AUBURN — Had you told Gus Malzahn before the start of the season that Auburn would be 5-1 entering this week’s bye, the seventh-year head coach might have happily accepted that result.
He had a true freshman starting quarterback in Bo Nix running the first offense he would be calling plays for since 2016, as well as three games against top-15 opponents away from home — Oregon at a neutral site, and Texas A&M and Florida on the road. It would have been hard to complain about winning two of them.
That’s the glass half-full view of where the Tigers stand at the halfway point of their 2019 campaign. Glass half-empty: They were 5-0 when they woke up Saturday morning, and they had every chance to be 6-0.
The defense forced four turnovers. The offense started five drives in Florida territory and was in the red zone with a chance to take the lead late in the third quarter. But the defense also gave up touchdowns of 64 and 88 yards, and the offense turned it over three times — including on that lone red zone possession — in a disappointing 24-13 loss.
“We talked to our team today and just said hey, just trying to be real with them — it was a tough loss,” Malzahn said. “But we'll wake up tomorrow and we'll turn the page and we'll be looking forward to this second half of the season.”
The No. 12-ranked Tigers will enter the second half of their season, which begins Oct. 19 at Arkansas, still very much in control of their own destiny. Their primary goals entering the year are still attainable — win out, and they’ll win the SEC West. Win the SEC Championship game, and they’ll make the College Football Playoff.
Saturday’s loss to the Gators doesn’t change that; it just all but eliminates the margin for error. The back half of Auburn’s schedule is even tougher than the first. The team plays at No. 6 LSU on Oct. 26 and hosts No. 3 Georgia on Nov. 16 and No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 30.
Winning even two of those games was going to be a tall order. Now, the Tigers will likely have to win all three, along with games against Arkansas and Ole Miss, to be the team that represents the SEC West in Atlanta two months from now.
That’s the glass half-empty view. Glass half-full: There aren’t many teams nationally that have clearly defined paths to both a conference title game and the CFP, and Auburn remains one of them.
“We’re still in full control of our destiny and everything we want to do. So, I mean, at the end of the day, it’s just a loss,” senior defensive tackle Derrick Brown said Saturday night in Gainesville. “It’s not one you want to take, but we got to look at it from the whole aspect of everything.”
Auburn has suffered that difficult-to-take September or October road SEC loss more than once during Malzahn’s tenure as head coach — 35-21 at LSU in 2013; 38-23 at Mississippi State in 2014; 45-21 at LSU in 2015; 27-23 at LSU in 2017; and 23-9 at Mississippi State in 2018 each come to mind.
Three times, it marked the beginning of the downward turn — the Tigers bounced back with two straight wins in 2014 before losing four of the final five games; began an ill-fated quarterback carousel between Jeremy Johnson and Sean White in 2015; and lost at home against a bad Tennessee team the next week in 2018.
The other two times, though, it served as the spark — Auburn won nine consecutive games after losing at LSU on Sept. 21, 2013, and five straight after doing the same on Oct. 14, 2017. Both times, Malzahn’s team went on to defeat both Georgia and Alabama at home and win the SEC West.
“We learned from the situation. We were better because of it. That's our challenge with this group,” Malzahn said. “The great thing about it — we've got great leadership. 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. In 2017. So that also helps with that.”
If Auburn is going to bounce back, it’s going to have to win in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which is something the program hasn’t done since 1999 (it has lost nine consecutive games at Tiger Stadium). This upcoming weekend should provide some insight into exactly how tall that task will be — LSU hosts Florida, which will pit the defense that stymied Nix and the Auburn offense against the explosive attack led by Joe Burrow.
Before then, Malzahn and his staff will use the week off to evaluate the team’s first six games, and specifically a loss to the Gators the head coach said “exposed” a couple of things — Nix didn’t look comfortable, the offense struggled with the crowd noise and couldn’t do any of the simple things right (it went 2 of 14 on third down overall, failed to convert on four third-and-short runs, went three-and-out six times and didn’t take full advantage of short fields), not enough playmakers touched the ball, and the defense gave up too many chunk plays, particularly over the middle of the field.
The Tigers have typically taken advantage weeks off, going 9-0 after open dates in the seven seasons since Malzahn took over as head coach.
And it’s not as if they don’t have something to build on — they came from behind to beat Oregon 27-21 at a neutral site thanks to the game-winning drive Nix led in the final two minutes; silenced a crowd of more than 101,000 at Kyle Field with a fast start in a 28-20 win at Texas A&M; and bludgeoned Mississippi State 56-23 on the strength of a near-perfect performance from Nix and top wide receiver Seth Williams.
“The facts are, right now, we're 5-1. We've played three top-20 teams away from home, and we're 5-1. We have a week off, and it's a much-needed week off. I think the timing right now is good,” Malzahn said. “You know, looking at the second half, we can big-picture it right now, but we're looking at playing three of the top-five teams in the country; one of those being on the road. So great opportunities for this team.”
Glass half-full: All of Auburn’s goals will still be attainable when the team next takes the field at Arkansas. Glass half-empty: The path to achieving them is more difficult than it was before the trip to Gainesville.
“This team will respond,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got a bunch of champions in that locker room. They’re going to respond after this week off, and we’ll make a run at it in this second half."