How Auburn Can Get Back in the College Football Playoff Hunt

Justin Ferguson@@JFergusonBRCFB National AnalystOctober 12, 2014

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STARKVILLE, Miss. — The Auburn Tigers have read this script before.

They knew what it felt like to fall behind 21-0 on the road against an extremely tough SEC West opponent.

They knew what it felt like to turn the ball on their first two drives of the game.

Hey, they even knew what it felt like to try and orchestrate a rousing comeback in the pouring rain.

But, just like in the loss last season to LSU in Baton Rouge, Gus Malzahn's team lost by two possessions Saturday night—a 38-23 defeat to Mississippi State in Starkville.

Auburn LB Cassanova McKinzy and MSU QB Dak Prescott
Auburn LB Cassanova McKinzy and MSU QB Dak PrescottKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

"Give Mississippi State credit, and congratulations to those guys," Malzahn said. "They are a very good football team. But we started in a hole. We turned the ball over the very first two plays we had, and we got in a hole, and their crowd got into it."

There is no denying the 15-point loss to No. 3 Mississippi State, who made a strong case to be the nation's best team after leading the whole way Saturday, was a significant blow to Auburn's chances in both the SEC West picture and the national-title picture.

However, a flip over to last year's script shows that the blow isn't fatal. 

Even with the slippery defeat at Tiger Stadium last season, Auburn finished the season with a conference championship and a spot on college football's biggest stage.

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"We’ve got a strong team," junior receiver Sammie Coates said. "We’re always going to be together, lose or win. It doesn’t matter. We lost last year to LSU and ended up in the national championship. You never know what’s going to happen in this league."

Cornerback Josh Holsey expressed confidence in Auburn's "comeback":

Coates and Holsey are correct with their confidence.

Auburn won several big SEC games—two of them on now-legendary, game-winning plays—and received some help from other teams on its road to Atlanta and Pasadena last season.

This season, with an already crazy stretch of upsets against top teams, the lack of a dominant No. 1 team in a crowded SEC Western division and two new spots for national-title contenders in the playoff season, Auburn's dream of a championship is not dead yet.

"We are still one of the better teams, I think," Malzahn said. "I feel strongly about that."

But, in order to get back into the playoff hunt, several areas need to improve for an Auburn team that still has a murderous second half of the season.

In both of Auburn's road games in 2014, Malzahn's high-octane offense has slowed down to less than 450 total yards and 24 points.

Auburn OG Chad Slade
Auburn OG Chad SladeJim Lytle/Associated Press

"The game is about momentum," senior defensive tackle Angelo Blackson said. "It shifts everywhere, but, at the end of the day, we were just in too deep of a hole. We kept making mistakes, and when you do that against a great team like that, you usually can’t win those ones."

The Tigers may have let a huge opportunity against a "great team" pass them by in Starkville, but there is no need for despair.

Wide receiver Ricardo Louis apologized for Auburn's performance and promised a "bounce back":

The scenario and the way to get into the national-title game might be different, but Auburn has been here before.

Mississippi State still has road trips to both Alabama and Ole Miss, which will also be a contender in the SEC West and the College Football Playoff. If the Bulldogs drop both of those games and the Tigers win out, they will be headed to Atlanta for a chance to repeat and get into the playoff.

But if Prescott and Mississippi State runs the table and finishes undefeated, a one-loss Auburn team could get into the playoff.

Only one loss to perhaps the best team in the country would most likely be a huge resume booster in a handful of contenders.

Auburn's Remaining 2014 Schedule
DateOpponentLocation
Oct. 18BYE
Oct. 25South CarolinaAuburn, AL
Nov. 1Ole MissOxford, MS
Nov. 8Texas A&MAuburn, AL
Nov. 15GeorgiaAthens, GA
Nov. 22SamfordAuburn, AL
Nov. 29AlabamaTuscaloosa, AL
AuburnTigers.com

In both scenarios, though, the Tigers will have to overcome the major challenge of finishing their brutal regular-season schedule without another loss.

While Malzahn and several of his players said after the game they were not focused on playoff scenarios, they couldn't help but notice the similarities to the position they found themselves in last season.

"We have to learn from this," Malzahn said. "We had a setback similar to this last year. There are a lot of champions in that locker room. They are disappointed, and they should be."

Auburn HC Gus Malzahn
Auburn HC Gus MalzahnUSA TODAY Sports

Last year, Auburn rallied around its comeback efforts on the road against LSU, had an important off week and won the rest of its regular-season games.

And, in another interesting coincidence, the Tigers will head into a bye week after this season's loss to Mississippi State.

"It’s important because the same thing happened to us last year," Marshall said. "With the loss against LSU, we had the bye week next. We're just going to come out tomorrow and redeem ourselves. We’re going to improve upon the mistakes we made tonight and just get better."

With some improvement, big wins and a little luck, recent history could repeat itself.

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.