|No. 6 Auburn tunes up for test of Iron|
For Auburn, everything meaningful hinges on next week's Iron Bowl.
A win over Alabama on Nov. 25 at Jordan-Hare Stadium would send the No. 6 Tigers to the SEC Championship Game for a rematch against Georgia. A second win over the Bulldogs in Atlanta could be worth a trip the College Football Playoff.
With all that's at stake, could anyone really blame War Eagle for glancing ahead a little bit?
Auburn (8-2, 6-1 SEC) will try to put together a focused performance Saturday, when high-scoring Louisiana-Monroe (4-5, 4-3 Sun Belt) visits Jordan-Hare Stadium for an Iron Bowl tune-up.
"Even though you want to think about the title, you don't think about the title, because it's one game at a time," Auburn left guard Marquel Harrell said this week. "You have to focus on the next game. Georgia was our main focus. Next week we have ULM, and that's where our focus is."
Auburn beat then-No. 1 Georgia 40-17 last week and moved right back into the playoff mix.
The Warhawks enjoyed an off week after their biggest win of the season, a 52-45 upset of Appalachian State on Nov. 4. ULM quarterback Caleb Evans accounted for five total touchdowns, including the go-ahead touchdown pass in the final minute.
"Sometimes I think bye weeks are overrated," ULM coach Matt Viator told reporters this week. "When you look at our injury situation, we've got to get a hold on that for sure."
The Warhawks suffered a rash of injuries against Appalachian State that have lingered ahead of the Auburn game. The availability of defensive tackle Derion Ford, linebacker David Griffith, running back Ben Luckett and tight end Josh Pederson was a question mark to start the week.
Louisiana-Monroe can put up a lot of points. The Warhawks have scored 50 or more points three times this season. Evans is the sparkplug. He threw for three touchdowns and rushed for two more against Appalachian State, and he could provide a good character study for the Auburn defense ahead of facing Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts.
The Tigers' defense was brilliant in last week's dominating win over Georgia.
Auburn stymied the Bulldogs' ground game, allowing Georgia 46 yards on 31 carries. The Tigers also sacked freshman quarterback Jake Fromm four times. It was an elite performance by a defense good enough to keep Auburn in the game against anyone in the nation.
"I felt like when we went through the spring practice the first year that we had the talent on the grass to become a dominant force and do it on a consistent basis," Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said.
"We just try to reach greatness and be an elite defense," linebacker Darrell Williams added. "That's our goal, and we're just going to keep making that step to get to it every week. Coach Steele talks about it and he gets us on that track and makes sure we do what we need to do to get that done."
Auburn's offense, under quarterback Jarrett Stidham, has improved and become more balanced throughout the season. Running back Kerryon Johnson remains the focal point, and for good reason.
Johnson carried the ball 32 times for 167 yards against a good Georgia run defense. He posted 233 yards of total offense last week, including 66 yards receiving, and was the first player this season to rush for more than 100 yards against the Dawgs' defense.
His effectiveness on the ground created opportunities for Stidham in the passing game. Stidham completed 16 of 23 passes for 214 yards with three touchdowns.
"Jarrett played great," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "We had some trouble protecting the first couple of drives and then things settled down. We were able to run the football and mix it up a little bit."
Louisiana-Monroe needs two wins in its last three games to become bowl eligible. It won't be easy. After Saturday's game against Auburn, the Warhawks finish the season against Arkansas State and at Florida State in a game that was originally scheduled for Sept. 9 and postponed by Hurricane Irma.
"This is an opportunity for our kids and our program to one of the biggest stages," Viator said. "But without a doubt it's a huge challenge."