Preview: No. 11 Auburn enters FAU game as SEC title contender - ABC 33/40 - Birmingham News, Weather, Sports

Preview: No. 11 Auburn enters FAU game as SEC title contender

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(AP Photo/Dave Martin) (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

(AP) -- Auburn defensive end Dee Ford has visions of another surprising national title run.

Even if that proves a stretch, the 11th-ranked Tigers have risen from a dreadful season to the brink of the top 10 with an about-face that's come with the rapidity of the next play in Gus Malzahn's no-huddle offense.

A road upset of Johnny Manziel and then-No. 7 Texas A&M vaulted Auburn (6-1) 13 spots in the rankings and made the Tigers, who host Florida Atlantic on Saturday night, perhaps the chief challenger to No. 1 Alabama in the SEC's Western Division.

Ford's ambition goes beyond that. Way beyond.

"I think we can win it all. You know?" he said. "There's no reason to say that we can't. We said we wanted to have the biggest turnaround in college football. Why not win it all?

"But we're going to keep getting better every practice, every game, every week, and look and see where it can take us. We can definitely win it all if we do that."

It would be an even bigger surprise than the Tigers' 2010 national title. Only this time there's no Cam Newton leading the way.

Auburn is certainly in an unexpected position after last Saturday's 45-41 win over the Aggies, who won last year's meeting by six touchdowns.

The Tigers have already doubled their win total from last season, when they lost all eight SEC games, many of them in ugly fashion.

Malzahn set about installing his fast-paced offense, run by dual-threat junior college transfer Nick Marshall, and repeatedly preaching his "it's a new day" theme.

His latest refrain, uttered after most games, is "We haven't arrived." Malzahn trotted it out twice on Tuesday.

"You look across college football, the teams that don't keep improving throughout the year, it's relevant," Malzahn said. "There's a lot of ups and downs and that's our challenge. We've got to keep rolling, take it one game at a time and stay focused."

The SEC West is certainly within reach. The Tigers and the unbeaten Crimson Tide are the only teams in the division with fewer than two losses.

Auburn could be favored in every game leading up to that with road trips remaining to Arkansas and Tennessee before hosting chief rivals Georgia and Alabama. Win out, and the Tigers will play for the SEC title.

Few were thinking of the Tigers as contenders until the win in College Station.

"I think we put ourselves back on the map," Ford said. "We definitely went from playing for nothing last year to playing for a lot this year."

The improvement has been pretty much across the board but most evident with Marshall and the offense. The Tigers rank eight nationally in rushing offense after finishing 78th last season. Auburn has climbed 96 spots, from 115th to 19th, in total offense.

Center Reese Dismukes said Malzahn has been the big difference since replacing Gene Chizik, who was fired two years after winning the national title. Malzahn was offensive coordinator for that team.

"He's the reason why we're successful and he's got us and we've got him, we've got each other's back," Dismukes said. "It's just a mindset. I'm glad he's our head coach, and he's a heck of a coach."

The biggest changes in personnel have been JUCO transfers Marshall and No. 2 rusher Cameron Artis-Payne, plus a handful of new defensive linemen.

Other players such as receiver Sammie Coates and safety Robenson Therezie have dramatically stepped up their production.

Four of Auburn's wins have been decided in the final minutes, and Dismukes said that's the opposite of last season when "it was like everything happened for us to lose a game.

"I would say everything is falling into place," he said. "It's all the same guys. We're playing better as a team than we were last year. Everybody believes we can win. That's just the big thing. It's a new day like coach Malzahn says and that's really it."

FAU (2-5) is coming off its bye week following losses in three of its previous four games, including 24-23 to Marshall on Oct. 12.

Justin Haig kicked a 41-yard field goal as time expired for Marshall, which trailed by as many as nine in the final quarter.

Jaquez Johnson threw a touchdown pass and ran for another score for FAU, which lost its only other meeting with Auburn, 30-14 on Sept. 24, 2011.

Matchup

 FAUAUB
W-L 2-5 6-1
Avg Points 22.3 35.9
Avg Points Allowed 26.0 22.0
Home Record 0-2 5-0
Road Record 2-3 1-1
Division Record 1-3 3-1
Conference Record 1-4 3-1

Passing Leaders

 
Florida AtlCMP%YDSTDINT
J. Johnson 60.6 1050 6 5
G. Hankerson 49.4 422 3 3
 
AuburnCMP%YDSTDINT
N. Marshall 57.3 1138 6 4
J. Johnson 73.9 201 4 1

Rushing Leaders

 
Florida AtlCARYDSAVGTD
J. Wallace 102 493 4.8 3
J. Johnson 96 341 3.6 5
 
AuburnCARYDSAVGTD
T. Mason 119 693 5.8 8
C. Artis-Payne 59 417 7.1 4

Receiving Leaders

 
Florida AtlRECYDSAVGTD
W. Dukes 25 337 13.5 4
D. McKinney 32 328 10.3 1
 
AuburnRECYDSAVGTD
S. Coates 18 423 23.5 2
Q. Bray 15 166 11.1 3
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