Auburn’s stunning reversal based on running game

11/14/2013 12:40 AM

11/14/2013 12:40 AM

First of all, Georgia coach Mark Richt doesn’t like playing at Auburn for a second straight year.

“You add a couple of teams to the league, you have to figure it out,” Richt said.

But what really concerns him is the quality of the opponent.

Auburn is off to a stunning 9-1 start. Last season after coach Gene Chizik finished 3-9, he was fired, two years after his Cam Newton-led program won the national championship, confirming the enormous stakes of football in the Southeastern Conference.

It also supported the idea that a coaching change can make all the difference. Enter Gus Malzahn, the Tigers’ offensive coordinator for the title game and the coach who led Arkansas State to a Sun Belt championship last season.

Malzahn, a no-huddle specialist, has turned the Tigers around with the SEC’s most potent running attack. Auburn rushes for 320 yards per game, far and away tops in the conference. Junior running back Tre Mason leads the league with 16 rushing touchdowns and averages 103 rushing yards per game.

“They don’t have to throw the ball,” Richt said. “They can, and you have to prepare for play action and the types of things good running teams do. But if you can’t slow them running the ball and moving the chains, they won’t have to throw.”

Auburn enters games with a ground-and-pound intent and besides Mason, quarterback Nick Marshall (81.6 yards) and running back Kenyan Drake (69.5) rank among the SEC’s top 15 ground gainers.

“When you first start a game, it’s a feeling-out process,” Malzahn said. “How are they playing you, what are you having success with? If you’re having success, you keep doing what you’ve been doing.”

It hasn’t mattered that opponents have loaded the box. The Tigers rolled up 379 rushing yards at Texas A&M in a signature 45-41 victory, and went for 282 in an early victory over Mississippi, perhaps the first indication Auburn was on to something special this season.

Now the finishing kick: Georgia on Saturday and Alabama on Nov. 30. Win both, and the Tigers would be back in the SEC title game for the first time since 2010.

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