AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — The Auburn Tigers have a tough road ahead even to finish with a winning record.
The Tigers, once a top-10 team viewed as a Southeastern Conference title contender, begins a difficult closing stretch Saturday against No. 25 Texas A&M. Then road trips to No. 6 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama are sandwiched around a presumably huge mismatch against Liberty, presenting the chance for a season-changing turnaround — or even deeper troubles.
"I definitely think if we were able to finish these last four games with a 'W', the entire vibe around here would definitely change," linebacker Deshaun Davis said Tuesday. "We had championship hopes coming into the season, but right now we don't control that destiny anymore.
"If we were to finish these last four games with a 'W', we can do the same things we did last year, making this a good year and a memorable year."
It all makes this game against the Aggies (5-3, 3-2 SEC) a potentially pivotal one for Auburn (5-3, 2-3). Lose, and the slightly favored Tigers would have to pull off a big upset of one of its two biggest rivals — or a clean sweep like last season — to manage a winning regular season record.
Auburn ran the table in November last season to win an SEC Western Division title , including victories over Georgia and Alabama when both teams held No. 1 rankings.
This team hasn't shown clear signs of being poised for a breakthrough, but did rebound from back-to-back losses with a 31-16 road win over Mississippi before an open date.
"I think for us last year in November was huge," quarterback Jarrett Stidham. "We didn't know exactly how it was going to play out obviously. But we came together the entire month and really played well each week. It started off with A&M last year, and obviously it's starting off with A&M this week.
"I think you take a lot from it, from last year's experience, but I know our guys are really excited for it and ready for the challenge."
Auburn may have to play this game without leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow, who has an apparent leg injury. Whitlow didn't practice last week, and Malzahn said he's "day to day" and so is right offensive tackle Jack Driscoll (left knee).
Whitlow has been the biggest bright spot in a struggling running game. If he's not healthy, it makes the stretch run even more challenging.
But the returning players know how much a strong finish can change the perception of the season, though Auburn did ultimately lose to Georgia in last year's SEC championship game and to UCF in the bowl game.
"I think they understand the teams we're playing and everything that goes with it," Malzahn said.
More AP college football: http://collegefootball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25