Will tomorrow’s early morning start be a wake-up call for the resurgent Auburn Tigers or will the Arkansas Razorbacks hit the snooze button on another SEC season?
All signs point to a high noon (well high elevenish at least) wild SEC West shootout. When the dust clears in the streets of Fayetteville tomorrow afternoon, one gunslinger will put a sixth notch on his pistol while the other crumples to a fatal 0-3 league sprawl.
Auburn will dodge the Mallet bullets, and utilize the Gatling gun, Gus Malzahn-directed offensive arsenal of Chris Todd, Ben Tate, Onterrio McCalebb, Darvin Adams, Mario Fannin, Tommy Trott and Terrell Zachary to shoot down the hopes of the ‘Hogs.
If you listen really closely right now you can hear the squealing. “What about Arkansas’ offense,” it goes. “We don’t just have Mallett, Joe Adams, Greg Childs, Jarius Wright and Michael Smith. We can score too!”
Yes, Hog fans, you do have those weapons. Arkansas has scored points in bunches this season.
Here’s the rub. Arkansas has only faced one SEC-level defense so far this season: Alabama. How did the Razorbacks fare against the Tide? Seven points.
Mallet threw 41 passes and completed only 16 for 191 yards. As a team Arkansas rushed for a meager 63 yards.
Nobody’s saying the Auburn defense is akin to the 17th Annual Crimson Tide “As Good as 1992” defense. It’s probably not in the same neighborhood at this point.
Auburn is in the SEC, however. Despite some obvious flaws and some busted assignments, the Tiger stopping unit is better than any of the rest of the teams Arkansas has played to this point.
Texas A&M on whom the ‘Hogs dumped 47 points? The Aggies are 75th in the country in total defense despite having played only New Mexico State, Utah State and UAB before meeting Arkansas.
Here’s another eye opener. Utah State punished the Aggies, racking up 521 total yards. USU rolled up 334 of those through the air. It makes Mallett’s highlight-filled day against A&M just a little less impressive.
Georgia’s 64th in the nation in total defense. Missouri State? Well, they’re 1-AA.
The other problem is that the Razorbacks are one-dimensional. Through four games, against highly suspect competition, the ‘Hogs have failed to establish any rushing game to speak of. As a team, Arkansas has a total of just over 500 yards.
The Hogs rushed for 155 total yards against Georgia, 63 against Alabama, and 163 against Texas A&M.
When you look at it like that, Arkansas’ offense isn’t quite as frightening.
If Auburn’s defense stops the run game and puts even limited pressure on Mallett, it could be a long afternoon for the Hogs. Conversely, if the Tigers opt not to pressure Mallett and give him ample time to stand in the pocket, he does have the capacity to pick the secondary apart.
As criticized as the Auburn defense has been, and the Tigers have suffered their share of slings and arrows, it is ranked higher than any defense (other than Alabama) Arkansas has faced this season. The Tigers weigh in at 53rd.
Auburn will contain Arkansas, not stop them completely.
The question then becomes how the Tiger offense will fare against the Arkansas defense.
That’s when the shooting starts.
The ‘Hogs are currently ranked 97th in total defense. Only one team on Auburn’s schedule to this point is ranked lower – Ball State, a team the Tigers torched for 54 points.
Arkansas has not stopped anyone this season. The ‘Hogs have barely slowed them down. Texas A&M racked up 484 yards. Georgia posted 530. Alabama rolled for 425.
None of those teams have the offensive firepower Auburn has shown through four games.
Auburn trucked Tennessee for 459 yards in a game that was significantly more lopsided than the final score reflected. Tennessee was in the top ten in the nation defensively at the time the Tigers plowed through the Vols.
Auburn enters Saturday’s showdown ranked second in the nation in scoring offense, behind Texas. The Tigers are fifth in total offense.
A balanced attack is at the core of Malzah’s offense. Auburn split almost dead even at Tennessee, rushing for 224 and passing for 235.
Malzahn has also shown he isn’t afraid to play to what the defense gives him. When West Virginia sold out to stop the run, Malzahn called on Todd who lit up the Mountaineers for 300 yards and four touchdowns.
If the Razorbacks stuff the box to deny Tate and McCalebb, Todd has proven he has the tools to move the ball through the air.
There’s also this to consider: Arkansas-native Malzahn spent one controversy-filled season on the Razorback sideline.
Hired by Houston Nutt to implement his innovative offense but never fully given the reins, Malzahn bolted for Tulsa. The split was acrimonious, divided the fanbase and may have helped hasten Nutt’s own departure from Arkansas a year later. Nutt’s critics note it was the only ten-win season of his Arkansas tenure.
Malzahn returned to his old stomping grounds last season as a Golden Hurricane.
His Conference USA Tulsa squad posted 23 points and more than 500 yards of offense but were unable to take down his former employers. Arkansas prevailed 30-23.
The Golden Hurricanes had the ball at the Arkansas seven late in the game when a failed fourth down attempt derailed their bid to tie.
Malzahn has many more weapons at his disposal as offensive coordinator at Auburn than he did at Tulsa. He’s shown he knows how to use them.
Against Auburn’s defense, the Razorbacks will score. Against Arkansas’ defense, Malzahn’s Tigers will score more.
When the guns stop blazing on Saturday, Auburn will holster its pistol, wipe its brow and take another long swig from the flask of un-defeat.
Enjoy the moment.
There are bigger and badder hombres kicking up dust on the horizon.