A weekly update on how Auburn’s future opponents are faring and where Tiger fans’ worry level should be headed.
Week 2: Mississippi State. The Bulldogs dispatched in-state cuppitycake Jackson St. 45-7 in the first-ever meeting between the SEC school and the historic SWAC. As cash-strapped SWAC teams tend to be on the iffy side even by I-AA standards, it’s hard to know exactly what to think about State’s debt. Outgaining the Tigers by more than 200 yards is a positive. Leading them by only 14 at the half is a negative. Having State’s two-headed QB go 16-for-25 with 3 TDs and no picks is a positive. 12 penalties for a whopping 152 yards is a negative.
The bottom line, in my oh-so-humble-opinion, is that this game is probably a lot closer without the bevy of self-inflicted JSU errors–the Tigers racked up 15 penalties and turned the ball over 5 times. State only had to post just one scoring drive longer than 34 yards to reach their 45 points. It’s a hell of a lot better than losing to Maine, but this still isn’t the kind of dominance Arkansas or Vandy showed off vs. their I-AA punching bags.
Worry Level: Down ever-so-slightly
3: West Virginia. If you had to pick one adjective to describe the ‘Eers 33-20 win over the Flyin’ Falwells of Liberty U., you’d have to go with “workmanlike.” (WVU blog The Smoking Musket went with “Eh.” You get the point.)WVU was never in any real danger of losing the game, leading by at least two possessions the entire second half and outgaining the Flames by nearly 140 yards, but at the same time if you have to keep your starters on the field entering the fourth quarter against a run-of-the-mill I-AA opponent, you really haven’t had the best day.
The ‘Eers biggest problem was finishing drives–WVU averaged better than 9 yards a pass, picked up 5.7 yards a run, and never turned the ball over. But they also had to settle for four Tyler Bitancourt field goals to keep Liberty in the game. If this was a C-USA or MAC team, I think you could chalk up the struggles to apathy and move on. But Liberty’s a team WVU should have put away much earlier even in their sleep.
Worry Level: Down ever-so-slightly (again)
4: Ball State. For their first performance of the Stan Parrish era, the Cardinals laid one of the most notorious eggs of Week 1, scoring just 10 points against one of the worst defenses in the country and losing at home to North Texas 20-10. Stunningly, the game wasn’t even as close as the score: the Mean Green outgained the Cards by more than 200 yards and gained 11 more first downs. This was a straight-up ass-kicking on BSU’s own home turf.
And if you can’t avoid getting your ass kicked at home by North Texas, you aren’t winning in Jordan-Hare.
Worry Level: Way, way down
5: Arkansas. The Hogs showed State and WVU how to handle your business against a I-AA tomato can, returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown and scoring on their first seven possessions to grind Missouri St. into a fine 48-10 dust. Ryan Mallett completed 17-of-22 for 14 (!) yards an attempt and Michael Smith got plenty of rest for bigger Saturdays to come, carrying just four times. From an offensive standpoint, there wasn’t much the Hogs could have done better. As you’d expect.
Defensively, it’s still OK to express a certain level of skepticism towards the Hogs: the Bears did put together first-half scoring drives of 56 and 53 yards. But if the Hog offense really is as fine-tuned as it appeared to be Saturday, it won’t matter.
Worry Level: Up a tick
6: Tennessee. You’ve no doubt heard by now about the Vols’ glorious resurgence, and when Phil Steele’s computer says you had the second-best week in the country, yeah, that’s worth something. Probably the biggest positive for UT coming out of their 63-7 shredding of hapless Western Kentucky was how utterly dominant their run game was–8.6 yards-a-carry would be impressive if they’d been playing Western Kentucky High School.
So, yes, the trip to Knoxville looks tougher than it did before Week 1. But until Crompton learns to finally hang onto the ball–two more picks to throw on the pile–the Vols could still have problems against teams that aren’t scraping the bottom of the D-I barrel.
Worry Level: Up
7: Kentucky. Miami (the Ohio one) went 2-10 in the MAC last year, is breaking in a new coaching staff, and is near-universally expected to finish in the cellar of the MAC East.
Still, crushing the life out of the RedHawks 42-0 isn’t the sort of thing ye olde Kentucky squad would have managed. Most troubling, the Hartline-to-Cobb connection appeared to be as potent as the ‘Cats would have hoped: Cobb finished with 7 catches for 96 yards and a TD while Hartline went an efficient 17-of-22 for 222 yards without a pick.
We’ll see what happens when the ‘Cats face an opponent with more than one quarter of fight in them, but this was a better debut than I expected from them.
Worry Level: Up
8: LSU. LSU fans were less than thrilled about their team’s 31-23 skate past Washington–who, you may recall, finished last season 0-12–and when you’ve just seen your supposedly revamped defense gashed for 478 yards and your offense wheeze to just 321 yards of their own, it’s understandable.
But I wouldn’t worry too much about LSU just yet. The game was in Seattle and late even by Pac-10 standards–the entire fourth quarter took place (I believe) after midnight LSU time. Plus, it’s a 2,500-mile trip. Plus, the Huskies were already a different team last year when Jake Locker was healthy; that goes double now that they have a guy who knows what he’s doing on the sideline.
There’s no doubt that yardage margin is still a heck of a red flag, but I’ll wait to see what LSU does at home against Vandy before thinking the trip to Baton Rouge is really any easier. (Oh, and if you missed it: the ‘Dores absolutely annihilated their I-AA snackycake in a way I can’t ever remember them doing before against anyone. You’ve been warned, Purple Tigers.)
9: Ole Miss. Let’s be honest: the thing that Houston Nutt teams do is yo-yo between greatness and incompetence from week-to-week and even quarter-to-quarter, right? So it wasn’t all that surprising to see the Rebels take the first half of their game against Memphis to play some Minesweeper, answer their e-mail, and make one or two personal phone calls before finally getting down to the business of beating the Tigers 45-14.
Yeah, it’s nice to know Jevan Snead is permanently stuck in the “Seek and Destroy” setting he appeared to play in the last month of the 2008 season, but otherwise, I don’t think there’s any insight to the Rebels’ future results here, any more than there were in their losses to Carolina and Vandy last year.
Worry Level: Steady
10: Furman. Just so you’re aware, the Paladins beat the Blue Hose of Presbyterian–alma mater of the Official Father of WBE and a long-time personal favorite–by a 45-21 score.
Worry Level: Flatlined
11: Georgia. You watched this game, right? Then you saw what I saw–a severaly underrated defense that more than held its own against what should be one of the best offenses in the country, and an offense that had a major advantage along the line of scrimmage and decided to go away from that in order to ask Joe Cox to throw to a blanketed A.J. Green and … um … some other guys.
I was high on Okie St. to start the year and won’t hold a competitive road loss against the Dawgs too harshly, but there’s no way the Cowboy D should have improved so drastically as to hold UGA to 3 points over the final 55 minutes. Until Cox and company prove they can move the ball against an SEC-caliber defense, the game in Athens looks a little bit more winnable.
Worry Level: Down
12: Alabama. I’ve seen a couple of Auburn fans on the Internets claim that because Virginia Tech led the Tide after three quarters despite gaining, like, -17 yards, the Tide are more vulnerable than previously thought.
This is some seriously wishful thinking. The Tide offense was breaking in a brand-spanking new offensive line and starting quarterback and was facing one of the best-coached defenses in all of football and they still racked up almost 500 yards of offense. While that was going on, their defense was, well, what their defense was supposed to be. If Tech doesn’t run that kickoff back and McElory doesn’t throw those picks–not events likely to repeat themselves if these teams played again– it’s a 37-10ish horse-whipping that people end up comparing to the LSU dismantling of the Hokies a couple years back.
Sorry. I wish I could tell you otherwise. But with the Tide’s offense looking as sharp as it did, it’s impossible to say the Iron Bowl has gotten any easier since last November.
Worry Level: Up.
Overall: With Ball St. now firmly in the “gimme” column and State and WVU just a hair less intimidating, that 4-0 start at home looks a bit more likely, and picking off one of LSU or Georgia on the road looks like it might be attainable after all. But the middle stretch of the 11-week gauntlet–at Arkansas, at Tennessee, and vs. Kentucky–looks even more formidable than it already did.