This season, ever since it became evident Auburn’s ceiling was limited, was about getting to the Saturday after Thanksgiving and creating chaos.
But before the Tigers get a chance to create it, they had to avoid it.
Auburn entertained a reeling Tennessee program Saturday night and had to shake off a slow start before pulling away for a 30-17 victory.
The sputters weren’t unexpected after a three-week layoff. Neither was Auburn’s response after falling behind 10-0 early in the second quarter. And this is how Auburn responded:
—A 54-yard Bo Nix-to-Anthony Schwartz bomb — about half the distance the duo covered in the last outing, against LSU — yet equally effective.
—The re-emergence of running backs not named Tank Bigsby. When the freshman phenom was unceremoniously slammed at the end of a first-quarter tackle, forcing him to spend ample time on the sideline, Shaun Shivers and D.J. Williams stepped up and filled gaps.
—A reconvening of the Tigers defense. After giving up 169 yards in the first half, Kevin Steele’s unit went to work. Tennessee pushed the chains for 8 first downs in the first 15 minutes, but the best success after that came after Auburn had pushed comfortably ahead.
—Even with a Tennessee upset still possible, Smoke Monday moved Auburn out of the danger zone by stepping in front of a Jarrett Guarantano pass and returning it 100 yards down the sideline for a Pick-Six.
This Auburn team has grown considerably in the last month. Of course, in actual game time, that amounts to a couple of games. But in the wake of an upset loss to South Carolina on Oct. 17, the future looked bleak.
Since then, Auburn has become a legitimate Top 15 team with nowhere to go but up. The offensive line that was such a concern is now an asset. Chad Morris’ offense is more pass friendly. And the defense that has witnessed a regular exodus to the NFL the last three years is dependable, if not tenacious.
Is this team good enough to slay the nation’s top-ranked team next week? In Tuscaloosa no less?
The crowd won’t be much of a factor, not with 20K in the stands compared to the normal 100,000 or more.
But the elephant on the turf is the same as always. Alabama is a clear-cut No. 1 based on roster and resume. The Tide struggled for a little over a quarter earlier Saturday after a similar sabbatical … and still won by 60.
The Crimson Tide has scored 35 points or more in an NCAA-record 20 straight games. Stopping that streak isn’t an impossibility, but it’s unlikely.
So, the question becomes: Can Auburn win a track meet?
Auburn did just that a year ago, despite being outgained, because the running game gashed, Bo Nix made big throws and the defense scored 14 off a pair of errant Mac Jones passes.
For all of the year-in, year-out frustrations with Gus Malzahn, no other SEC coach has Nick Saban’s number like the Auburn coach.
Taking down Alabama would take Auburn’s 2020 to another level. It will take Auburn’s best performance — and, even then, something extraordinary.
But even without the upset victory, signs point to the Tigers building up for another run at a title next year.
Doug Segrest, a former SEC beat reporter, is a freelance columnist for the Montgomery Advertiser.