Auburn Football: Tigers Much Improved, but Are They SEC Ready?

Justin LeeContributor ISeptember 12, 2013

AUBURN, AL - SEPTEMBER 7:  Wide receiver Marcus Davis #80 of the Auburn Tigers catches a pass for a touchdown in front of defensive back Chris Humes #29 of the Arkansas State Red Wolves during the first half of play on September 7, 2013 at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama. At halftime Auburn leads Arkansas State 21-3.  (Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images)
Michael Chang/Getty Images

Auburn passed the test in its first two weeks of the season, cruising by Washington State and Arkansas State with a pair of impressive performances.

But Saturday is an entirely new monster.

The Tigers open SEC play by hosting divisional rival Mississippi State in the league opener for both teams.

If it plays its absolute best, Auburn may be up to the challenge of facing the Bulldogs Saturday night and of competing through a tough SEC slate.

But the Tigers aren't always at their best, according to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. And before his team can even think about shaking up the division and stringing some wins together, it's going to have to cut down on its mistakes—"trash plays," as Johnson calls them.

The Auburn defense held an explosive Arkansas State offense out of the end zone Saturday night, allowing just three field goals in the 38-9 win, but the Red Wolves still piled up 422 yards of total offense.

"As a defensive staff, we emphasize finishing series, finishing plays," Johnson said on Sunday. "You can't let one bad play turn into a disaster. We certainly don't have the philosophy that each series we want to give up 50 yards but don't give up a touchdown.

"We're making too many mistakes right now, 'trash plays' I call them, where we're in position to make plays and we're not getting it done."

When the Tigers' defense is playing at its best, Auburn has a chance to win. That trait was showcased Saturday night: At one point early in the second quarter, the Red Wolves were 5-of-7 in third-down conversions. But from that point on, the Auburn defense tightened up, allowing just three third-down conversions on 11 attempts through the rest of the game.

During that span, the Tigers pulled away.

When it counted most, the Auburn defense met the challenge, including on two occasions when the Tigers made big stops on fourth down to turn the ball over to the offense.

The Auburn offense made its fair share of big plays Saturday night as well, highlighted by a 68-yard touchdown bomb from Nick Marshall to Sammie Coates.

But when the Auburn offense was off, it was way off.

The Tigers finished with six scoring drives and six non-scoring drives. On its six non-scoring drives, the Tigers recorded just three of their 23 first downs. Auburn finished with just 45 of its 468 total yards on those drives.

Auburn averaged 70.5 yards and 3.3 first downs on its scoring drives and averaged just 7.5 yards and 0.5 first downs on its non-scoring drives.

The key for Auburn moving forward, on both sides of the ball, is consistency.

"I think our defense is a work in progress like our offense," Malzahn said in his weekly press conference Tuesday. "We have a lot of new guys out there. We have a lot of inexperienced guys. You are going to make some mistakes out there, and we have, but when you find a way to keep them out of the end zone, I think that is big.

"That will help with moving forward, but at the same time, offensively and defensively, we should cut down on the mistakes."

Auburn is certainly a much more improved team through the first two weeks of the season as compared to last season. Through two games under Malzahn, the Tigers are averaging 34.5 points per game, as opposed to 18.7 points per game in 2012, while rolling up 431 yards per game compared to an average of 305 yards per game last season.

But the true test for the Tigers lies in conference play starting Saturday. Those first two performances worked for Auburn in the first two weeks of the season, but are the Tigers ready for the SEC?

Simple: Playing at their best, the Tigers can compete with almost anybody.

We just don't know which Auburn team will show up, and for how long, against Mississippi State.

"We're learning more and more about our guys," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "I think we're learning more and more about what guys are good at and what they're not. I do think, as a whole, we saw improvement in Game 2 from Game 1.

"In some areas, it's not to the level we'd want. We did play two pretty good opponents. I think you saw Washington State beat USC on the road (Saturday) night, and that Arkansas State bunch has won two in a row and got a chance to win three in a row in that conference. They play hard.

"But we know we're walking into Mississippi State and getting into conference play, the stakes go up in our league."


Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.