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Auburn Making an Early Statement

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Though the Tigers were picked fourth in their own division entering August, they will close out September slotted seventh in the national polls.

One month into the college football season, Auburn has the most impressive resume in the country. At 5-0 with wins over nationally-ranked Oregon and Texas A&M, and now fresh off a 33-point drubbing of divisional rival Mississippi State, the Tigers have earned a place in the spotlight. For as good as fellow SEC West members Alabama and LSU have looked, neither, this season, have the credentials Auburn does to date. That distinction is one worth making. 

Though the Tigers were picked fourth in their own division entering August, they will close out September slotted seventh in the national polls. An even higher climb could be on the horizon.

Gus Malzahn, hot seat to headliner, has rediscovered the magic on the Plains. The last time Auburn began a season 5-0 with two wins over ranked foes, Cam Newton led the team to the BCS National Championship. That year, 2010, the Tigers established a 183-94 advantage over their opponents five games into the season; this fall, Auburn currently holds a 190-86 edge. Point is, this is an impressive start.       

Two tried-and-true orange-and-blue fixtures are setting the tone for the Tigers in 2019: a productive running game and dominant defensive line play. Auburn paces the SEC with 1,255 rushing yards and leads all over Power Five football 17 rushing touchdowns. The Tigers stand third in the league in rush defense and rank fourth in sacks. Simply put, the foundation for Auburn's success is both sides of the line of scrimmage.

Offensively, the turnaround in the trenches has been quite notable. Only Georgia has allowed fewer sacks in the SEC than the Tigers so far, while Auburn is averaging 5.3 yards per carry this year, up over one full yard from a season ago. The unit has paved the way for six rushing touchdowns in two of the Tigers' past three games.  A now-veteran group, led by tackle Prince Tega Wanogho, has made dramatic improvement from last season.

Auburn's defensive line just might be the best in the game. The trio of Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Tyrone Truesdell has already combined for 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. Big Kat Bryant also has six quarterback hurries. Brown, who may be the first interior lineman selected in the upcoming NFL Draft, is a remarkable physical talent who has three pass breakups at 6'5'', 318 pounds. In key games against Oregon, Texas A&M and Mississippi State, the Tigers were physically dominant at the point of attack.

Then there's quarterback Bo Nix, the confident true freshman who emerged from a tight quarterback competition as the number one option. Nix, the son of former Auburn signal caller Patrick Nix, proved poised in clutch moments over the first few weeks, kickstarting his own legacy with a late game-winning touchdown toss in game one against the Ducks. Saturday night, the full spectrum of Nix's potential, and that of the Tigers', was on full display: 16-of-21 passing for 335 yards and two scores, 56 yards and another touchdown rushing.   

Auburn, relatively-overlooked back in the pre-season, is taking the field with the conviction of a contender; the Tigers are winning because they expect to. Such a mindset can be seen in the Tigers' moxie. Down late against Oregon, Auburn, in Nix's first-ever start, was stoic and steady in rallying back. Playing at Texas A&M, the Tigers then largely dominated one of the SEC's most talented teams. Auburn, with growing expectations and Mississippi State in town, promptly put on an absolute show.

Malzahn's latest team is, in some ways, a signature one. For a coach that has had a unique path and progression, his quarterback is a true freshman, his third-leading receiver is a former walk-on kicker and his season, a potential banner one, started with a 21-6 late third quarter deficit. These Tigers are a sum-of-their-parts side, a team that plays well together with complimentary strengths and stretches. There is a proven recent track record of Auburn being at its best when others write them off.

For as good as the Tigers have been, with an aforementioned resume that stands alone, an argument can be made that they still haven't played their best football yet. Nix is still finding his full comfort zone, Auburn, 12th in the SEC in downfield conversions of 40 yards or more, has allowed a number of big passing plays and the Tigers are actually tied for last in the league in turnover margin. A couple of modest market corrections could have Auburn on an even higher level. 

The upcoming slate is staggering, the toughest remaining schedule in the country. Starting with this weekend's showdown at Florida, the Tigers have four regular season games with top ten teams on the docket: the Gators in Gainesville, at LSU, Georgia and Alabama, four opponents, for Auburn, that are currently a combined 18-0. Should the Tigers make a run to national prominence, it will be one they will have undoubtedly earned. One way or another, Auburn will have a hand in how this college football season unfolds.

Saturday's trip to The Swamp will be a notable springboard for the winner. Going back to 2001, the Tigers have won four of five games in the series, success preceded by seven straight losses. Going back to 1904, Auburn and Florida have a fascinatingly competitive history; the all-time scoring average leads the Tigers' way by a margin of 17.8 to 16.1. This weekend's undefeated pairing will be the 85th meeting between the two proud programs. 

An Auburn victory would mark a first-half for the ages and add to a reputation, for this unique team, that continues to expand and evolve. Known for exceeding expectations when the focus is on others, the Tigers have clearly forced their way into the national conversation. With each win, the chatter only grows; a high-profile victory in Gainesville would be more than a statement, it would be a shout. Auburn, already part of the national narrative, would then have the game's full attention.      

With impressive momentum , the Tigers have a claim to make. They may soon have a story to tell.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports