It wasn’t long ago that Auburn’s Gus Malzahn was coaching for his job. The Tigers were a disappointing 7-6 last season and finished last place in the SEC West. That’s well below expectations for an Auburn program that has come to expect national relevance.
Malzahn’s signature offense also didn’t get off to an ideal start, scoring just 13, 16 and 18 points against the first three Power Five opponents on the schedule. Saturday against Mississippi State was the first chance against an average defense for Malzahn to prove he still has genius touch on offense.
Consider the test passed.
Auburn needed just 5:32 to get on the board with a 3-yard touchdown pass from Sean White to Ryan Davis. Even though starting RB Kerryon Johnson went out with an ankle injury early, the scores kept coming. Backup Kamryn Pettway added scores of 1, 3 and 2 yards in the first half to help the Tigers explode to a 35-0 lead in the first half.
Finding a balance between passing and running has proven to be difficult, but offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee managed to set up the pass with the run in a monstrous first half. The Tigers are 3-0 since Lashlee began calling plays.
Auburn ran the ball 56 times vs. Mississippi State, with Pettway getting 39 of those. Even though the Tigers averaged just 4.1 yards per carry over the game, the strategy allowed the team to take advantage of its huge advantages in the trenches.
White did his part, too. After throwing an unfortunate pick on the game’s first series, he led three straight touchdown drives. He threw only 16 passes in the first half, but he completed 9-of-10 for 125 yards and a touchdown in those three drives. All but one of his completions went for either a first down or score.
Kevin Steele’s defense also has been a pleasant surprise this season. The Tigers held Mississippi State to just 4.3 yards per play and forced 3 turnovers, including a pick-6 to end the first half. At that point, Auburn was able to effectively run out the clock in the second half. Malzahn even admitted that he wasn’t bothered by poor second-half performance — the game was over.
With the exception of LSU’s Les Miles, who already has been fired, Malzahn’s seat has been perhaps the warmest in the SEC West. Strong starts to the season by Arkansas and Texas A&M made the situation even more dire. Auburn is finally starting to look like the Tigers of old.
Even though Auburn showed flashes of brilliance, it must capitalize on this performance. For however impressive the win was on Saturday, Mississippi State is likely the worst team in the SEC West. The tests get only tougher from here: home vs. Arkansas, and road games at Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama. It will need to replicate Saturday’s success to produce wins in those contests.