Auburn, Ala.--Moving into the coaches poll at No. 24 and up to 21st in the AP Poll, the Auburn Tigers (4-2, 2-1) get back to work on Sunday following a bye week and with the second half of the season coming up there are still plenty of question marks left for Gus Malzahn’s team as they prepare to face No. 17 Arkansas (5-2, 2-2) this coming Saturday.
One of the biggest is the health of his team with several starters banged up over the course of the first six weeks. He said that's something that will be important to watch, but right now the week off couldn't have come at a better time for the Tigers.
"We're a pretty beat-up team the first six weeks," Malzahn said. "We had some guys who hung in there and showed a lot of toughness, but this past week has been really good for us. Our No. 1 goal in the off week was to get our starters healed up and get them fresh for this last half run."
First and foremost is the health of starting running back Kerryon Johnson. Auburn’s leading rusher with 538 yards and six touchdowns this season, Johnson’s time off had to be good for his injured ankle but it will probably be later in the week before his status is known. Malzahn said he expected everyone to be back practicing on Sunday and if Johnson is one of them that would be big for Auburn.
The good news is that the Tigers have emerging big back Kamryn Pettway to lean on as well as speedsters such as Stanton Truitt and Kameron Martin along with the passing of sophomore quarterback Sean White.
Perhaps the key for Auburn heading into this week will be up front on the offensive line where Malzahn, Rhett Lashlee and OL Coach Herb Hand could have a big decision to make if center Xavier Dampeer is healthy.
Starting the first four games for the Tigers, the senior played solid and was improving until injuring his ankle against LSU. The last two weeks the job in the middle has gone to last year’s starter Austin Golson, moving in from left tackle, and the play up front and with the offense in general has taken off.
Piling up 688 yards against ULM before mashing Mississippi State last week for 432 yards and 38 points with much of that happening in just a half, the group of Robert Leff at right tackle, Braden Smith at right guard, Golson at center, Alex Kozan at left guard and Darius James at left tackle is in a groove right now coming off the win over the Bulldogs.
“I thought we did well,” Golson said. “Our goal was to run the football with the inside zone and I think we were able to do that really good in the first half and pace them and run the ball really well against a really good defense.”
That first half was one that saw Auburn run for 150 yards and White throw for 185 more against a defense that was allowing just over 100 yards rushing per game. Getting into a rhythm early was a key and Golson said it’s something that gives them a good feeling heading into the second half of the season.
“It’s awesome,” Golson said of getting things to click offensively. “Anytime we can pace them and move the ball like that and keep pounding, they were a really good defense, to be able to move the ball against them like that against them gives us a lot of momentum moving forward.”
Winners of three consecutive games, Auburn now faces an Arkansas team that beat them in four overtimes last season and comes in with some momentum following a big win over Ole Miss. That’s not what this team is focused on however as Golson said it’s all about the Tigers and improving as a team the rest of the way.
“I think we get better every week,” Golson said. “I’ve said that the past couple of weeks. We’re aiming to get better as an offensive line and as an offense and as a team. All three phases, that’s our goal is to get better.”
His head coach agrees, saying this Auburn team has the potential to do big things down the stretch if it keeps moving forward.
"In college football, very few teams improve," Malzahn said. "We do have the potential to do that. That's going to be our focus. That's going to be our challenge. If we can do that, we can be in the mix."
Auburn will return to practice Sunday night to continue preparations for Arkansas. Kickoff is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Saturday and the game can be seen on ESPN.