AUBURN, Ala. — As much as Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn downplayed it during his postgame press conference Saturday, his Tigers couldn’t possibly ignore the Iron Bowl context surrounding their win against Vanderbilt.
That’s not just a common phrase, either. The context literally surrounded the Tigers.
The Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd thunderously celebrated the sight of Mississippi State’s upset win over No. 5 Texas A&M appearing on the largest scoreboard in college football as Auburn left the field.
Auburn’s 23-16 escape of Vanderbilt, combined with the Aggies’ loss, meant the Tigers would capture the SEC West if they win their final two regular-season conference games — at Georgia and at Alabama.
“We were pretty aware, and the crowd made us pretty aware when they lost the game and what not,” sophomore linebacker Montavious Atkinson said.
That seemed to be news to Atkinson’s head coach, though.
“I hadn’t really thought about (Auburn’s SEC West position),” Malzahn said. “Really the way we’re going to look at it is that we are going to Georgia next week. We are going to take it one game at a time, and we’ll see what happens at the end.”
Malzahn wants Auburn to stick to the script he’s had all season, and for good reason. His Tigers are 7-2 and winners of six in a row. They now sit in second place behind No. 1 Alabama in the SEC West race as the only divisional team with one conference loss.
Now that the Aggies have lost twice, Auburn has erased the disadvantage from that rough home loss against Texas A&M in September. Auburn is a completely different team from the one that started the season 1-2.
“We knew if we kept pushing, we were going to make a breakthrough,” sophomore running back Kerryon Johnson said. “I feel like we’ve done that. We control our own destiny, and now we’ve just got to make it work.”
If Auburn beats Georgia and upsets the Crimson Tide on Nov. 26 in Tuscaloosa, it will head to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
While the entire state inches closer to the reality of another winner-take-all Iron Bowl at the end of November, Auburn first must focus on another rivalry game — the next one. Next Saturday, Auburn will take on Georgia, which is fresh off a 27-24 win at Kentucky.
“We just try to take it one team at a time,” sophomore wide receiver Ryan Davis said. “Obviously, yeah, (Texas A&M’s loss) was big. But we’re just looking forward to Georgia. Once you start looking ahead, you start to get sidetracked. That’s how you lose. Georgia is a great team. It’s a rivalry game. We know it’s going to be a hard-fought game, so we’re going to have to come with it all four quarters.”
The 2016 edition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry will take place at Sanford Stadium in Athens, where Auburn hasn’t won since 2005. Auburn’s only two wins in the series since 2005 are home victories in 2010 and 2013, which were both SEC title-winning seasons for the Tigers.
So even though Georgia is just 3-4 in SEC play this season, Auburn won’t take the Bulldogs lightly.
“We’ve got to get ready at practice for this one,” senior defensive tackle Montravius Adams said. “When it gets to next Saturday, we know the best team will win.”
Another Iron Bowl matchup for the ages can wait. Malzahn’s top 10 team is going to stay with the mindset that has worked well in an impressive six-game winning streak.
“We aren’t looking ahead,” Malzahn said. “That has been our formula this year, and we will continue to do the same thing.”