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Auburn running back Kamryn Pettway (36) runs past Mississippi State defensive backs Mark McLaurin (41) and Brandon Bryant (1) for a first down in the first half of an NCAA college football game , Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, in Starkville, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The Auburn Tigers played three quarterbacks during the first half of the season, switched play-callers and watched Clemson, Texas A&M and LSU celebrate on their home field.

Under normal circumstances, that would be a recipe for mediocrity or worse in Gus Malzahn's fourth season as head coach, but Auburn is 4-2 and No. 23 in the Associated Press poll entering its open date. The Tigers are coming off a thorough 38-14 pummeling of Mississippi State in Starkville, a game Auburn led 35-0 at halftime.

"We're getting better, and our team knows it," Malzahn said in a news conference. "Our coaches know it. We've got to continue to do that, because very few teams in college football actually get better throughout the year, and we've got a chance to be one of those teams.

"We're still learning, but we know a lot more about our players than we did, and I feel good about where we are. We've got a chance to finish this thing strong."

Auburn's 35-point halftime lead was its largest in a Southeastern Conference road game since a 35-0 margin over Florida in 1970.

The Tigers entered Malzahn's fourth year on a downward trajectory, following their magical run to the BCS championship game in 2013 with an 8-5 record in 2014 and a 7-6 mark last season. They opened with a 19-13 home loss to Clemson, with Malzahn using Sean White, Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III at quarterback.

That concept faltered, with Auburn producing just 262 yards and getting intercepted twice, so Malzahn settled on White. A 6-foot, 200-pound redshirt sophomore, White does not pose the same running threat as predecessors Cam Newton and Nick Marshall, but he has been stellar from an accuracy standpoint.

Since struggling in the opener, White has completed 82 of 111 passes (73.9 percent) for 1,055 yards with six touchdowns and one interception that was the fault of the receiver.

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"We're throwing and catching it well," White said. "We just need to keep it up."

Auburn's offensive strength for 2016 coming out of last season figured to be its ground game headed by tailbacks Peyton Barber, Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas, but Barber bypassed his final two college seasons and is now with Tampa Bay and Thomas transferred to Jacksonville State. Robinson was dismissed from the program in August.

Kerryon Johnson and former fullback Kamryn Pettway remained when the dust settled and have combined for 1,043 yards and 10 touchdowns, with Johnson averaging 5.1 yards per rush and Pettway 5.5. Pettway pounded out 169 yards and three touchdowns on 39 carries at Mississippi State.

The Tigers were 1-2 after a 29-16 loss to Texas A&M on Sept. 17, and they hosted LSU the following week. The visiting Tigers thought they had won the game on a Danny Etling touchdown pass and conducted a sizable end-zone celebration, but LSU didn't get the snap off before time expired, leaving Auburn an 18-13 victor.

"The LSU week was a big week," Malzahn said. "We needed to answer the bell, and our guys did that. It confirmed what I already knew about our team and our staff. Now we're at a point where we're looking forward to getting better."

Malzahn turned over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee before the LSU game and this past Saturday said, "We've been more balanced since we made the switch. I think it's a very good thing moving forward."

Keeping Auburn competitive through the ups and downs this season has been a defense under first-year coordinator Kevin Steele. The Tigers strengthened late last season under then-coordinator Will Muschamp and have held 11 of their last 13 foes to 20 points or less, with Alabama (29) last year and Texas A&M (29) last month being the exceptions.

The team's most touted defender, redshirt junior defensive end Carl Lawson, has five sacks in the last three games.

"Every week, our defense has done something that's the sign of a big-time defense," Malzahn said. "Every week, they answer the bell. They have a lot of confidence."

Said junior cornerback Carlton Davis: "We're feeling unstoppable right now. The way the season started, we continued to fight back, and it's finally going our way."

Auburn's 4-2 record could become 4-4 if the Tigers fail to tame Arkansas and Ole Miss in its next two games. The Tigers have struggled the past decade against Georgia and end their regular season at Alabama, so improving noticeably on last season's 7-6 mark could still be a challenge.

What is certain is that Malzahn's Tigers look a lot more formidable in mid-October than they did in early September.

"I really like the momentum we have," Malzahn said. "We've talked about getting better each week, and we've done that. I think we're in a good spot."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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