what they have been doing, which means continuing to lean on a running game that has been nearly unstoppable. Auburn is averaging an SEC-best 300.1 yards per game, more than 60 yards ahead of second-place Missouri. Just as it was at the outset of the season, the three-pronged junior triumvirate of Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant leads the way. But the past few games — not counting the semi-exhibition that was Western Carolina — has proved Mason is the marquee back. Mason has totaled 74 carries in Auburn’s last three SEC contests, compared to 26 combined for Artis-Payne and Grant. At the same time, quarterback Nick Marshall has finally started to find his rhythm in the running game as well, with back-to-back 100-plus yard efforts, versus Ole Miss and Texas A&M, respectively.

Has the passing game developed into the threat the coaching staff wants to see? Has it even found the No. 1 receiver it called for repeatedly during fall camp and early in the season?

Mark that down as a “no” on both counts.

But the more important question is, has it mattered?

Mark that down as a “no,” too.

When you have a running game as versatile as Auburn’s, it can mask deficiencies elsewhere. And it doesn’t hurt that when the Tigers have elected to pass, the line has been fantastic, allowing an SEC-low six sacks.

If the offense’s identity has been forged on its running game, the defense is typified by its ability to step up when it counts. Does it give up yards with the best of them? Yes, as its 428.1-yards-per-game average (12th in the 14-team SEC) attests. But when opponents get close to the goal line, Auburn shines, allowing just 22 points per contest (third in the SEC) and a 70.8 percent conversion rate in the red zone, second to only Alabama in the SEC.

And forget about scoring on the Tigers in the fourth quarter. In seven games this year, Auburn has given up just 23 points.

So the ingredients are in place for what seemed like an unthinkable run at the national title when the season began.

Well, at least to everyone other the Tigers themselves.

“I think we can win it all,” Ford said. “You know, there's no reason to say that we can't. We said we wanted to have the biggest turnaround in college football. Why not win it all?”

Of course, Ford’s forthrightness isn’t surprising.

With each passing week and new victory, the same could be said of a Tiger team that has changed its stripes from an underdog to a contender.

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