AUBURN, Ala. — As Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium slowly filled, a small group of Auburn fans gathered in the corner of the upper deck, hoping to catch a glimpse of Alabama’s struggles at South Carolina on the TV in a nearby luxury box.
After a late Gamecocks touchdown put the game out of reach, they burst into cheers, knowing full well the SEC West was wide open again.
The fall of the No. 1 team in the nation — one that had reeled off 19 straight wins — gave renewed hope to a handful of teams given little chance to unseat the defending national champs at the season’s outset.
Suddenly LSU (4-0 SEC) and Auburn (3-0) find themselves in an unfamiliar position, ahead of the Crimson Tide in the SEC West standings.
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“We constantly talk about not letting your circumstances dictate how you proceed, good or bad,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “We just try to carry on.”
Plenty of games remain that will decide the West’s representative in Atlanta for the conference title game. Auburn hosts Arkansas this Saturday, before LSU comes to town the following week. LSU hosts Alabama on Nov. 7.
Two key games will be played on the regular season’s final weekend — Arkansas at LSU and Auburn at Alabama.
“You have to take small steps,” Auburn quarterback Cam Newton cautioned, “because if you start trying to skip, you can fall.”
The SEC is in a strange place, with a cluster of teams just outside the top-five. Auburn is the highest-ranked team at No. 7, the lowest the top SEC team has been ranked since October 2006.
In the Associated Press poll, the Tigers are following by No. 8 Alabama, No. 9 LSU and No. 12 Arkansas.
Auburn (6-0, 3-0 SEC) is trying to enjoy the moment while remaining level-headed about how much of the season remains.
“Every week will be business as usual,” Chizik said.
Chizik’s restraint might have more to do with the opponent coming to Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday than anything.
Led by rocket-armed Ryan Mallett, the SEC leader in passing (1,748 yards, 13 touchdowns) and total offense (344.8 ypg), the Razorbacks will try to get back into the thick of the division race.
Arkansas lost to Alabama two weeks ago but matches up well against Auburn. The Razorbacks have the third-best passing offense in the country.
The Tigers are 91st nationally in pass defense, having struggled to stop a number of teams from gaining large chunks of yards on underneath routes.
Arkansas presents a bigger challenge.
Auburn matches up with a Heisman Trophy contender of its own in Newton, who added to his resume with a 408-yard, four touchdown effort against Kentucky.
Newton leads the SEC in rushing with 672 yards and is second nationally in pass efficiency (180.73). His 21 touchdowns accounted for (12 passing, 9 rushing) lead the nation.
Newton again brushed off any Heisman talk, saying his teammates are working just as hard to keep Auburn in the mix.
“For me to be selfish this day and say, ‘I’m the Heisman,’ or I’m being noticed as the Heisman Trophy winner,” he said, “that’s not fair to everybody else that’s doing the same thing that I’m doing and not getting credit for it.”