The Auburn Tigers are heading in the right direction from a win-loss standpoint but the wrong direction in the national rankings.
After opening with a slightly shaky 31-24 escape of Louisville in the Chick-fil-A Classic, Auburn avoided the most embarrassing defeat in program history last weekend in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Trailing Championship Subdivision power Jacksonville State 20-13 with less than a minute left in regulation, the Tigers tied the game and then prevailed 27-20 in overtime.
Voters were not impressed, as Auburn plummeted from No. 6 to No. 18 in the Associated Press poll entering this week's trip to No. 13 LSU.
"From a player standpoint, you know when you don't play your best," Auburn third-year coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday in a news conference. "The bottom line is that we are 2-0. They know we can play a whole lot better, and our coaches do, too. We expect to play better. That is behind us and we are looking forward to going to LSU.
"That is the way you look at it when you are in the moment. You look forward, and you do everything you can to improve."
SEC Saturday schedule
noon - Nevada at Texas A&M, SEC Network
noon - UConn at Missouri, ESPN
3:30 - Auburn at LSU, CBS
4:00 - Northwestern St. at Miss. St., SEC Network
4:00 - Austin Peay at Vanderbilt, SEC Network Alt.
6:00 - South Carolina at Georgia, ESPN
7:00 - Texas Tech at Arkansas, ESPN2
7:00 - W. Carolina at Tennessee, ESPNU
7:30 - Florida at Kentucky, SEC Network
9:15 - Ole Miss at Alabama, ESPN
Auburn, which won the 2010 national championship and finished runner-up in 2013, was picked this summer to win its third Southeastern Conference title in six seasons. That prediction was made despite the Tigers fading to an 8-5 finish last season and having to replace key offensive personnel.
The optimism for this season was based on two primary principles — Jeremy Johnson successfully replacing Nick Marshall as the starting quarterback, and former Florida head coach Will Muschamp revamping a defense that was dreadful last November.
Johnson was billed as a Heisman Trophy contender, but his candidacy is all but over now that the 6-foot-5, 235-pound junior from Montgomery has thrown five interceptions in 53 passes. Marcus Mariota, last year's Heisman winner, threw four interceptions in 15 games.
"I need to help Jeremy," Malzahn said after Saturday's escape. "I need to help put him in some better situations out there. It all works together, but at the end of the game, when we needed it, he made plays to help us win."
Malzahn did not digress from that main message, adding a few minutes later, "I'll say it for a third time. I need to help him."
"I have a lot of confidence in myself and my teammates," Johnson said when it was his turn to face reporters. "I never get down on myself. As long as they're on my side, I feel good."
The throwing inconsistencies coupled with the inability to match Marshall's running talents have hindered Auburn's offense to this point. The normally high-octane Tigers rank just 77th nationally in yards per play.
Johnson did, as Malzahn pointed out, handle the pressure well against Jacksonville State. In the final drive of regulation and the overtime period, he was 4-for-5 passing for 28 yards and a touchdown.
The early-season bright spot offensively for the Tigers has been sophomore tailback Peyton Barber, who was lost amid Auburn's preseason hype but produced 115 yards against Louisville and 125 against JSU.
"Peyton Barber stepped up in the fourth quarter and took over the game when we needed someone to," Malzahn said.
As for the defense, Auburn has been opportunistic on occasion and produced points in the opener on Justin Garrett's 82-yard fumble return. Yet the Tigers have allowed more than 400 yards in each of their first two games, which became commonplace last season.
"I'd rather be judged when the season is over," Muschamp said in a news conference Sunday night. "Two games in is a little quick. We're 2-0, and the best thing about that is you've got a chance to be 3-0. We see a lot of things that are very correctable that we need to improve on.
"We haven't played consistently to a standard, but I feel like we will."
The Tigers were especially brutal on third downs last weekend, allowing the Gamecocks to convert six of their first nine opportunities. Auburn was better down the stretch, stopping JSU on six of its final eight third-down tries.
Auburn played last week without defensive end Carl Lawson and safety Tray Matthews, while Garrett missed most of the game with a strained quadriceps. Muschamp expects all three back for this week's trip to Baton Rouge, though Malzahn described Lawson on Tuesday as "day-to-day" and also announced that cornerback Josh Holsey was out for the season with a torn ACL.
Given that Muschamp is a former LSU defensive coordinator, he knows the more players he can travel, the merrier.
"It's going to be hot in Baton Rouge," he said. "It's never been cold there."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.