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Auburn football: Tigers try to avoid last year's drop-off

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn knows the feeling of being 5-0 to start the season.

It also knows what it’s like when that all goes wrong.

The No. 8 Tigers, who are unbeaten through five games for the second straight time under coach Gene Chizik, hope to avoid the same fate as last year, when a three-game losing streak served as a jarring dose of reality to their storybook start.

“We know what can happen after being 5-0 if you let your guard down,” left tackle Lee Ziemba said. “Last year, we got to 5-0, and then we fell off the map.

“This year, we’re going to try to prevent that from happening by first acknowledging that we’re not there yet and that we need to keep working.”

Last year’s losing streak came out of nowhere. Fresh off a road win at Tennessee that bumped them up to No. 17 in the Associated Press poll, the Tigers lost to Arkansas, Kentucky and LSU in succession, the start of a 3-5 finish that dropped them into a tie for last place in the SEC West.

Statistically, this year’s team isn’t much different through five games.

Auburn again ranks in the top 20 nationally in scoring, total offense and rushing. Although its rushing defense has taken a step forward (153.4 ypg last year to 92.8 this year), its passing defense has taken a step back (190.8 ypg last year to 241.8 this year).

Even Auburn’s schedule is comparable. The five teams the Tigers played to start last season (Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, West Virginia, Ball State and Tennessee) had an average ranking of 70.6 in Jeff Sagarin’s end-of-season USA Today computer rankings.

This year’s opponents (Arkansas State, MSU, Clemson, South Carolina and Louisiana-Monroe) have an average ranking of 80.8 through five weeks.

So what’s different this time around?

“I know we’re not satisfied,” linebacker Josh Bynes said. “It’s not the same mindset as ’09. It’s 2010. And we just have our mindset that we’re hungry and we’re still motivated for more.

“We’re not satisfied where we’re at in the polls. We’re not satisfied until we not only get to an SEC championship game but win it and also go further beyond that. So we’re just going to take it one day, one snap and one opportunity at a time.”

Experience helps. The Tigers have the same coaching staff and much of the same personnel.

In theory, it should translate to fewer mistakes.

“We’re much more mature,” left guard Mike Berry said. “We don’t make the stupid mistakes we made last year. We’ve put such an emphasis on not making stupid mistakes and stupid penalties. That really killed us last year.”

Whereas an 11-point comeback in a wild, rain-delayed win against West Virginia was Auburn’s only tightly contested game at this point a year ago, the Tigers have faced three stiff tests this season.

In the first month, Auburn has hard-fought victories against Mississippi State, Clemson and South Carolina, all of which were decided in the fourth quarter or overtime. The Tigers needed to rally from 17- and 13-point deficits against the latter two.

“That’s the only way you can find an identity for your team,” Chizik said.

“And we’ve had pretty much every situation you can get. So in that regard I feel really good because I know our football team is going to fight, and I know they’re all-in to the end.”

The Tigers should find out how good they are in the next few weeks.

The same three teams that tripped them up in the middle of last season are on the schedule, with a game at Kentucky this Saturday before home games against Arkansas and LSU the following two weeks.

Auburn thinks it is better prepared this time.

Said Ziemba: “We’re not acting like we’ve achieved anything yet.”

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