AUBURN, Ala. -- The schedule, lined up with four straight top-20 SEC teams, does Auburn no favors this month, a tougher stretch than the Tigers faced at any point last season.
It will establish one thing, though: Everyone will know exactly what Auburn is made of.
“It’s going to separate the men from the boys,” cornerback T’Sharvan Bell said. “Hopefully, I don’t have no boys fighting next to me.”
Auburn (3-1, 1-0 SEC) starts the stretch by playing in Columbia, S.C., this afternoon against No. 10 South Carolina (4-0, 2-0) in a rematch of last year’s SEC championship game.
The Tigers pounded the Gamecocks 56-17 in Atlanta, a mere speed bump on their way to the national championship game. Auburn beat South Carolina twice last season, pulling out a 35-27 win in September after trailing by 13.
“I think everybody just wants to beat Auburn this year for what we did last year,” cornerback Ryan White said. “Anywhere we go is going to be hard. So I’m not expecting this game to be too much different.”
This year’s Auburn team has a much different look than the one that went 14-0 and won the national championship, however, working in 16 new starters and having played 26 true and redshirt freshmen.
Auburn has struggled to move the ball consistently on offense, ranking 78th nationally in total yardage (373.7 ypg). Last week against lowly Florida Atlantic, the offense accounted for only 23 points (seven came off an interception) and finished with 315 yards.
“We were just overconfident about the game,” said running back Mike Dyer, who coaches have pledged to get more involved in the offense “One of those games where we thought we could just go out there and win big.”
Defensively, Auburn is in rough shape. After the Owls gained 307 yards last week (more than three times their season average), the Tigers’ defensive stats actually improved to 477.5 yards per game. That’s still worst in the SEC and 110th nationally.
“We still have a long season left,” Chizik said. “We’re only a third of the way through it, so I don’t think that we’ve encountered all of the things that we’re going to encounter, and I think that you see young guys grow as different circumstances unfold.
“I’m proud of them. I think they’ve grown up a lot without much choice. I think they’ve done well up to this point.”
Injuries will make things tougher. Defensive end Dee Ford is out for the season after undergoing surgery, and Trovon Reed, the team’s second-leading receiver, will not make the trip because of a shoulder injury. Cornerback Chris Davis will be a game-time decision.
It’s part of the reason Auburn enters the game a 10-point underdog, something it can expect in the other three matchups against ranked foes this month -- at No. 18 Arkansas, vs. No. 12 Florida and at No. 1 LSU.
“What they think really doesn’t have anything to do with us,” defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “We’re a family in our locker room. We know exactly what we need to do to be successful, and we’re just going to go out there and do it. We couldn’t care less what outsiders think.”
The Tigers used an acronym last October that still applies: OVER, as in October Victories Equal Respect.
“That’s something we’re going to have to carry with us this week,” left guard Jared Cooper said.
“October is by far our toughest month. I’m sure it is for a lot of people. It’s going to be a grind.”
But not an unexpected one.
Said Eguae: This is what we all signed up for.”