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15th of November 2018

Sport



Auburn hopes to avoid another 'uphill' climb in SEC standings by defeating LSU

Had it not been for its 20-point collapse in Death Valley 11 months ago, Jarrett Stidham doesn't believe Auburn would have found itself in Atlanta the first weekend of December, representing the SEC West in the league's championship game.

While that 27-23 loss at Tiger Stadium put Auburn behind the eight-ball last season, requiring the team to run the table to win the division, Auburn's quarterback is adamant the disappointment served his team well. Something about squandering a three-score lead on the road has that sort of humbling effect; the adversity forces a team to look inward and reflect.

As Gus Malzahn has said: You either respond to it, or you fold.

"We learned a lot about ourselves that game," Stidham said. "Like I said, I just don't think the season would've played out the way it did unless we had lost that game.... I think that when you're up 20 on the road against a team like LSU and then you end up losing, it kind of puts different things into perspective. I think you learn more about your team from a maturity standpoint. From that moment on we really grew as a team, leaders really, really stepped up throughout the rest of the regular season and I think that's kind of when we hit our stride, was after that game.

"We kind of put it behind us and we learned from it and I think we finished the season obviously in a much better way because of that loss."

For as much as Auburn benefited from that loss, in some respects, rattling off five straight wins -- including wins against No. 1 Georgia and Alabama to end the regular season -- to win the SEC West, Malzahn's team hopes to avoid a second straight loss to LSU when the team's open SEC play this weekend at Jordan-Hare Stadium. It's a crucial home game for Auburn, which doesn't want to fall back in the division standings, especially with road trips to No. 16 Mississippi State, No. 3 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama on the horizon.

"You look at our schedule, it's a man's schedule," Malzahn said. "It's a week-to-week deal. Obviously last year, it was uphill after this game. There's no doubt. So that'd be great to get a win, but it's every week when you look at our schedule. There's not too many schedules out in the country like ours."

If No. 7 Auburn (2-0) can stave off No. 13 LSU (2-0) on Saturday (2:30 p.m. on CBS), Malzahn's team will find itself in better position that it was a year ago, starting off SEC play with a big-time win against a ranked opponent and heated rival. It would also give Auburn two of the best wins of the season, having defeated teams that were ranked sixth (Washington) and 12th at the time in just a span of three weeks.

Malzahn doesn't need to stress to his players the importance of this game; they're all well-aware already. H-Back chandler Cox said it would be a "sweaty" and "bloody" affair.

"There's no doubt," Malzahn said. "You know this goes way back in history. When LSU and Auburn get together, it's going to be a physical game. They know that. We know that. It's always a good one. The intensity will be very high."

And just like Auburn did in the second half of last season, Malzahn is hopeful his team learns from last year's loss to LSU -- a defeat that Malzahn described as not only the toughest of the season, but one of the toughest of his Auburn tenure, surely ranking up there with the 2013 BCS National Championship Game loss to Florida State.

"They don't need a whole lot of motivation and rah-rah stuff as far as last year," Malzahn said. "This is a new year. We're playing at home. Our guys are extremely motivated right now. Looking back, that was kind of the turning point of our whole season last year, going through that extremely low time."

Since that loss last season, when Auburn's offense was stagnant and predictable in the second half, Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey have shown a tendency to be more aggressive on that side of the ball. That has carried over this season; Auburn went for a 2-point conversion after scoring the first touchdown against Washington two weeks ago, and the offense put up points in bunches last week against FCS Alabama State despite focusing largely on honing the run game.

Stidham said "keeping the foot on the gas pedal" will be big for Auburn this season on offense. Auburn has been able to do that at home, where it has won 13 straight overall and seven in a row against SEC competition. During those seven games against SEC teams, Auburn's average margin of victory is 22.9 points per game -- including 23.8 points per game in four home conference wins last season.

The closest game in that stretch was the 18-13 win against LSU two years ago in the game that kicked off Auburn's home winning streak.

"It's a big game, like I said," Stidham said. "I think if you go into a game like this, because obviously this game has implications on our division, if you can win a game like this it obviously is going to give you momentum for the rest of the year."

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

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