AUBURN — For the second time this season, Auburn has had to reassess its goals after losing a game it feels like it could have — if not should have — won.
The first time was a 23-20 loss to now-No. 1 LSU in Baton Rouge, La., on Oct. 26. That was the team’s second of the season, following a 24-13 defeat at Florida three weeks earlier, and it effectively eliminated it from contending for an SEC West crown and chance to go to Atlanta for the conference championship game.
The goal after that game became to win the final four games of the season, all of them at home, two of them against the program’s biggest rivals. Do that, and the Tigers might have still been a real player in the College Football Playoff conversation.
But that conversation ended Saturday with a 21-14 loss to Georgia. So, on Sunday, Auburn changed tracks again.
“Coach (Gus Malzahn) came in here after the game and he was like, ‘I want us to win 10 games.’ That’s our new goal now,” junior cornerback Noah Igbinoghene said Tuesday. “That’s what we’re focused on right now: Just finishing off strong, not only for us, but for our seniors.”
Auburn is 7-3 through 10 games this season. Getting to 10 wins means winning out — Saturday against Samford (a 5-6 FCS team), in the Iron Bowl against Alabama (which will be playing without star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa) and a bowl game (the most common projected destinations seem to be the Citrus in Orlando, or Outback in Tampa, Fla., against a Big Ten opponent).
If the Tigers can do that, they would have their third double-digit win campaign in seven seasons under Malzahn and just the program’s seventh season with at least 10 wins in 30 years dating back to 1990.
“Extremely hard to do with the schedule like we have,” Malzahn said.
That is true. Auburn has played the toughest schedule in college football this season, according to Jeff Sagarin’s college football ratings. Four of the 10 teams it has played were ranked top-11 in last week’s College Football Playoff Rankings (which will be updated again Tuesday night) — No. 1 LSU, No. 4 Georgia, No. 6 Oregon and No. 11 Florida. The Tigers will play one more in two weeks against No. 5 Alabama.
But it’s not that the Tigers lost those games that’s frustrating; it’s how they lost them. Kevin Steele’s defense held top-10 Florida, LSU and Georgia teams to 24, 23 and 21 points, respectively. That middle number is more than 24 points fewer than 47.8 the Joe Burrow-led LSU offense is averaging this season, which ranks second nationally.
But the offense — which Malzahn masterminds and calls the plays for — scored only 13, 20 and 14 points in those games, respectively.
“A lot of people want to blame it on the coaches. It's not just the coaches. The players got to execute,” senior wide receiver Will Hastings said. “So it's a team thing. Everyone has to execute the best that they can. Some players are doing it, some players aren't. Some coaches are doing it, some are not. So it's just a whole team thing. So once we get down to that red zone, we've got to all execute and get in the end zone.”
It would be easy to assume that could divide a team. That the defense might become frustrated with the offense’s inability to score, which has happened at times throughout Steele’s tenure — in a 2017 loss at LSU, a 2018 loss at Mississippi State in 2018, and all three losses this season.
Auburn did deal with that during the 2017 season, Hastings said. It was never addressed publicly in front of fans or media, but internally, it “kind of hurts the team.”
“I know the leaders brought it up and just said, 'You know, whoever's in here that's pointing fingers and saying offense, defense, you can just leave,’” Hastings said, recalling that time two years ago. “And there were no coaches in there, and it was just the players. And obviously no one stood up or said anything, but after that, we had no problems.”
The message since then from the team’s current leadership — a group that includes captains Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown, Jeremiah Dinson, Daniel Thomas and others this season — is that it’s never offense versus defense; it’s just team.
“If we never let them score, it’s 0-0. And I’m pretty sure the offense would’ve scored, and we would’ve won. So it’s both of our faults. It’s not just one side of the football,” Igbinoghene said. “Of course, people think we played good and we think we played good, but that’s just how it is in football. That’s just how it is. There’s no pointing fingers. We got through that Saturday. We got all through that. We said all that at the beginning of the season, so all that is done. We’re just ready to finish off strong.”
And, they hope, become the 15th team in program history to win 10 games.