AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s next two weeks couldn’t be more different.
Next weekend, the team will be on the road for the second time this season, facing a ranked Texas A&M squad that won 63-21 in Jordan-Hare Stadium last season behind eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. But before they can turn their attention to the Aggies, the Tigers must get through their homecoming game Saturday versus Western Carolina.
Given the stark contrast between its next two foes — Texas A&M is ranked No. 9 in the latest Associated Press poll while Western Carolina has lost 31 straight games against Division I schools — some might believe the Tigers used part of this week to start making preparations for the Aggies.
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“There's a lot of different philosophies. Some people just want to spend a week and just work on the next opponent and some people don't,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “We're more of the mind-set that we want to treat it (like a regular game.) We want to try to keep things consistent for our guys. So for the most part, it's going to be a normal game week. We're preparing for one opponent and we're not really going to work ahead at all.”
Gus Malzahn even admitted that he was beginning to sound “like a broken record,” but his goal this week, as it is every week, is to see his team improve.
“It doesn't make a difference who we're playing, Ole Miss or Western Carolina,” Auburn's head coach said. “We're going to go about it the same way. We're going to have the same approach to practice with the same intensity.”
That thought process has flowed from the top down. Junior running back Tre Mason said focusing on the Catamounts hasn’t been difficult since the coaching staff has harped on the importance of taking things week-by-week “for a long time.”
With that in mind, he said the Aggies are the least of his concerns.
“We're worried about Western Carolina and us getting better,” he said. “It's not tough to manage. Of course, there's going to be a little thought in the back of your mind, but nobody is really thinking about that right now.”
The primary goal for Mark Speir this weekend is to make sure his team departs Jordan-Hare Stadium in one piece. The second-year head coach of the Catamounts acknowledged that his team wants to acquit itself well Saturday. But squaring off against an FBS opponent for the third time in seven games — after losing to Marshall and Virginia Tech earlier this year — has been tough for the Southern Conference school to deal with.
With 14 true freshmen lining the two-deep depth chart and a majority of its conference schedule ahead, it’s no surprise Speir said staying healthy is paramount.
“You're just always worried (about injuries),” he said. “Everybody in the country is beaten up, banged-up. You had a big depth chart at the beginning of the year that has dwindled. That's the thing playing an FBS school this late with five SoCon games remaining after it, that you want to come out of this game healthy.”
Auburn has injuries of its own to contend with, as senior defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker decided earlier this week to take a redshirt and sit out the rest of the season while junior linebacker Justin Garrett has already been ruled out for Saturday's game as well. Nick Marshall, opening the door for Jeremy Johnson to take the field with the first-team offense Saturday for the first time in his career.
Regardless of who plays, the Tigers will be expected to win handily. But summarily dismissing the Catamounts would be a mistake, according to Gabe Wright. As the junior defensive tackle pointed out, it shouldn’t be hard for Tigers to take their opponent seriously.
All they need to do is look around the country and see the upsets that occur every week.
“If anything, there’s been a ton of Division II, FCS schools that have beaten Division I teams,” he said. “I don’t have to name them. There definitely won’t be any overlooking from Auburn this week.”