- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Last season, Georgia recovered from an 0-2 start to make it to the SEC title game for the first time since the 2005 season.
September wasn’t even half over, and the Bulldogs were left for dead. But they regrouped to reel off 10 consecutive wins and capture the East title.
Georgia’s turnaround a year ago was the exception, not the rule. Rarely does a team bounce back from an 0-2 start in this league and have a big season.
Auburn and Vanderbilt will find themselves in that precarious predicament unless they can bounce back with road victories this weekend. The Tigers play at Mississippi State, and the Commodores travel to Northwestern for a nonconference matchup.
Both teams lost close games to nationally ranked foes in the opening week of the season. Auburn lost 26-19 to No. 12 Clemson in Atlanta, and Vanderbilt lost 17-13 at home to No. 9 South Carolina.
In both cases, they couldn’t hold fourth-quarter leads. Vanderbilt led 13-10 entering the fourth quarter, and Auburn took a 19-16 lead with 12:50 to play.
“We’ve had a bunch of emotional wins and a bunch of emotional losses,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “We haven’t had too many blowouts in either direction. For us and what we’re trying to build here, they’re all going to be emotional because we have to put so much into it, to get where we want to go.
“I think we were able to play somewhat consistent last year by sticking to our process, and we’re going to continue to stick to our process this year.”
The Commodores outgained the Gamecocks in total offense (276 yards to 272 yards), but South Carolina kept the ball the entire fourth quarter. Vanderbilt only ran nine offensive plays in that final quarter, managing just 17 total yards. South Carolina, meanwhile, piled up 115 fourth-quarter yards.
So, clearly, finishing the game a lot better against Northwestern will be a must. The Wildcats won a wild 42-41 affair last Saturday at Syracuse after blowing a 35-13 lead in the third quarter. They gave up 596 yards of total offense, but still managed to win.
The biggest hurdle for Vanderbilt is figuring out how to finally break through and win a close game. The Commodores’ past six losses have been by a combined margin of 30 points, and all six of those losses were decided either late in the fourth quarter or in overtime.
“We live by each week in the game of football, so we’ve moved on,” Vanderbilt junior safety Javon Marshall said. “We’re sour, but we keep going.”
Whereas Vanderbilt has been plagued by closes losses, Auburn had been money in close games until the Chick-fil-A Kickoff loss to Clemson. Auburn had won 11 straight games decided by eight or fewer points until not being able to close the deal against Clemson.
“We pride ourselves around here that if it’s going to get down to the fourth quarter, and it’s a close ballgame, that we’re going to win it,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.
Auburn’s game with Mississippi State last season ended with the Bulldogs’ quarterback, Chris Relf, being tackled on the one-foot line, allowing Auburn to hold on and win 41-34.
That stop was one of the few defensive highlights for the Tigers last season, and their start to the 2012 season on defense was also less than memorable. They gave up 528 yards of total offense to Clemson, including 320 rushing yards.
Tackling was a huge problem, and there’s no question that will have to improve this weekend if Auburn is going to avoid an 0-2 start.
“I think it’s the way we approached the ball,” Chizik said. “It’s not like we don’t work on tackling.”
The other thing that would make an 0-2 hole so scary for Auburn is the schedule the rest of the way. The Tigers face No. 3 LSU at home on Sept. 22, and then after a bye, get No. 8 Arkansas at home on Oct. 6.