Auburn coach Gus Malzahn could be excused if he has a sense of deja vu about the position he finds his No. 21 Tigers in this week as they prepare to host Tennessee on Saturday.
Kickoff on the SEC Network is noon at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn.
With two losses already, the Tigers (4-2, 1-2 SEC) are going to need some help if they are going to manage to repeat as West Division winners — pretty much like in 2017 when a mid-October loss to LSU put them behind the proverbial 8-ball in the race.
“Now that our backs are against the wall, it’s a real similar feeling as it was last year,” Malzahn said. “I’m very confident that we’re going to finish this thing.
“Our team is in a good spot mentally for everything that we went through the first half of the season, and I think we’re set up to improve each week. We’ve done that the last few seasons. I think we’ll do that again this year.”
The big difference is that with two league losses already, these Tigers are going to need some team to knock off unbeaten Alabama and another to beat once-beaten LSU for them to have a shot a gaining the league’s title game spot. LSU holds the tiebreaker over Auburn in the conference.
“Obviously, we don’t control our own destiny,” Malzahn said. “We’ll need some help, there’s no doubt about that. But there’s still a whole lot to play for.
“If we can finish like we did last year, there’ll be a lot of good things ahead. There’s a whole lot to play for, and our team understands that.”
Struggling Tennessee may present a good opportunity for the Tigers to get things headed in the right direction again. But the Volunteers (2-3, 0-2 SEC) have had some extra time to get ready after last week’s open date.
“We had a really good off week last week,” first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “We had an good opportunity to get back to a lot of fundamentals, which was good for a lot of our guys.
“I was thinking about it over the weekend, I think there’s probably 10 guys that have started for us at some point in time this season that weren’t here during the spring, and there’s probably another 8-to-10 guys that play a lot that weren’t here.
“It was good to go back and get some fundamental work and go back to some foundations on both sides of the ball and in the kicking game.”
One thing wasn’t good. Freshman safety Trevon Flowers, who started the opener and played in all five games, broke a collarbone diving for an interception in practice.
“It’s unfortunate for him because he really had improved in the last two or three weeks and had a great off week this past week,” Pruitt said.
Auburn, on the other hand, looks to have right tackle Jack Driscoll back from a leg injury that kept him out of last week’s loss to Mississippi State, and linebacker Deshaun Davis, Auburn’s leading tackler with 53 stops, has reported no aftereffects from a leg injury sustained late against the Bulldogs.
“I think we dodged a bullet with that,” Malzahn said. “I mean it scared him. It twisted and kind of fell on him and all that. He came back in the game, and I think he’s doing a lot better.”
The big issue for the Tigers is to get their running game back in gear. They have failed to rush for 100 yards in each of their last three games. Freshman running back JaTarvious Whitlow, their leading rusher with 414 yards, is dealing with a shoulder issue but still managed to gain 88 yard last week.
“I think it says a lot about him as a young running back with a shoulder.” Malzahn said. “He played through it and showed some toughness and made some really good runs.”