Even at 5-0 last season, I wasn’t completely sold on Auburn.
I knew how precariously thin the Tigers were. I knew how dependent they were on Ben Tate, and I knew how drained they would be on defense the second half of the season.
I also knew it was Gene Chizik’s first tour through the SEC as a head coach.
Well, here we are again, and this time, I’m sold on the Tigers.
So much so that I can very clearly see a scenario where that Alabama-Auburn game on Nov. 26 is for the Western Division championship.
Even if Auburn loses a game between now and then, winning against Alabama would give the Tigers the head-to-head tiebreaker and send them to Atlanta as the West representative.
What makes me think they can get to that point?
For one, Cameron Newton.
He gives the Tigers a dimension they didn’t have last season. For that matter, he gives them a dimension nobody else in the SEC has. With his ability to run and his big throwing arm, Newton makes Gus Malzahn’s offense much more difficult to defend than it was a year ago.
Having a 6-6, 250-pound quarterback who’s that hard to tackle is the great equalizer in college football, especially when he has marquee talent around him at all the skill positions.
It also doesn’t hurt that Auburn has a veteran offensive line. The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing and have only given up seven sacks in the first five games.
Defensively, junior tackle Nick Fairley has emerged as a difference-maker in the middle, and the Tigers didn’t have that last season.
Auburn has still allowed more plays in the passing game than defensive coordinator Ted Roof would like, but his main concern coming into this season was being better against the run.
Heading into the Kentucky game this Saturday, Auburn is second in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing just 92.8 yards per game.
The Tigers are also playing more guys on defense.
They felt like several of the players they signed in this class would help fill in the holes defensively, and that’s what has happened to this point.
Several times this season, Chizik has referenced the way his team keeps fighting no matter what.
You saw that in the second half of the Clemson game. You saw that in the second half of the South Carolina game.
That’s an intangible that will come in handy down the road, because the Tigers will almost certainly be in several more knock-down, drag-out battles in the second half.
Counting the overtime period against Clemson, Auburn has outscored its opponents 38-10 in the fourth quarter this season.
That’s what separates the championship teams from the good teams in this league – being able to get it done in the fourth quarter.
Auburn’s schedule should also work in its favor.
Following the trip to Kentucky, the Tigers (5-0, 2-0) get four of their next five games at home. Included are SEC games against Arkansas, LSU and Georgia.
And as has been the case the past three years, they get a bye the week before facing Alabama.
It’s always nice to get a bye before such a big rivalry, but the trade-off is having to play 11 straight weeks without a break.
The Tigers couldn’t cut it a year ago.
They’re more equipped to do so this time around.