AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s win over Ole Miss has fans buzzing about how the Tigers’ season could play out.
After starting the year 1-2, winning the SEC West and traveling to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game remains possible. Making the College Football Playoff is conceivable.
Senior defensive back Josh Holsey knows what happens when players look too far into the future.
“That’s when teams kind of slip up,” Holsey said. “We’re hungry right now still, we’ve still got a lot to prove… We can’t look past anybody. We didn’t start off too well. We started taking it one game at a time and now we’re at the point we’re at now.”
The Tigers (6-2, 4-1 SEC) are looking to extend their five-game win streak against Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-3 SEC) in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.
“They’re a very good team. A very disciplined team,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “They play extremely hard, they play extremely physical. They don’t give up a whole lot of big plays, which really stands out to me… They don’t beat themselves.”
The Commodores possess the seventh-best defense in the conference. They’ve have held each of their SEC opponents to 20 points or less and lead the league in turnover margin.
“The only thing we’ve talked about is Vanderbilt. We got our hands full,” Malzahn said. “We don’t (do) hypotheticals in this league, if you look ahead in this league, you get burned. We got our hands full. Our players know that. Our coaches know it. We have not said one word about anything left in the schedule. I don’t know what everybody else is saying, but in our house, in our little room here with our coaches and players, we’re locked in on Vanderbilt. That’s it.”
Auburn’s roster has one characteristic that’s helped players from dreaming of the future: youth.
That’s especially true on the offensive side of the ball. That’s where most Tigers are underclassmen continuing the adjustment to the Division I level. Listening to veteran players and coaches and learning from them has remained the focus.
“Sometimes with young guys, right now, they don’t really know any better,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “Whatever we tell them and the older guys tell them, they just, ‘OK, yep. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.’ That’s sometimes good. There’s an innocence there that makes it easier.”
Auburn’s experienced players recall disappointing seasons of the past; younger players can reference losses from just five weeks ago.
“You look at the first three games this year,” Lashlee said. “And the disappointment, how it felt to lose those two games where we felt like offensively we could’ve done more to help us win. Just as a team, they know what that feels like.”
Auburn gained confidence after dominant wins against Mississippi State and Arkansas, but the Tigers left Oxford with a secondary shredded by Rebel quarterback Chad Kelly. They carried a list of offensive and defensive improvements to make.
The incentive to concentrate on the schedule’s next game is there.
“We’ve tried to get better,” Lashlee said. “We’ve tried to get out and control what we can control, and it’s worked. So why change it?”
Matchups against Georgia (Auburn’s oldest SEC rival) and the Iron Bowl are ahead.
First, Auburn will attempt to even the all-time series with Vanderbilt — the Commodores lead 21-20-1.
“We have to change that,” said Holsey, who along with Alex Kozan was present for Auburn’s last loss to the Commodores. “All of our focus right now is on Vandy. They’re a really good team, a really good coaching staff and we’ve got a lot of attention on them right now. We’ve got to come Saturday prepared to fight. We just can’t get too big headed into those types of things, you have to stay focused and stay level headed. Can’t start getting too ahead of yourself when you start winning.”