A weekly update on how Auburn’s future opponents are faring and where Tiger fans’ worry level should be headed.
Week 5: Tennessee. Last week I spent a good chunk of words in the Stockwatch explaining why Tennessee’s fabulous triumph in meekly succumbing to Florida was more hot air and wishful thinking than actual improvement. So I can’t say I was all that surprised when a decent enough Ohio team hung with the Vols for nearly the full 60 minutes, pulling within 8 points early in the fourth quarter before a late Daniel Lincoln field goal and couple of defensive stops iced the win.
While going nowhere on the ground, the Bobcats had a surprising amount of success through the air, throwing for 319 yards on Eric Berry’s secondary and finishing with just 55 fewer total yards than the Vols. So the Bobcats’ success wasn’t a fluke of luck–though the visitors did get their opening score on a kickoff return, the Vols caught the biggest break of the game when a Crompton fumble returned for a touchdown was shown on replay to have been recovered with the Bobcat-returner-in-question’s foot still just out of bounds.
Still, the big news here is not that Tennessee struggled–the Vols showed themselves to be the kind of team that would have a few quarters’ worth of trouble against an Ohio against UCLA and Florida. The news is that they’ve now got some pretty serious injury questions, starting at middle linebacker, where the inspirational Nick Reveiz has been lost for the year. 3SiB runs down their other concerns here, and they are many. It’s possible that now is the right time to catch them.
Then again: the Vol offense showed its first signs of life since the opener, as Crompton wasn’t, in fact, terrible (50 percent completion rate, 2-to-1 TD/INT ratio, 6.5 yards a pass … not great, but definitely not terrible). Montario Hardesty was his usual self–140 yards on just 20 carries and a TD. If the Vol D was a little more pliable than expected, Crompton’s near-competence makes the notion of Tennessee moving the ball consistently much more plausible. In the end, you can’t expect a team that has this much trouble with Ohio to hang on against Auburn, but the cornered Vols also might be just about due for their first really solid performance.
Worry Level: Down a tick
Week 6: Arkansas. Trivia time: was the yardage margin between the Tide and Hogs closer in the Tide’s 49-14 (and 35-0 at halftime) 2008 whipping, or in Saturday’s 35-7 beatdown? The answer, in fact, is B, by about 100 yards. And if that doesn’t change the fact that the Hogs were run off the field practically from the snap in ’08 and hung around for, oh, a quarter or so this time, it does illustrate a cold hard fact about Bobby Petrino’s team: at least so far, they’re not all that different from the occasionally explosive, defensively-questionable, erratic crew they were last year.
Ryan Mallett was supposed to be the difference-maker (along with an improved defense that has yet to arrive), but he was far from looking the part against the Tide, going 12-for-35 with a TD and a pick and a a miserable 4.6 yards an attempt. Alabama will likely make many quarterbacks look foolish and lost this year, but Mallett wasn’t supposed to be “many quarterbacks,” and since the third quarter of the Georgia game, that’s what he’s been. Especially with precious little help for Mallett from the Hog running attack (3.2 per carry vs. UGa, 2.4 vs. ‘Bama), Auburn’s secondary may fare better in Fayetteville than we’ve thought. Maybe.
Worry Level: Down
Week 7: Kentucky. That one play (you know the one) aside, just a total slaughter: 31-0 at the end of the first quarter, 362 rushing yards for the Gators, less than 3 yards a play for the homestanding ‘Cats. I’m not sure what this kind of result tells us: at a glance you wouldn’t think a team capable of being disintegrated into its component molecules like this could re-integrate itself into a team that wins in J-Hare, but maybe all this tells us is that Urban Meyer has some kind of weird daddy issues with Rich Brooks. (Or, alternatively, unresolved normal issues with Lane Kiffin.) Next week’s home date with the Tide probably won’t tell us much, either; we’ll have to wait ’til their trip to Columbia Oct. 10 to get a decent read.
Worry Level: Down, just slightly
Week 8: LSU. You could excuse the escape at Washington with the trip and the time difference. You could excuse the snoozefest against Vandy with the fact that everyone does that against Vandy. You could excuse that they let the Ragin’ Cajuns hang around for a half with the fact that Who Cares?
But eventually, the excuses run out and the truth becomes clear: this LSU team just isn’t all that good. Against the same Mississippi St. defense that Auburn lit up for 390 rushing yards on 6.6 a carry, LSU rushed 31 times for 30 yards. The same Bulldogs that Auburn outgained by 292 yards outgained LSU by 111. The same State team that Auburn buried by 25 was an inch–maybe less–away from beating LSU, and that’s after State wound up on the wrong end of a 4-to-0 turnover margin. The Tigers now rank 105th in total offense, and that’s after playing … wait for it … Washington, Vanderbilt, Louisiana, and Miss. St.
Maybe I shouldn’t play the comparison game with the two Miss. St. results; LSU has (like Auburn) shown a knack for big plays in all three phases that have negated some of their problems moving and stopping the ball, and you have to give Jordan Jefferson a lot of credit for continuing to play efficiently and effectively at quarterback. Then again, I said that based on the comparison of Miss. St.’s and LSU’s respective games against Vandy that the Bulldogs might be dangerous, and you saw how that turned out.
Worry Level: Down
Week 9: Ole Miss. Well, after holding Carolina to 1.9 yards-per-carry in their place, fair to say the Rebel defensive line was pretty much as advertised.
Everything else? Not so much. I wouldn’t write off the Rebels as quickly as some people seem to be–Snead had games like this to open last year, too, and we all know Houston Nutt’s 10 times the coach as an underdog rather than the favorite–but that offensive line looked like quite the hot mess, and I’d totally be lying to you if I thought there weren’t some deep, deep shades of Auburn 2003 in that performance. Until further notice, they’re just another good SEC West team.
Worry Level: Down
Week 10: Furman. The Paladins led 20-0 at the half and cruised to a 33-14 win over winless Western Carolina. You might remember WCU as the team Vandy tore to pieces to open the season. So, if you’re wondering how good Furman is, they’re 19 points better than a team 45 points worse than Vandy. I hope that helps.
Worry Level: Flatlined
Week 11: Georgia. For God’s sake, Dawgs, would you please show some kind of week-to-week consistency? This time the Defense-First-Shakily-Quarterbacked Georgia team that made the trip to Okie St. showed up (as opposed to the Defense-Nonexistent-Awesomely-Quarterbacked team that’s been around the last two weeks) and held off Arizona St. 20-17 at home on a last-second field goal.
That last little bit doesn’t sound too promising for their future chances, does it? But the Dawgs were, without a doubt, the better team–they outgained the Sun Devils by 130 yards and would have rested a lot easier down the stretch if not for back-to-back third quarter turnovers that led directly to both of ASU’s touchdowns. At some point, you have to figure the Dawgs (now an incredible -9 in turnover margin on the season, 116th in D-I) quit playing so fast and loose with the ball. But if they don’t–or if they mix-and-match themselves into Defense-Nonexistent-Shakily-Quarterbacked mode–there’s a lot of teams left on the Dawgs’ schedule who could hand them a loss.
Worry Level: Steady
Our running game was pretty much smoked by the Hogs today, and we could manage very little on the ground. If you factor out Richardson’s long touchdown run — which, truth be told, barring the incredible run, should have been a three yard loss — Ingram and Richardson averaged roughly 2.5 yards per carry on 25 carries. I really hate to say it, but I’m afraid this is a problem we cannot fix. Again, as I mentioned in the preview, we’re over 100 pounds lighter this year at the point of attack, and we simply cannot manhandle SEC caliber defensive fronts anymore. And the little success we are getting in the running game is honestly do to having some incredible tailbacks. Honestly, if we had average tailbacks, we’d be in a world of hurt right now. As effective as our passing game has been to date, I hate to say it but offensively we are almost wholly reliant on that passing game to move the football. If the passing game ever goes out, I’m afraid we’re in major trouble offensively.
Now, just keep thinking about that and ignore the fact that Greg McElroy has been playing like a man possessed by the demon of Ridonkulously Good Quarterbacking and that the defense just humiliated what was supposed to be one of the most dangerous offenses in the league. That stuff doesn’t matter. It’s just the running thing. (There’s also the “unfortunate year-ending injury to starting LB Donta’ Hightower” thing. Even at Alabama, replacing a ‘backer as good as Hightower is no mean feat, but with the Tide’s 47 scholarship linebackers and a coachbot around to hand-select the cream of the crop, they should be OK.)
Worry Level: Steady.
Mississippi St. looked like they might be ready to make Auburn’s comfy win over them look nice and shiny, didn’t they? Too bad a) there’s nothing they can really do about Tyson Lee at QB b) if you haven’t noticed, their schedule is absolutely murderous–nice timing on getting Houston into town, guys. Don’t expect the Bulldogs to go bowling just yet, and don’t expect anyone but a handful of SEC diehards to realize how improved the Bulldogs already are under Mullen.
Louisiana Tech and West Virginia both enjoyed byes. It looks less and less like Tech is going to be anything more than a random snacky-cake win, though: the same Nicholls St. team that the Bulldogs struggled with for the first 20 minutes lost to Ryan Perriloux’s Jax State team 60-10. We’ll see what happens in WAC play, but I just don’t see a lot of signs that the Bulldogs are going to have the kind of year they envisioned.
Overall: Ole Miss and LSU flunk their first legitimate SEC tests, Arkansas looks like the Arkansas of the past two seasons, Georgia remains as erratic as ever, and Tennessee fails to look like anything more than the team that lost to UCLA. Sweet.
As I said yesterday, I wouldn’t go expecting Auburn to do anything crazy. None of those four road games are going to come easy at all, and there’s a reason Ole Miss had the season they had last year. But based on results-to-date, there’s now just the one game on Auburn’s schedule–that last one–that couldn’t be classified as “winnable, at least.” The rest? Tossups or better, every one.