By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Auburn enters SEC play with a confident coach who believes his team can contend for the conference championship.
“The facts are we're 2-1 and the team we got beat by might be the best team in the country again,” Auburn’s Gus Malzahn said. “We're starting SEC play, and that's what we've been building up to. We have a new coordinator and new quarterback, and they'll consistently get better.
“We have a very good defense - the second ranked defense in the country right now. Our kicking game is solid, we can be better. But if we keep improving, we can play with anybody in the country."
Quarterback Jarrett Stidham completed 32 of 37 passes in Auburn’s 24-10 Homecoming win over Mercer, including a school-record 18 consecutive completions.
“I think last week you saw, when he has time, he’s a very good operator with his progressions,” Malzahn said. “The more experience that he gets, the better. The thing about him is he corrects his mistakes. I think he’ll continue to improve. You can see him progressing each week. He did a very good job last week and he threw into some tight windows."
“We have been extremely high on him,” Malzahn said. “Obviously when you lose an experienced guy it does affect your depth, but right now I will say we have two guys that we feel comfortable with playing.”
Auburn’s rushing attack, No. 8 in the SEC at 178.3 yards per game, is top of mind for Malzahn.
“That’s my biggest concern right now,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to run the football better. Clemson has a great defense and they shut us down in the run game, but last week we did not execute like we need to, and we’ve got to do a better job of executing in the run game, because when you get into league play you’re going to have to run the football effectively to win consistently. Our coaches understand that, and that’s really been a big point of emphasis.”
The return of Kerryon Johnson, who missed two games with an injury, should be helpful.
Offensive lineman Darius James, injured in the Mercer game, will practice Tuesday without contact.
“We’ll see how he progresses during the week,” Malzahn said. “What you’ll probably see if Darius can’t play is something very similar to the way the game ended late. But, we’re hopeful that Darius will be back, and I think we’ll know more probably tomorrow.”
Defensive lineman Byron Cowart has left Auburn’s program, seeking more playing time, Malzahn said.
Auburn, ranked No. 15, plays its SEC opener at Missouri Saturday at 6:30 p.m. CT on ESPNU.
“Our top goal is to win the SEC championship,” linebacker Deshaun Davis said. “We’re going into league play and we feel like this is the team in our way.
“We respect them. They have a highly explosive offense. I know we have our hands full. When you show a weakness, they’re going to find it. We know we have to come in week in and week out going into SEC play and get better and better as a defense and play our best game each and every week.”
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer