AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — The Auburn Tigers are gearing up for a brutal stretch that could either bury their hopes of repeating as Southeastern Conference champions or establish them firmly as national title contenders again.
The fifth-ranked Tigers start the parade of games that includes five opponents ranked in the Top 15 with No. 15 LSU on Saturday. It’s just Round 1 of survive and advance time that follows a 45-17 win over Louisiana Tech.
Receiver Quan Bray is confident Auburn can handle it and cites the “13 seconds better” mantra after losing to Florida State in last season’s BCS title game on a touchdown with that amount of time remaining.
“It’s not going to be hard for us to win the SEC championship,” Bray said. “We’re the defending SEC champions, and we’re going to try to defend that. And we’re going to try to move on and be 13 seconds better.
“We’re going to earn it. We put in the grind for that, so we’re definitely going to come out and play ball. They’re going to have to take it from us.”
The list of contenders is long in the SEC West, where six teams are ranked. Auburn’s six-game stretch also includes East Division teams South Carolina, which just fell from the rankings, and No. 13 Georgia. Making the situation tougher is the uncertainty of three starters who were hurt against Louisiana Tech: Right tackle Patrick Miller and linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy.
Offensively, Auburn (4-0, 1-0 SEC) has struggled the past two games with consistency and converting third downs, something that had been a strength. Coach Gus Malzahn said the perfect record is the most meaningful statistic but knows that “we’re fixing to enter the grind.”
“I think we’re in a good spot,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got to keep improving. We did that last year. That’s hard to do. Very few teams can do that, and that’s our challenge.”
LSU (4-1, 0-1) is coming off a 63-7 win over New Mexico State and represents Auburn’s toughest challenge yet. If injuries are Auburn’s big question mark coming into this game, LSU’s centers on the quarterback situation.
Sophomore starter Anthony Jennings had two completions for 11 yards in five attempts Saturday night, while throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble. Freshman Brandon Harris’ seven drives all culminated in touchdowns. He was 11-of-14 passing for 178 yards and three touchdowns.
“I’m not looking past his performance at all,” Miles said. “Seven straight scoring drives and he did the things we ask him to do. No turnovers and operated the offense effectively. We enjoyed that very much.”
Less enjoyable for Miles and Jennings were the boos and chants of “We Want Harris” cascading from the student section.
Miles didn’t indicate who would start against Auburn. He said he’ll talk to Jennings about the situation this week but that it’s no secret the quarterback position “is a lightning rod for college America and certainly all of the NFL America.”
LSU plans to continue practicing first-team defense versus first-team offense as it did last week following a loss to No. 12 Mississippi State.
“We will practice very much like we practiced this week,” Miles said. “We will pipe in some noise and get a game plan ready for those guys (Auburn). It is going to be a lot of fun to prepare for a quality opponent at their house.”
Auburn players insist they’ve been taking the “one game at a time” mentality and not dwelling on the upcoming stretch. Auburn follows this game with road trips to Mississippi State, No. 11 Mississippi and Georgia along with home games against South Carolina and No. 6 Texas A&M.
And that doesn’t even count the regular-season finale with No. 3 Alabama.
“It’s time to step it up,” Auburn cornerback Jonathon Mincy said. “This is what we came to Auburn to do.”
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.
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