AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Jeremy Johnson and the Auburn Tigers were being inundated with praise not too long ago.
An uneven performance against Louisville and a near-upset by an FCS team have sent the 18th-ranked Tigers tumbling dramatically in both the polls and public regard. Coach Gus Malzahn said his players know they can play much better.
They'll have to if they're going to have a chance to beat No. 13 LSU at Tiger Stadium on Saturday much less contend in the Southeastern Conference as many predicted.
"That's behind us and we're looking forward to going to LSU," Malzahn said Tuesday. "That's the way you look at it when you're in the moment and you're a coach or a player. That one's behind you and you look forward and you do everything you can to improve."
There's much to improve on both sides of the ball following an overtime, comeback win over Jacksonville State.
Safety Johnathan Ford said Auburn isn't lowering its aspirations for the season. Back to back games against SEC West teams LSU and Mississippi State will go a long way to showing whether that's realistic.
"We've got more than enough talent to do what we want to do this year," Ford said. "It's not hard to believe at all. Don't count us out for anything."
Offensively, Johnson has been intercepted five times and has been a nonfactor running the ball in an offense that's been at its best with a dual-threat quarterback.
Other presumed playmakers have either been ineffective or injured or, in the case of tailback Roc Thomas, both. Wide receiver D'haquille Williams has just five catches for 62 yards and tailback Jovon Robinson didn't play against the Gamecocks with an ankle injury. Right tackle Avery Young was out, too.
Only tailback Peyton Barber and wide receiver Ricardo Louis have been consistent playmakers, and big plays have been mostly scarce.
"We need more big plays, that's what we really thrive on. Explosive plays, and (not) turning the ball over," wide receiver Melvin Ray said. "As long as we protect the ball, and really just focus on executing, everybody doing their job to make a big play, it should put us in a good position."
Auburn is 12th in the SEC in both total offense and defense. The defense also has been hampered by injuries, missing starters Carl Lawson and Tray Matthews against Jacksonville State. Defensive back Joshua Holsey went down early with a season-ending knee injury and cornerback Blake Countess was ejected late in the first half for a targeting penalty.
The biggest issue defensively has been on third down, where the first two opponents have successfully converted at a 48.5-percent clip.
"We've got to get the offense back on the field and give them a chance to get in rhythm," defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said.
Auburn allowed 438 yards to the Gamecocks and couldn't contain receiver Josh Barge, who had 14 catches. None of that cost Auburn (2-0) a defeat going into the Southeastern Conference opener, but it left them looking like anything but a league contender.
Auburn is a touchdown underdog against LSU after plummeting 12 spots in the AP poll.
In the meantime, Ray said it's important to tune out much of the criticism.
"As a team we're not really worried about it," the receiver said. "At the end of the day we know what we have with each other and know what we're capable of. We know we haven't played up to our standard, but we're still 2-0 and we haven't played as good as we want to play, so we know we can only go up from here.
"That's what we plan on doing."