KNOXVILLE, Tenn. —
Don't bother mentioning the Iron Bowl to Auburn. The seventh-ranked Tigers refuse to think that far ahead.
“I'm not going to talk about Alabama,” Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy said Saturday after the Tigers' 55-23 rout of Tennessee. “I'm just going to talk about Georgia. The only thing we can do is prepare for Georgia and take it one game at a time.”
That's the same approach that has helped Auburn (9-1, 5-1 SEC) make the biggest turnaround of any team in the nation.
One year after going 3-9 and failing to earn a single Southeastern Conference victory, Auburn heads into its final two regular-season games in control of its destiny in the Western Division race. If Auburn beats No. 25 Georgia next weekend, it would set the stage for a Nov. 30 showdown with top-ranked Alabama in the most anticipated Iron Bowl since Cam Newton rallied the Tigers to a 28-27 victory at Tuscaloosa in their 2010 national championship season.
Both Georgia and Alabama have to travel to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn already has completed its road schedule.
“We'll enjoy this one,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said after the Tennessee game. “That's the only thing on our minds. That's been our mindset all year.”
That mindset has the Tigers shocking everyone but themselves.
“Coming off a 3-9 season last year, coach Malzahn said this is going to be the biggest turnaround in college football,” Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall said. “All of us bought into that and (are) just doing what the coaches tell us to keep winning.”
They're winning without passing very often. Auburn attempted just seven passes against Tennessee a week after throwing nine times in a 35-17 victory over Arkansas. Marshall's third and final pass completion came with 6:36 left in the first quarter.
Marshall rushed for 214 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries against Tennessee. Tre Mason ran 20 times for 117 yards and three scores while reaching the 1,000-yard mark for a second straight season. Auburn averages 320 yards rushing per game to rank third among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams, behind only Army and New Mexico.
The combination of Marshall and Mason assures that Auburn has a quick-strike offense even without passing.
Auburn's offense had three touchdown drives that lasted only two plays each. In all three of those possessions, Auburn reached the end zone in less than 40 seconds. Auburn also had a six-play, 85-yard touchdown drive that lasted just 1:43.
“Coach Malzahn, he's trying to have the fastest offense in America,” Mason said. “That's what we're aiming for.”
Auburn has scored at least 30 points in six straight games, the first time the Tigers have done that since 2004. Auburn's main worry is that its opponents also are running effectively.
Tennessee rushed for 226 yards Saturday and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. One week ago, Auburn allowed Arkansas to run for 222 yards on 47 attempts.
“We don't like the rushing yards a bit and feel like we had a lot of misfits,” Auburn safety Ryan Smith said. “We'll get back to practice and fix it before next week.”
Malzahn already has fixed just about everything else surrounding this program, which now has a legitimate shot to make a worst-to-first turnaround in the Western Division.
“I wouldn't say we're surprising ourselves,” McKinzy said. “We have a want-to, like, no team wants to have the kind of season we had last year. I mean, we just came out with a chip on our shoulder. We've got a new coaching staff, and I feel like our coaching staff is the best in the world and they put us in wonderful positions to make plays and win games.”