- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) - Gus Malzahn is hoping Auburn can be a second-half team again.

The fifth-ranked Tigers return from a midseason open date hoping to emerge stronger for the stretch run, much like last season. They’re also trying to rebound from a loss to No. 1 Mississippi State that left Auburn almost certainly needing a 6-0 finish to have a legitimate shot at winning the Southeastern Conference Western Division and making the College Football Playoff.

That bid starts for the Tigers (5-1, 2-1 SEC) as more than two-touchdown favorites Saturday night against South Carolina (4-3, 2-3).

“Any time you lose your last game, you can’t wait to get on the field and get out there,” Malzahn said. “The thing about our team is I feel pretty comfortable with how they’re going to respond, because we have a lot of veteran guys that have been through a lot of different experiences.”

That includes a nine-game winning streak last season that ended in the national championship game.

The emphasis isn’t altogether different this time around, except it’s more about fine-tuning than identifying strengths. Auburn is averaging 268 rushing yards per game behind quarterback Nick Marshall and tailback Cameron Artis-Payne, but Malzahn feels the Tigers can still be more effective on the ground. That includes trying to turn the zone read back into the nearly unstoppable force it became last season after a road loss to LSU.

One issue is that injuries have forced Auburn to shuffle the starting five along the offensive line. Avery Young has started three different positions on the line and Chad Slade has logged starts at both guard spots. Only left tackle Shon Coleman and center Reese Dismukes have started every game at the same position.

“It really comes down to the execution part,” Malzahn said. “We were very efficient, especially in the second half of the year last year, and we’re hoping that the same thing will happen this year. A lot of it has to do with we’ve had some injuries up front. We’ve mixed and matched. We really haven’t gotten our guys in the same spot over and over again so you can really get clicking.”

Auburn was coming off its most dominant performance of the season, a 41-7 win over then-No. 15 LSU, before falling to the Bulldogs in a mistake-filled game for both teams that the Tigers have repeatedly called eye-opening.

Safety Josh Holsey thinks Auburn can use that as a growth experience.

“I feel like it really helps us,” Holsey said. “It’s that eye-opener. It shows you in this conference you really have to come to play week in and week out. I feel like it’s really a repeat of last year when we lost to LSU on the road as well. It really brought our team together more than separated us.

“I feel like this year’s going to be the same thing. It’s going to bring us together, that we’re going to get together and make a run for it.”

The defense gets a boost from the return of safety Jermaine Whitehead, who is trying to work his way back onto the field after serving a four-game suspension. Malzahn didn’t indicate when Whitehead, who resumed practicing Sunday, will see action.

It’s also not clear if replacement Holsey is going to have to relinquish the starting spot.

“We all really missed Whitehead,” he said.

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