ATHENS — AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Wide receiver Sammie Coates figures he lost maybe six games in his high school career, one more than Auburn endured the previous two seasons combined before the recent nosedive.
It's not something Coates wants to become accustomed to — if he has a choice.
"We've got to get used to it. If we're going to play like this, we're going to keep losing," the Tigers' redshirt freshman said on Tuesday. "We either have to step up and turn around ... We've got a good team. We've got good athletes. We've got some of the best athletes that you can ask for. It's just, is it in their heart that they want to win or do they just want to keep going down?
"With me, I think some of us just need to see the picture like it is. Some of these older guys, they want it but they don't want it bad enough. We don't have enough leadership on this team."
It was a blunt assessment of Auburn (1-4, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) and why it's mired in a miserable start. The Tigers visit Mississippi (3-3, 0-2) on Saturday.
Despite the problems, coach Gene Chizik and linebacker Jake Holland disputed Coates' take on the lack of senior leadership. Still, the young receiver pulled no punches, even in talking about the veterans.
"The older guys, they put a lot on the older guys but they ain't showing much," Coates said. "The coaches are always talking about leadership but nobody's really trying to be a leader. They talk about it all the time but you don't see it. We talk about how we want to be a better man, better football players and all that but nobody's stepping up to the plate to take advantage of that."
Holland, a junior, took issue with that assessment.
"The overall state of this team has never changed," he said. "We have leaders on this team. I have to disagree with Sammie on that. The leadership on this team has been the same since day one, you know, and the seniors are doing a good job of that. It's just about bringing the team together and just continuing to move toward that goal. I think when you don't start out the way you want, you kind of start pointing fingers, but you can't do that."
Chizik said these questions surface at every level of football from high school to the NFL when teams start losing. He said he feels "really, really good about the majority of our team being right on point."
"Let me make this real clear: There is definitely an urgency around here to win and improve, and I like seeing that," Chizik said. "Part of our job is to help our guys understand that when you're in a valley, which is where we are now ... you've got to find a way to persevere and work out of it. I don't think that message is a new revelation for anybody. I know our football team has heard that from me several different times. That's part of our job. I enjoy seeing us work toward that goal. "
But the problems are many.
The Tigers' offense has been the least productive in the league. The defense has improved since giving up 528 yards in the opener to Clemson but allowed two fourth-quarter touchdowns to previously hapless Arkansas in Saturday's 24-7 loss to the Razorbacks.
Even more telling, Auburn is last among the nation's 120 teams in turnover margin, forcing just six and committing a whopping 17, including 10 interceptions.
Chizik said he wouldn't decide on a starting quarterback until after assessing practices Tuesday and Wednesday. Kiehl Frazier was benched at halftime of the Arkansas game and has thrown just two touchdown passes and been intercepted eight times. Clint Moseley was picked off twice in the second half but did throw for 163 yards and a touchdown.
It has all contributed to a dramatic fall for a team that won a national title two seasons ago and thought it set the stage for a youth-driven comeback with a strong performance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia. That success didn't carry over.
"It's the inconsistency. It's on both sides of the football," Chizik said. "It's really just execution of what we're doing and staying with the things that we believe in. That's really what it comes down to. It doesn't matter what happened two years ago. It only matters what's happening right now. Those are the problems we're working every day to get it fixed."