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Michael Niziolek: Bye week has Auburn football at crossroads

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn described his team’s “spirited practice” Tuesday night in a tone that was anything but lively.

He knew what was on deck — an onslaught of questions regarding the situation surrounding Duke Williams and his dismissal from the team.

The Tigers headed into this bye week eager for rest and an opportunity to hit a hard restart button on the rest the season.

Whether Williams’ talents will be missed or not is open for debate, but added question marks is the last thing Auburn needed with its season at a crossroads.

Auburn heads to Lexington next week to start a two-game stretch on the road. It faces Kentucky on Thursday night then takes on Arkansas at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium the following week.

Neither opponent looks like SEC championship material.

Last week, Kentucky escaped FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky in overtime. Despite the presence of experienced quarterback Patrick Towles, the Wildcats are shaky on offense.

Arkansas’ bluster at the beginning of the season backfired when it dropped three games in a row starting with a loss to Toledo in Week 2. The Razorbacks have proved they can run the ball but little else. On the season, Arkansas has scored only one touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Avoiding a misstep could determine what direction the season goes, and if the Tigers will avoid a similar fate to the 2012 team that finished 3-9 (0-8 SEC).

Auburn players who were on that team have steadfastly denied the comparisons that have started to creep in, but another loss would only intensify concern the bottom is falling out for a program that started the season ranked in the top five.

“In 2012 I could sense people were giving up,” senior defensive back Jonathan Jones. “No one’s lost faith, no one’s lost hope here. Everyone’s fighting. Practice is still live and everyone’s jumping around and excited. Any time you have energy, that’s the main point. People want to bring energy to practice and come out and play.”

After an off day Monday, Auburn’s coaching staff opened up competition for playing time. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson is getting a chance to work his way back into the starting lineup over Sean White, who started the last two games.

Malzahn said they simplified practice going “old school” with one-on-one drills as they look to improve in all three phases.

“It was really focused on just us getting better,” Malzahn said.

The phrase has become a team slogan of sorts, but one that won’t have any meaning if Auburn doesn’t show tangible improvements coming off 10 days worth of practice and film study.

As much as the coaching staff has tried to shoulder the blame for the Tigers’ struggles, co-captain Jonathan Wallace said the players wouldn’t have anyone else to blame if they can’t turn the season around.

“We have to do whatever it takes to reach our goals and aspirations playing this game,” Wallace said. “We’re willing to do whatever it takes to make sure this team gets back to winning football.”

Michael Niziolek covers Auburn football for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

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