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Testing, testing: Tigers have their hands full with Razorbacks

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

Say this about the Auburn Tigers: They know how to make things exciting.

Down 17-0 to Clemson? No worries. Get it to overtime and watch the other team miss a chip-shot field goal.

Trailing South Carolina 20-7 in the first half? Give the ball to Cam Newton and let the comeback unfold.

Tied with Kentucky in the fourth quarter? Time to break out a 19-play drive that sets up the winning kick as time expires.

"We're still in search of that complete game," coach Gene Chizik said. "We would like to not be in those situations." But, he quickly added, "I'm very proud of our team and the way they have continued to fight back and not look at the scoreboard and continue to find ways to win."

No. 7 Auburn (6-0, 3-0 SEC) has reached the midway point of the regular with a perfect record, even if the ride has been a bit bumpy. Now comes a crucial two weeks that will go a long way toward determining if the Tigers are playing for the conference title in Atlanta on the first Saturday of December -- and possibly have a shot at a national championship run no one could've seen coming.

The Tigers host No. 12 Arkansas (4-1, 1-1) on Saturday, facing a team that is one poor half against defending national champion Alabama from being unbeaten itself.

"It's really special for me because it's two ranked teams, two people who are right there at the top of the SEC West," said Auburn tackle Lee Ziemba, an Arkansas native. "It's a very close race right now and we're in the meat of our schedule. It's one we've got to win."

Next weekend, Auburn hosts ninth-ranked LSU, a team that also knows a thing or two about pulling out thrilling wins. (Perhaps Les Miles has been saving his most outrageous finish yet for Tigers vs. Tigers).

If Auburn can survive this gauntlet, there's a good chance the Tigers will be 11-0 going into their regular-season finale at Tuscaloosa against the Crimson Tide.

No one is calling Auburn the perfect team. Indeed, there are plenty of imperfections, especially on the defensive line. But chemistry goes a long way, and Tigers hope there's something special at work on the Plains, something that can't be measured by numbers others than wins and losses.

"We've put ourselves in these positions, different types of positions," Ziemba said. "Down 17, driving the length of the field to score, get a turnover like we did against South Carolina. It becomes second nature. You're expecting the game to go down to the wire and when it does get there, you know how to win 'em. It's not a shock."

The Auburn secondary could be in for a shock trying to stop quarterback Ryan Mallett and Arkansas' high-octane passing game. The Razorbacks have averaged 354 yards through the air, nearly 100 ahead of second-place Kentucky (and the Tigers had all sorts of troubles last week trying to stop the Wildcats before their time-sapping final drive pulled out a 37-34 victory).

Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino downplayed any advantage his team might have when Mallett drops back to pass.

"We feel like it will be a good matchup," he said. "All we do is worry about ourselves. We've got an opportunity now to accomplish our goal. It's still out there in front of us. But to do that, we've got to go to Auburn, play great football and come away with a win."

Besides, the Razorbacks figure to have their hands full trying to keep up with Newton, who has emerged as a dark-horse Heisman candidate with his do-it-all season. He leads the SEC in rushing at 112 yards per game. He leads the conference in passing efficiency, completing nearly 65 percent of his throws for 1,138 yards and 12 touchdowns, with only five interceptions.

"They've got a very explosive offense, and he's the leader of it," Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette said. "He's a guy you definitely have to contain."

Newton has heard some buzz about the Heisman race but doesn't want to get caught up in pursuing his own awards, not when his team has a chance to do something special.

"I'm really a lucky individual to be in the situation I am right now," he said. "But that's an individual award that I don't think this team or me should be focused on right now."

He knows how tough these next two games will be. The way things have gone for the Tigers, they'll probably go right down to the wire.

Auburn has certainly been through that before.

"It's definitely valuable," Ziemba said, "because this next stretch of games coming on, there's going to be some close ones."