AUBURN, Ala. – The Auburn Tigers are feeling awfully good about themselves after a season when the opposite was often true.
Now, the 11th-ranked Tigers (6-1) hope to keep the good times rolling when heavy underdog Florida Atlantic (2-5) visits on Saturday.
Auburn is riding high from a 45-41 upset of then-No. 7 Texas A&M that thrust Gus Malzahn's team into Southeastern Conference title contention.
Part of this game against the 24-point underdogs will be about remaining grounded amid all that positive attention. Owls coach Carl Pelini isn't expecting that to be a problem for the Tigers.
"It looks to me like they are making steady improvement every week all year on both sides of the ball," Pelini said. "When you see that on tape, that means one win or one loss usually isn't going to affect your progress very much."
Malzahn told his players and coaches to celebrate the big win Saturday night, but get back to work promptly after that. He's turned the Tigers' fortunes around quickly after inheriting a team that went 3-9 last season.
Malzahn said the Tigers can't let their approach change based on the Texas A&M victory.
"We're happy that people think that highly of us," he said. "But we're onto (the) next week. That's our only focus."
So far, Auburn has been good at taking care of business as heavy favorites. There was no apparent drop-off in play against Arkansas State (38-9) or Western Carolina (62-3), when quarterback Nick Marshall was sidelined with a minor knee injury.
That's the challenge again in facing Florida Atlantic, which is coming off an open date after losing 24-23 to Marshall on a last-second field goal.
"We're just trying to keep our composure and keep our focus and just keep moving forward," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said. "But it's definitely a great feeling moving forward. Definitely a big difference between this year and last year."
Here are five things to watch in Auburn's game with the Owls:
SLOWING THE RUN: Tre Mason has helped power an Auburn running game that leads the SEC and ranks eighth nationally. The Tigers have plenty of runners, including Marshall, to send against a Florida Atlantic defense that is eighth in C-USA in defending the run. Auburn's starting offensive line has a 60-plus pound weight advantage per player over the Owls' defensive front.
PROTECTING THE BALL: Florida Atlantic is 99th in the country in turnover margin having lost eight interceptions and seven fumbles. The Tigers have been effective at capitalizing on opponents' miscues despite a minus-1 turnover margin on the season. Auburn has produced 45 points off turnovers while allowing opposing teams to score just 10.
WHITE'S TURN: The latest season-ending injury to strike the defense leaves Ryan White replacing Josh Holsey at safety. White didn't even get time to practice at the new position before starting the Texas A&M game, but has a chance to build more experience.
PLAYING RESERVES: Head coaches don't like to publicly treat games like this as a chance to get seasoning for backups, but this could provide some opportunities. The most high-profile candidate for playing time is freshman quarterback Jeremy Johnson, whose start against Western Carolina remains his only action. "Depth-wise we're going to need a lot of other guys to be ready," Malzahn said.
OFFENSIVE STYLES: Pelini says Auburn's run-first, no-huddle offense reminds him of his own. He's hoping the experience of spring practice and preseason camp will have a carry over effect. "It's not exactly the same, but a lot of what we do mirrors a lot of what they do, especially in terms of the running game," Pelini said.