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LSU photo by Gus Stark / LSU football players huddle before Saturday's 48-11 loss to Auburn that saddled the reigning national champion with a 2-3 record at the midway mark of its 10-game regular season.

Auburn sophomore quarterback Bo Nix now has at least one victory over every Southeastern Conference Western Division foe following Saturday's 48-11 surprise hammering of LSU.

Asked what winning this year's Tigers versus Tigers showdown meant, Nix said, "It's huge. They're the defending national champions, and you don't get bad in one year. That's for sure."

Thus begins today's topic.

Several months after making SEC history as the first 15-0 national champion, Ed Orgeron's Tigers are 2-3 and defining instability. A natural drop-off was expected after LSU set a league record with 14 selections during the 2020 NFL draft, but the Tigers represent the only win for Mississippi State in Mike Leach's debut season and have now endured their most lopsided loss to Auburn in what often has been the SEC's most competitive rivalry of the last quarter century.

Not trying to provide a gargantuan panic button here, but LSU has yet to face Alabama and still has trips to Texas A&M and Florida, so 4-6 might be as good as this season gets.

"We've got to be constructive," Orgeron said early Saturday night. "We've got to stay positive. We've got to identify what the problems are and come up with a solution. We've got a lot of young players out there, and it's a new team."

Orgeron displayed bewilderment after Auburn rushed for 206 yards and held his team to 32. He added that Myles Brennan will be the starting quarterback when he's healthy enough and defended freshmen TJ Finley and Max Johnson by stating, "I can't expect them to perform if we can't block."

The return of Bo Pelini as defensive coordinator has been a nightmare, with LSU having surrendered 44 points to Mississippi State, 45 at Missouri and now 48 at Auburn, which averaged more than 10 yards on first down.

"I'm always evaluating, but we've got to go through the season and give everybody a chance," Orgeron said. "At the end of the season, we'll evaluate everything."

Of the SEC's 21 teams to win the Associated Press national championship, none of them had losing records the following season. The worst mark by a defending AP champ was TCU in 1939, when the Horned Frogs followed an 11-0 season with Davey O'Brien at quarterback with a 3-7 record without him.

***

How much has this 10-game SEC season, consisting solely of league opponents and no Abeline Christians or Toledos, affected the standings?

Only five league teams — Alabama (6-0), Georgia (4-1), Texas A&M (4-1), Auburn (4-2) and Florida (3-1) — possess winning records, with a whopping nine programs trying to reach .500. Five of those nine are a whisker away, with Arkansas, LSU, Missouri, South Carolina and Tennessee each 2-3 after having been 2-2.

The SEC hasn't finished with just five teams with winning records since 1991, which was the last year in which it contained 10 members.

***

Auburn easily played its best game of the season Saturday but now has its lone open date. After a performance in which all phases clicked like never before, do the Tigers wish they could keep going?

"Yes and no," Nix said. "The confidence level is really high after you play a game like that, and we're getting better and better as a whole. Our confidence is extremely high on offense right now, but at the same time, six straight SEC games are brutal.

"It's time for us to regroup and to recharge our batteries, so I think it will be good for us."

Gus Malzahn's Tigers returned to the national rankings Sunday, checking in at No. 24 in the AP poll. Malzahn bristled a bit Saturday when asked if it was nice to have a resounding victory after recent triumphs against Arkansas and Ole Miss had some clouds of doubt because of controversial calls in the fourth quarter.

"It didn't have a cloud of doubt for us," Malzahn said. "When the whistle blows, you stop, and I feel like we earned both of those victories, so we didn't feel that way even if other media said it. Today, it was good to have a game in control midway through the third quarter."

***

In a league with entertaining news conferences provided by Mike Leach and Nick Saban, credit Florida's Dan Mullen for creating the most bizarre one so far this season following Saturday night's 41-17 mauling of Missouri. Mullen conducted the media session while dressed up as Darth Vader, with most of the questions directed his way concerning an ugly halftime brawl that resulted in three player ejections, including two Gators.

"Absolutely zero of that carried over into the second half or the postgame, and that shows the great job by the players and coaches of both teams," Mullen said through his Vader mask. "I don't think either side would say, 'That's what we wanted to happen,' and neither side condones it. It was an unfortunate situation that happened."

Mullen said his role was to prevent additional players getting involved that could risk their status for this week's game against Georgia in Jacksonville, adding, "We're already a paper-thin outfit," due to recent issues with the coronavirus.

***

Vanderbilt's return to action following a three-week absence due to COVID spikes resulted in a 54-21 home loss to Ole Miss in which Rebels quarterback Matt Corral completed 31 of 34 passes for 412 yards and six touchdowns. Running back Jerrion Ealy added 95 yards on 15 rushes.

"This is not how we wanted to come back," Commodores coach Derek Mason said. "We looked a step slow and a little bit behind. A lot of our kids came back this week, but maybe that wasn't enough time.

"Maybe I overestimated how they would be, because we looked a step slow."

Vanderbilt has lost eight straight SEC games dating back to last season, with seven of the setbacks by at least 17 points.

***

Tennessee had its open date this weekend and will travel to Arkansas for a Saturday night contest that will kick off shortly after 7:30 on the SEC Network.

The Volunteers are 1-0 this season in 7:30 starts, having opened with a 31-27 win at South Carolina.

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

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