JOHN ZENOR, AP Sports Writer
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — The Auburn Tigers have built confidence with a couple of wins and shown signs of improvement on both sides of the ball.
Now the task is sustaining that momentum in Southeastern Conference games, where the Tigers have been utterly overmatched lately. Auburn (2-0) has dropped 10 straight versus SEC opponents going into Saturday night’s game with Mississippi State (1-1).
Few of the games have even been competitive. The average margin during the SEC skid has been 25.7 points, and the Tigers have been outscored 94-0 since the last time they managed a point against a league defense.
They’re hoping to show they’ve closed the gap.
“As leaders on the team we try to remind everyone of the feeling we had last year,” Auburn cornerback Jonathon Mincy said on Tuesday. “We’re trying to have a big turnaround this year. We know what that feeling was like and it’s not a good feeling. We’re trying to have a better feeling than last year, just have a lot of wins and hopefully be undefeated.”
Coach Gus Malzahn wasn’t around for last year’s winless SEC record, and maintains he doesn’t often bring up 2012 with his players.
The Tigers have produced a strong running game in wins over Washington State and Arkansas State, and new starting quarterback Nick Marshall put up better numbers in Game 2. The defense, meanwhile, has gone six quarters without allowing a touchdown for the first time since 2008.
A truer gauge of Auburn’s progress will come in the next three games against the Bulldogs, No. 8 LSU and No. 25 Mississippi. Malzahn said the Tigers have no choice but to embrace the SEC challenge.
“You’ve got to be real with your players,” he said. “I think our more experienced guys understand that. We play in the best league in college football and any time you play an opponent you’ve got to have your best and we understand that.”
The last meeting with Mississippi State provided glimpses of the problems that mounted with the Tigers as last season went on. Auburn committed five turnovers, quarterback Kiehl Frazier struggled badly, and the Tigers produced just 216 total yards in a 28-10 defeat.
Malzahn has stressed wanting to see how his team responded to adversity in games after that 3-9 season.
“Each week, we’re going to learn more about our team,” he said. “All I can tell you right now is I’m proud of our guys and the way they’ve responded so far. We’ve faced some adversity in both these first games and I like the way we handled it.
“Now, you’re getting into your league and we’re playing against some of the best teams in America and we’ll face more adversity, and we’ll get a chance to see how we respond moving forward.”
Defensive end LaDarius Owens thinks Auburn’s attitude has changed dramatically from the group that seemed to wilt down the stretch.
“We’re closer as a team, as a unit, as a defense,” Owens said. “These first two games we got a lot of young guys playing. It built their confidence. They’re out there with us and it’s built the confidence of those who endured what we went through last year. It’s big going into SEC. We know what’s coming and we know how to prepare for it. We’re just going to take this confidence we’ve had so far and build on it next week.”
The Tigers have been relying heavily on newcomers who weren’t around for the woes of last season, from tailback Cameron Artis-Payne to Marshall and defensive tackles Ben Bradley and Montravius Adams.
Payne said teammates have filled him in.
“They pretty much painted a picture of what went down last year,” he said. “We preach togetherness. Nobody wants to let down the person next to them. Whether you were here last year or not, you don’t want to let down the guy who was here last year and make him have a repeat season.”