War Eagle Extra

Ryan Black commentary: This weekend, Auburn has to stop losing in the SEC

AUBURN, Ala. — In his typical understated fashion, Gus Malzahn said Auburn’s 10-game losing skid in the Southeastern Conference didn’t bother him one bit.

He hasn’t thought about it. He hasn’t lost any sleep over it. He hasn’t even talked about last year with the team.

All of that is easy for him to say, of course.

While the Tigers were in the midst of one of the worst seasons in school history, Malzahn was 400 miles away, busy winning games and (eventually) a Sun Belt Conference title with Arkansas State.

So forgive Auburn’s players who suffered through last season’s meltdown for not sharing Malzahn’s indifference.

“It’s A New Day” can only do so much — and it doesn’t do nearly enough when talk of the team’s double-digit winless streak in conference play surfaces.

Just ask LaDarius Owens. The junior defensive end was elated with the reaction of Auburn’s fans after last week’s 38-9 win over Arkansas State. Countless supporters approached him afterward, expressing the joy that accompanies a successful outing.

But it’s a feeling Auburn hasn’t had versus a conference opponent since Oct. 29, 2011, when it beat Ole Miss 41-23 at home.

Nearly two years and 10 consecutive SEC defeats later, Owens hopes to alter the ongoing narrative this weekend.

“We put (the fans) and ourselves through a lot of turmoil last year, a lot of trouble,” Owens said. “We want to get a win for us as well as for our fans. They deserve it.”

Smartly, Auburn is treating Saturday’s game against Mississippi State far differently than its first two contests this year. Yes, both were important for confidence-building purposes as well as to start developing some semblance of an identity for the team. Obviously, neither of those games had any bearing on the SEC race.

Auburn can beat its other non-conference foes (Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic) and surpass last year’s win total with ease.

If the Tigers are going to silence doubters and live up to their own expectations as the country’s best one-year reclamation project, however, they know it begins and ends with their conference performance.

“Every game counts, but this (decides) if we go to the SEC championship and how far our season will go,” junior running back Tre Mason said. “You have to be locked in and ready to play.”

For Mason and the rest of Auburn’s running backs, that won’t be an issue.

Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant proved they’ve been in midseason form since the opener. They didn’t do anything to change that last week, either; in fact, the ground game got a boost in the form of Nick Marshall, who finally started to flash some of running ability he had been known for in high school and junior college.

To say Auburn is anxiously awaiting its chance to run the ball against Mississippi State’s defense — which gave up 286 yards to Oklahoma State in the season opener — is merely stating the obvious.

Not that anyone affiliated with the Tigers has gone ahead and put a ‘W’ down for this Saturday. All one has to do to expose the folly in that is reference last year’s matchup. The Bulldogs won 28-10 in Starkville, Miss., in a game where the final score wasn’t an accurate telling of the affair. The Tigers’ lone touchdown came on a kickoff return by Onterio McCalebb to open the second half, giving the visitors a fleeting 10-7 lead. That score made up for an offense that seemingly couldn’t get out of its own way, with the blame squarely on the shoulders of Kiehl Frazier, the former quarterback who accounted for five turnovers (three interceptions and two fumbles) by himself.

That was once an oft-cited criticism of Marshall, he of the 20 interceptions in junior college last season. Through two games this year, he has none. (On the flip side, he has two touchdown passes, which both came last week.)

Auburn’s record, perhaps not coincidentally, mirrors Marshall’s touchdown-to-interception total: 2-0.

To make that 3-0 this weekend, Marshall will have to continue to protect the ball and make further strides in the passing game, lest Auburn be rendered one-dimensional. The defense has areas to shore up as well, specifically cutting down on the yardage and first downs it allows.

With that in mind, it wasn’t any surprise to hear Malzahn say the Tigers can’t expect to win Saturday with anything less than a near-perfect effort.

“I think our more experienced guys understand that,” he said. “We play in the best league in college football and any time you play an opponent, you've got to have your best.”

And a flawless showing is especially important when you enter Saturday on a 10-game schneid to teams in the same league. Remember that statistic? The one Malzahn brushed aside so easily?

Something says his attitude will change if the losing streak hits 11.

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