- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 25, 2016

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) - The Auburn Tigers have emerged as one of the Southeastern Conference’s hottest teams with a devastating running game and a defense that has been among the league’s best.

The 15th-ranked Tigers have won four straight games since a 1-2 start when the season appeared on the brink. A team that only scored three touchdowns against its first three Power 5 conference opponents made a huge statement last Saturday with a 56-3 stampede of then-No. 17 Arkansas that followed a 24-point victory over Mississippi State.

The Tigers (5-2, 3-1 SEC) have emerged from two seasons of mediocrity following the 2013 league championship run. Their confidence is certainly flying high going into Saturday night’s game at Mississippi (3-4, 1-3).

“Any time you play well, you’re confident,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday. “You’ve got to be confident. You’ve got to be mentally tough. You’ve got to be confident but at the same time you’ve got to keep working. You’ve got to keep the same mentality each week.

“It doesn’t matter what happens. You’ve got to have the same mentality to keep improving. You can’t pat yourself on the back, not in this league.”

Lofty perches do tend to be precarious in the SEC West, where the Razorbacks and Rebels have both tumbled from the rankings. But Auburn’s win over Arkansas was the most lopsided defeat of any Top 25 team this season, and the 543 rushing yards was a record for a regular-season SEC game.

The Tigers were one play away from being 1-3 but escaped with an 18-13, touchdown-free win over No. 19 LSU, which didn’t get off its final throw into the end zone in time. Auburn has been rolling along since.

Rebounding strong from a 7-6 season would be typical of Auburn’s recent history. The runs to the national championship game in 2010 and 2013 followed seasons of 8-5 and 3-9.

The Tigers have produced three of the program’s top 10 performances in total offenses: 706 yards against Arkansas State, 688 against Louisiana-Monroe and most impressively 632 against Arkansas. The latter two have come since that LSU win.

A player who didn’t have a carry in his career, or play in the opening game, now leads the SEC in rushing yards per game. Kamryn Pettway is averaging 116.2 yards on the season and racked up 361 yards in the past two games.

Auburn also leads the SEC in scoring defense, giving up 14.8 points per game. The Tigers held Arkansas to 215 total yards, including 25 on the ground.

Rebels coach Hugh Freeze says Auburn has an elite defense.

“Only giving up 14 points a game is unheard of almost these days,” Freeze said. “You watch them on tape and you see why.”

Cornerback Carlton Davis, like his coach, doesn’t think Auburn can afford to get carried away by the recent success.

“We’ve been improving as a defense this whole year, and last week was another step in our journey,” Davis said. “We just want to continue to improve.”

NOTES: Malzahn expects tailback Kerryon Johnson to be back after missing most of the past two games with an ankle injury. “The good thing is we didn’t have to play him last week,” the coach said. “I thought that was very important moving forward, not just this game but the rest of the year.” … Cornerbacks Jeremiah Dinson (knee and shoulder) and Jamel Dean (knee) are unlikely to play this season but should be ready in the spring, Malzahn said. Neither has played. Dean transferred from Ohio State.

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More AP college football: https://collegefootball.ap.org

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