Ole Miss

After LSU loss, Auburn’s goals are shot. Where do the Tigers go from here?

Through eight games, the Auburn Tigers have shown few real surprises.

The No. 11 Tigers (6-2, 3-2 SEC) have a defense genuinely good enough to win multiple games, as it kept Auburn’s average offense within striking distance in the team’s two road losses to No. 6 Florida and top-ranked LSU. But the offense hasn’t produced when it mattered.

Quarterback Bo Nix — who Malzahn appears to be sticking with, according to his postgame comments — threw for 157 yards, one touchdown and one interception at LSU, and threw three interceptions at Florida. He did not have the help of a viable run game in either loss.

Auburn’s season goals are shot. The Tigers, pending a complete collapse by both LSU and Alabama, will not play for an SEC Championship for the second consecutive season. But Auburn’s season remains a salvageable one.

The Tigers have a chance to get back on track Saturday, when they face a 3-5 Ole Miss team whose only wins came against Arkansas, Southeastern Louisiana and Vanderbilt (7 p.m. EST, ESPN).

“It’s a difference maker,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We play better at home, there is no doubt. We feed off of our crowd and our group is a lot more comfortable — that’s a great feeling.”

The Tigers’ final four games all take place inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. That might sound like a cliche tidbit on the surface, but the Tigers are unbeaten at home this year and have played easily their best football at Jordan-Hare. However, the opponents they’ll face are far more talented than the likes of Tulane, Kent State and Mississippi State.

After the Tigers face Ole Miss Saturday, they go on a bye week, then return to play No. 8 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama. Sandwiched in between those two games is a matchup with Samford.

“Anybody that’s said to be in the top 10, I want to go against,” Auburn defensive lineman Derrick Brown said at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, before the season kicked off. “I don’t think, in college football, there’s even subpar competition. I think, week in and week out, you’re going to get folks’ best.”

But recent history regarding the Tigers’ two biggest rivals is not on the Tigers’ side. The Crimson Tide has won four of the last five over Auburn. Georgia has won five of the previous six.

There is a bright spot, and one glimmer of hope Auburn fans can cling onto: The 2017 season serves as an outlier to recent trends, and would be a best-case scenario for the Tigers this year.

The Tigers trounced No. 1 Georgia 40-17 in the 2017 regular season, then two weeks later beat No. 1 Alabama 26-14 in front of a raucous Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd. Of course, Georgia then beat the Tigers 28-7 in the SEC Championship that season en route to a College Football Playoff National Championship appearance.

ESPN’s Football Power Index ratings predicted the Tigers to finish 7-4 before the season. It currently has the Tigers projected to finish (rounding up) 9-3, meaning the Tigers beat one of either Georgia or Alabama, with an 18% chance of winning out.

While highly unlikely, this team certainly could still win out. The Tigers really do play like a different team at home, though the home games in the first half of the season came against much weaker opposition.

The Ole Miss game is by no means a make-or-break situation. That ship sailed alongside most of Nix’s passes in Baton Rouge. But this is an important game in terms of setting the tone for Auburn’s remaining season, arguably the toughest end-of-season stretch in the country.

Georgia and Alabama are two winnable games on the Tigers’ best day. But they need to take care of business against Ole Miss first.

“We are glad to be back home, and we need to kick this thing off the right way,” Malzahn said. “We are playing a team that presents challenges and they’re a talented team on defense and offense, so this is a good challenge for us.”

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Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.