Saturday September 12th, 2015

On Sept. 1, 2007, Appalachian State engineered the biggest upset in college football history when it upended No. 5 Michigan 34–32 in Ann Arbor. That game has lingered in football lore for eight years, during which FCS programs have lost 53 straight games against top-10 teams.

On Saturday David almost shocked Goliath again—this time in the SEC.

Sixth-ranked Auburn, a preseason national championship contender, needed overtime to survive visiting FCS Jacksonville State, 27–20, at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Despite the win, Auburn looked nothing like a legitimate College Football Playoff team, one picked by the media in July to win the SEC. As Gus Malzahn’s program prepares to enter the grind of the SEC West, it’s possible the Tigers have been one of the season’s great pretenders in the national title picture.

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Auburn entered 2015 hanging its hat on two factors: the hype of new starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson and the pedigree of new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. But neither the Tigers’ passer play nor their defense have looked particularly dangerous this season, particularly against Jacksonville State on Saturday.

Despite throwing for two touchdowns, the turnover-prone Johnson kept Jacksonville State in the game with a pair of terrible interceptions, bringing his season total to five picks in two games. Meanwhile the Tigers’ defense struggled all day in stopping the Gamecocks from moving the ball. Jacksonville State outgained a normally prolific Auburn squad with 438 yards (4.9 per play), and it scored its go-ahead touchdown with 5:38 left in regulation thanks to an 11-play, 56-yard drive that included a conversion on fourth-and-two. 

We’ve seen a similar movie already this season with the Tigers. Auburn shot out to a 24–0 lead last Saturday over Louisville but was forced to withstand a Cardinals rally in the second half before ultimately escaping, 31–24. One week later, folks on the Plains watched the Tigers underwhelm for the second game in a row while Louisville fell to Houston to drop to 0–2. At this point it hardly seems presumptuous to question Auburn’s status as a true title contender. Based purely on the last two weeks, the Tigers might not belong in the top 25.

The good news for Auburn is this: It’s still 2–0. If it runs the table, Auburn can expect to punch its playoff ticket, no matter how uninspiring these first two victories have been. Malzahn and his staff will frame the Tigers’ sluggish start as an undefeated preamble before SEC play, a glass-half-full mentality that should shift focus to the team’s conference future.

While technically true, that doesn’t change the fact that this team looks little like a contender thus far. In fact, on Saturday Auburn looked more like an FCS team, and an inferior one to the FCS opponent it was facing.

Now the Tigers must fix their early mistakes on both sides of the ball. Johnson must prevent boneheaded turnovers in key situations, especially against more challenging defenses in SEC play. If he can fix the mental errors, he has the physical tools to be successful, something he showcased Saturday amidst an otherwise disappointing day.

The Tigers’ defense also must be better against the talented offenses that remain on its schedule. Muschamp’s unit struggled to handle the running ability of Louisville dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson, and that vulnerability showed itself against Jacksonville State as well.

But perhaps Auburn should be thankful for its remaining schedule. After all, it doesn’t face another FCS team this season.

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