Auburn’s challenging stretch opens with a visit from LSU _lowres

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn claps for his players during the second half as they take on Louisiana Tech of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Auburn, Ala.(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

AUBURN, Ala. — The Auburn Tigers are gearing up for a brutal stretch that could bury their hopes of repeating as Southeastern Conference champions or establish them firmly as national title contenders again.

The fifth-ranked Tigers start the parade of games that includes five opponents ranked in the top 15 with No. 15 LSU on Saturday. It’s just Round 1 of survive and advance that follows a 45-17 win over Louisiana Tech.

Receiver Quan Bray is confident Auburn can handle it and cites the “13 seconds better” mantra after losing to Florida State in last season’s BCS title game on a touchdown with that much time remaining.

“It’s not going to be hard for us to win the SEC championship,” Bray said. “We’re the defending SEC champions, and we’re going to try to defend that. And we’re going to try to move on and be 13 seconds better. We’re going to earn it. ... They’re going to have to take it from us.”

The list of contenders is long in the SEC West, where six teams are ranked. Auburn’s six-game stretch also includes East Division teams South Carolina, which just fell from the rankings, and No. 13 Georgia. Making the situation tougher is the uncertainty of three starters who were hurt against Louisiana Tech: right tackle Patrick Miller and linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy.

Offensively, Auburn (4-0, 1-0) has struggled the past two games with consistency and converting third downs, something that had been a strength. Coach Gus Malzahn said the perfect record is the most meaningful statistic but knows that “we’re fixing to enter the grind.”

“I think we’re in a good spot,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got to keep improving. We did that last year. That’s hard to do.”

Auburn players insist they’ve been taking the “one game at a time” mentality and not dwelling on the upcoming stretch. Auburn follows this game with road trips to Mississippi State, No. 11 Mississippi and Georgia along with home games against South Carolina and No. 6 Texas A&M.

And that doesn’t even count the regular-season finale with No. 3 Alabama.

“It’s time to step it up,” Auburn cornerback Jonathon Mincy said. “This is what we came to Auburn to do.”