Nov. 28, 2015, featured one of the most lopsided Iron Bowls in recent history. Alabama was a killing machine and had won eight straight by more than 23 points per game. Auburn limped in after barely eking out bowl eligibility. Alabama took a while to pull away, but the game was never in doubt.
After coming into 2016 with low expectations and losing early games against Texas A&M and Clemson — a pair of top six teams in the AP poll — Auburn has come alive. With a devastating 56-3 win against No. 17 Arkansas on Saturday, the Tigers have won four straight by an average of 33.3 points per game.
The Tigers outclassed Arkansas on both sides of the ball, nearly tripling the offensive output — 632 yards to 215. Auburn was powered by the greatest rushing effort against a conference team in SEC history, as it accumulated an obscene 543 yards and 7 rushing scores. Five different players had at least 60 yards; the team’s leading rusher, Kerryon Johnson, didn’t even play.
Auburn isn’t the only team that can rush effectively, but it can attack in a variety of ways. Kamryn Pettway and Johnson are physical beasts who can handle 30 carries. Stanton Truitt and Eli Stove are speedsters who typically play wide receiver, but can change the game with their rushing ability. Kam Martin is an intriguing freshman who broke out a 51-yard run in the fourth quarter. While he wasn’t asked to show off his arm against Arkansas, QB Sean White has been tremendously efficient during the streak.
Seeing the Tigers rush so effectively was unexpected; imagining the total resurgence of the program is shocking. Auburn was picked to finish sixth in the Preseason SEC poll and did not receive a single vote for SEC champion, even though nine teams got votes. Vanderbilt and South Carolina each got votes, but not Auburn. Coach Gus Malzahn was on the hot seat as recently as a few weeks ago.
Now with a marquee win under its belt, Auburn suddenly looks like it might be able to play SEC spoiler. Even though the Tigers have two losses, just one has come in the conference. That leaves them very much alive in the SEC title race with one of the most favorable SEC West schedules remaining before the Iron Bowl. The only other ranked opponent is No. 23 Ole Miss — matchups against Vanderbilt, Georgia and Alabama A&M shouldn’t inspire much fear.
If Auburn can walk into Oxford, Miss., and pick up a win, the Tigers should set up a marquee matchup against No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa with a chance to steal a SEC championship game bid. However, it will take more than basic improvement to take down what could be Nick Saban’s best Alabama team.
The Crimson Tide were on full display against Texas A&M on Saturday. Facing off against the conference’s best offense, Alabama held the Aggies to 278 yards and 3.0 yards per rush. The Aggies scored on just two of their 12 drives and allowed Alabama to score a non-offensive touchdown for the 10th straight game.
Auburn still has plenty of growing to do if it wants to compete with Alabama on its home field, but the Tigers are setting up a collision course with a trip to the conference title game on the line. If we’ve learned anything from the past few Iron Bowls, it’s that anything can happen.