ATHENS — AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — The Auburn Tigers have plowed their way into Southeastern Conference, and maybe national title, contention with a running game that has lately been making the forward pass more luxury than necessity.
The run-heavy formula is working well so far for the seventh-ranked Tigers, who attempted nine passes against Arkansas and still won 35-17.
"We just feel like we're a big freight train and once we get started, it's hard to stop us," tailback Tre Mason said Tuesday.
Mason and speedy quarterback Nick Marshall have helped the Tigers (8-1, 4-1 SEC) continue barreling down the tracks with a running game that leads the league and ranks sixth nationally, averaging 306 yards a game.
Auburn's offense didn't slow down much against the Razorbacks when Marshall was nursing a shoulder injury that limited him in practice leading up to the game, helping contribute to the minimal passing.
Now, the Tigers face the SEC's worst run defense statistically Saturday against Tennessee, which just allowed 339 rushing yards to Missouri. That apparent matchup advantage doesn't require much change in philosophy.
"We're going to run the ball," center Reese Dismukes said. "I don't think that's really going to change week in and week out. We've got the mind-set that we're going to run the football and that's the goal here. We're going to run the football."
They're also going to run it with a number of different players normally. Auburn has four of the SEC's top 18 rushers, including Marshall.
Mason has emerged as the star of the deep backfield, and was the workhorse against the Razorbacks when he ran 32 times among Auburn's 55 plays. He produced 168 yards and four touchdowns to earn SEC offensive player of the week honors.
The runs have typically been more divvied up among Mason, between-the-tackles rusher Cameron Artis-Payne and speedster Corey Grant, along with Marshall. Mason, though, is now the SEC's No. 3 rusher with 921 yards and a league-best 13 touchdowns.
"He wanted the ball the other night," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "You could tell he was really explosive, he was breaking tackles. He's a veteran guy and was wanting the football and we just kept giving it to him.
"Moving forward, we'll spread the ball around. We've got two other very talented running backs, but he was hot, and that's what we go with."
That backfield depth has enabled the Tigers to log easily the most rushes of any SEC team and attempt the fewest passes. Marshall and receiver Sammie Coates have combined for big plays, including an 88-yard touchdown against Arkansas, but the running game has been far more consistent, especially lately.
Auburn has averaged 17 passes and 55 runs the past three games. All that rushing production has made Mason want to do something nice for an offensive line led by Dismukes and left tackle Greg Robinson.
"I told those guys I've got to bake them a cake, do something nice for them, because those guys don't get as much love as they're supposed to," said Mason, who topped 1,000 yards on his final carry of last season.
Can he bake? "I can follow the directions," Mason said.
On the field, if not in the kitchen, he has plenty of help. Marshall has run for 520 yards, Artis-Payne 515 and Grant 456. All of them are averaging at least 5.7 yards per carry with four or more touchdowns.
"They have a mentality to run the football," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "The thing about Auburn is they can beat you with quick screens, they can beat you with deep balls, and they can beat you with quarterback runs. If they decide to line up and run power offense at you, they can beat you.
"They're a good physical football team."
The offensive line has earned its cake in the process. Dismukes said line coach J.B. Grimes makes it clear they're driving the offense.
"As coach Grimes says every week 'We're going to put the spurs and whips on and ride y'all like we've been riding you all year long,'" Dismukes said. "I think that's really the mindset we have taken. We have that chip on our shoulder that we're not going to be denied."