The stakes always are high when Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn match wits.
Their third meeting won’t have a national championship riding on it, which was the case six years ago when Fisher’s Florida State Seminoles rallied to beat the Tigers 34-31 for the 2013 BCS national championship.
But Saturday’s Southeastern Conference opener will be an indicator of where both teams might stack up in the top-heavy Western Division. No. 8 Auburn (3-0) is one of three Top 10 teams in the division along with No. 2 Alabama and No. 4 LSU. The Tigers and the 17th-ranked Aggies (2-1) also have to play third-ranked Georgia from the SEC East.
“You [can] set a tone,” Fisher said. “But you’ve got to reset that tone each and every week. That’s the thing about it. It doesn’t matter. It’s just one game at a time. It’s a conference game. It’s an important game, and it’s an intradivisional game that’s important. It puts you in a great position if you can have success.”
No team in the SEC West has lost two conference games and won the division since 2007, and six times the winner went unbeaten. That’s why Saturday’s loser is likely out of the race after one game, while the winner — considering how good Alabama and LSU appear to be — may still only finish third.
Whatever happens down the road, though, both programs know one-step-at-a-time is the only successful approach in the SEC.
“None are bigger than others, but the biggest one is the one in front of us,” Fisher said.
A&M is a 3.5-point favorite over Auburn, and based on the first two Fisher vs. Malzahn meetings, it’ll come down to the final minutes.
Auburn jumped to a 21-3 lead over Florida State in the 2013 BCS title game. The Seminoles rallied for a 27-24 lead, then Auburn regained the lead only to have Florida State score with 13 seconds left for the victory.
That certainly was Malzahn’s toughest loss.
Last year, Auburn, despite behind totally outplayed, wiped out a double-digit deficit in the last six minutes to give Malzahn the satisfaction of beating Fisher.
“We were fortunate to win that game the way we played offensively,” Malzahn said. “If it wasn’t for the last two series ....”
Fisher’s 27th loss as a head coach didn’t cost him a national championship, but it did eventually deny him a seventh 10-win season and second place in the SEC West.
“They’re all tough,” Fisher said when asked if losing at Auburn was the season’s toughest loss. “I’m not going to lie. I mean they’re all tough. We had a chance to be successful, but that’s why there’s time on the clock. You’ve got to play, and you’ve got to make plays. They made plays toward the end, and we weren’t able to match that. We made them early, and they come out on top in a heck of a game. But to say that’s the most discouraging [loss], they’re all tough. The toughest loss? They’re all tough.”
Malzahn certainly has had his share of tough losses in recent seasons. He’s had only one season better than 8-5 since facing Fisher in the title game, leading Auburn to a 10-3 record in 2017. That earned him a seven-year, $49 million contract with 75% fully guaranteed. He has yet to pay the fan base huge dividends on the extension.
While A&M rebounded from last year’s Auburn loss to win four straight, the Tigers split four games and faded into fifth place in the West at 3-5.
The victory over the 25th-ranked Aggies was one of few shining moments after Auburn opened the season with a 21-16 victory over sixth-ranked Washington. The Tigers, who climbed to seventh, eventually plummeted from the national rankings after suffering back-to-back losses to unranked Mississippi State and Tennessee. Auburn closed the season on a high note with a 63-14 thrashing of Purdue in the Music City Bowl.
The Tigers opened this season ranked 16th and cracked the Top 10 after beating a Pac-12 team in the opener — Washington 27-21 — for the second straight season. Auburn built on that good fortune by beating undermanned Tulane 24-6 and Kent State 55-16.
Now comes the first of five games against ranked teams for the Tigers, who still have to face ninth-ranked Florida, LSU, Georgia and Alabama this season.
“Like Coach Malzahn said Sunday, those first three games don’t even count, because they’re not in our conference,” Auburn safety Daniel Thomas said. “This is really going to tell who is going to be in Atlanta at the end of the year.”
A&M matched its best finish in SEC play last season despite opening conference play with a 45-23 loss at top-ranked Alabama. A&M had won its SEC opener the previous four seasons.
A&M will start only one or two seniors on Saturday, which is why many expect the Aggies to be a contender to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff next season with a veteran team and a much kinder schedule sans Clemson and Georgia. Fisher, meanwhile, has often pointed to the great opportunity this year’s team has with a schedule that’s shaping up as the toughest in school history.
Auburn is the second of five potential Top 10 matchups for the Aggies this season. Led by a good defensive showing, A&M was competitive in a 24-10 loss at top-ranked Clemson on Sept. 7, but the Tigers maintained control throughout the second half. It was a far cry from last year’s game that went down to the final minute with Clemson holding on for a 28-26 victory. Many Aggie fans were disappointed in this year’s result, but Fisher called that a good thing as everyone connected with the program is raising their expectations.
“If you want to have the goals and aspirations of where you want to go, we have to play,” Fisher said, highlighting Saturday’s game against Auburn as another step on the Aggies’ 2019 ladder of opportunity. “This is going to be one heck of a test for us, and I’m looking forward to watching our kids practice, prepare and play.”
Malzahn shares the feeling.
“We’re excited for the opportunity,” he said.