Yes, seventh-ranked Auburn has only played five games and yes, the Tigers (5-0, 2-0 SEC) still have the bulk of their back-loaded schedule remaining.
But the Tigers’ 56-23 trouncing of Mississippi State Saturday night proved that this team just might have what it takes to be a serious contender in the SEC.
Here’s what the win means for the Tigers going forward:
The Tigers put together arguably their best offensive performance to date, and with a marquee match up in Gainesville, Florida with No. 10 Florida looming, it could not have come at a better time.
Auburn scored touchdowns on six of their seven first-half drives. Receiver Seth Williams eclipsed 120 receiving yards before halftime, and quarterback Bo Nix opened the third quarter by throwing a 30-yard score to the sophomore, which put the Tigers up by 40 points.
Let’s talk about Nix for a second, because the freshman looks far improved from the first-time starter who took the field in Arlington, Texas against the Oregon Ducks. He certainly did not look like a freshman making his fifth collegiate start on Saturday night.
Nix threw for 335 yards and two touchdowns, both to Williams, and ran for another touchdown His deep ball worked against the Bulldogs in ways it did not in the previous week against Texas A&M. Nix’ longest completion, a 48-yarder to speedy receiver Anthony Schwartz, was inches away from being a third touchdown.
““I think you see him getting more comfortable every game and every snap. The game gets slower and was really accurate with his throws. He made some very good throws on intermediate and deep routes,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “The good thing is, things are starting to slow down for him. There are still things he has to work on but every game it looks like he’s getting more comfortable.”
Nix’s receivers are finally getting healthy.
Eight Auburn players caught a pass Saturday. Some of that was due to the extreme scoreline, but the comfort of having a fully stocked receiving corp showed in Nix’s play. The freshman showed a calmness in the pocket he had seldom displayed up to this point.
Then there’s the run game, which set the tone for the Tigers’ massive night on offense.
Running back JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow ran for 55 yards, but 30 of those came on Auburn’s first offensive snap, a play in which Whitlow exploded through the right side of the line and darted in for a touchdown, smacking into the pylon -- and Mississippi State’s actual bulldog mascot.
The Tigers ran for 217 yards. Nix finished as the Tigers’ leading rusher, with 56 yards.
“Once the quarterback starts to run, they (the defense) have to account for you, so they have to be ready for you to pull it,” Nix said. “So, they never really know, and they are always off-balance a little bit. That way, you can block less people and run on others.”
The Tigers defense was dialed in Saturday night.
Auburn outgained the Bulldogs by more than 200 yards and forced two turnovers. Mississippi State did not break the 20-point mark until there was under one minute left in the game. The Tigers held Mississippi State to 3-of-12 on third down and forced two turnovers, which helped as the Tigers jumped out to a quick 21-0 first-quarter lead.
The Bulldogs’ first three drives ended with two punts and a fumble. Mississippi State scored on just 4-of-14 drives.
“We came in last Sunday and our coaches told us we’d have to stop their run game because last year that really hurt us and today we held them to almost a third of what we did last year,” Tigers defensive end Marlon Davidson said. “I’m very confident in my defense and I think we played a great game.”
Tough road ahead
With the latest AP Top 25 Poll released Sunday afternoon, the Tigers’ first trip to Gainesville since 2007 is officially a top-10 matchup, with ESPN’s College GameDay making the trip. Auburn leads the all-time series 43-38-2, and has won the previous three games (though the programs haven’t met since 2007).
It does not get any easier for the Tigers, who have arguably one of the tougher schedules in the country.
The Florida trip kicks off a three-week road trip that ends with a matchup against No. 5 LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And the Tigers close the season with rivalry games against No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia.
That’s a stretch that would make the most optimistic fans shudder. But if the Auburn plays the remaining teams the way they played Mississippi State, Nix continues to improve and the defensive front keeps shutting down opposing offenses, those fans can rest a bit easier.
“It’s big. We take one game at a time, but this game against Mississippi State is huge,” Tigers safety Daniel Thomas said. “Our coaches asked us to come out here and play hard and we did that.”