Auburn likely kissed away any shot at defending its SEC West crown last weekend by dropping its second conference game of the season to Mississippi State in Starkville but that doesn’t mean the season is completely lost for the Tigers. Gus Malzahn’s program faced a similar situation last season and ended up as arguably the hottest team in the country by the time the regular season had come to an end.

The biggest challenge standing in the way of a similar run to finish this season would be Malzahn and Chip Lindsey’s offense. The Tigers scored only nine points last weekend and only 24 on Southern Miss the week prior. While the lack of a running game was a sign to many that things weren’t going well on The Plains — the Tigers have been held below 100 yards rushing in three consecutive games for the first time under Malzhan — the drop off in Jarrett Stidham’s play was something few could have seen coming.

Auburn’s junior quarterback appears to have lost his confidence and is struggling to hit even the most open targets this season. This play from the Mississippi State game was the most glaring example of Stidham’s decline in production. He clearly flinches as a Mississippi State defender is barrelling down on him but that’s no excuse for not giving his receiver a chance to make a play here:

Here is what Malzahn had to say about Stidham’s struggles to hit open receivers in recent weeks.

“I know he’s aware of it. He’s got to do everything in his power to correct it,” Malzahn said on Tuesday. “He’s really tough on himself and he’s a competitor…. I think he will be better in that area in the second half (of the season), I really do.”

The Auburn coach was later asked a follow-up regarding Stidham’s performance this season and why there’s been such a decline from his outstanding 2017 campaign.

“He’s pretty tough on himself. If you ask him, he’s frustrated, too,” Malzahn noted. “But it’s everything above, everything that goes with it. It’s not just one thing and all that. He’s a really good quarterback and I expect him and our offense to get better in the second half (of the season) and I think you’ll see a difference in our offense in the second half.”

Finally, on Tennessee, Malzahn says there won’t be any surprises from Auburn’s upcoming opponent as Tennessee’s first-year coach is someone Malzahn has been facing on an annual basis since he got the head coaching job at Auburn.

“Jeremy Pruitt, we’ve faced him numerous times. We know each other very well,” Malzahn said. “I think he’s got a talented set of defensive guys, looks similar as it has in the past. The advantage they have is they have two weeks to prepare and heal and all that. The way we are right now, our backs are against the wall, with how we want to finish this thing. Playing at home, I expect our group to be extremely extremely hungry on Saturday.”

That’s a bold statement to make for an 11 a.m. local time kick from Auburn. If the Tigers come out flat, and somehow find a way to lose to Tennessee, Malzahn will be facing questions far more difficult than why his returning starting quarterback is struggling.