The Tigers have been to this crossroads before.
They’ve been here. They’ve felt this. They’ve seen obstacles like the ones ahead.
And with their own eyes, they’ve seen the other side.
Today, as teams across the South suit up for another gameday and as Auburn football watches on a bye, the Tigers are waiting and preparing to make a second-half surge — with plenty of veterans around on the roster who in their time on the Plains have already done just that.
Twice in Gus Malzahn’s tenure as Auburn’s head coach, his Tigers have made it to the SEC Championship Game, and both times those teams battled back from early season SEC losses not unlike Auburn’s 24-13 loss to Florida last Saturday in The Swamp.
In 2013 Auburn lost at LSU in September before that team charged its way to the league title. In 2017, Auburn lost early to Clemson in non-conference play and on the road at LSU in mid-October before surging back up the SEC West standings on the way to the conference championship game.
It’s the 2017 season that plenty of older players on Auburn’s current roster experienced personally, and it’s one place where they can draw their confidence in knowing this year isn’t over after a disappointing loss in The Swamp.
Another place is in the head coach, who’s navigated out of this hole twice before as head coach at Auburn.
Make it three times in his career: In Malzahn’s season as head coach at Arkansas State in 2012, his Red Wolves lost their conference opener before rolling off seven straight wins to capture the Sun Belt Conference Championship.
“You’ve got to move on,” Malzahn said last Sunday after his team got back from Gainesville and did just that, speaking with experience behind his glasses.
“You’ve got to learn from situations,” he went on. “And every time we didn’t make it to the championship game or win, we learned from the situation. We were better because of it. That’s our challenge with this group.”
After this weekend’s bye, Auburn plays road games at Arkansas and at LSU before returning home for a game against Ole Miss. After that, Auburn hits another bye week before gearing up for the so-called Amen Corner, with home games against rivals Georgia and Alabama wrapped around a non-conference game with Samford.
Auburn wants to hit that second bye riding three straight SEC wins and with winds in the sails going into those two rivalry weekends. Auburn still controls its own destiny in the SEC West race, and it wants to keep it that way.
But for it to be so on the way into the next bye, Auburn will have to do one thing Malzahn hasn’t done yet in his career at Auburn, and that’s win at LSU in Baton Rouge. In both his most successful seasons at Auburn, his teams have lost there.
But in 2013 and in 2017, Auburn had both Georgia and Alabama at home just as it does this year — and the veterans on Auburn’s roster remember that.
“The great thing about it, we’ve got great leadership,” Malzahn said, with eyes toward a second-half charge to Atlanta. “And also, we’ve got some big-time players that we have that we can lean on, too. And a lot of these guys that we have, these older guys, have actually been through it.”
Defensive tackle Derrick Brown, defensive lineman Marlon Davidson and left guard Marquel Harrell are all current Auburn starters who started for the Tigers in the 2017 Iron Bowl the last time Auburn punched its ticket to the SEC title game.