Arkansas makes me more nervous than any team Auburn plays. In my years as an Auburn fan, the Arkansas game has always seemed harder to predict than any other game. Part of this was the strange, mercurial momentum that characterized Houston Nutt’s teams. When they were good, they often played poorly. When they were poor, they often played well. No one could predict what emotional high-jinx Nutt himself would bring to the game: lunatic leers; schoolgirl tears; cheerleader bounce. Even worse, Tubb’s normally cool and consistent teams, teams you could count on to play heady physical ball, fell to pieces against Nutt’s boys. They were flat, unable to maintain leverage or gap control, and gashed by qb’s (Matt Jones) or rb’s (Fred Talley). It seemed like Tubbs simply could not get himself or his teams focused on Arkansas. But Nutt could get himself and his bunch focused on Auburn.
Today’s game lacks both Tubbs and Nutt. Instead, we have battling former Auburn coordinators. Each is among the best coordinators that Auburn has had. Each flirted with, and one actually got, the Auburn job. Strange incidents with planes mark each’s Auburn ties: Petrino’s clandestine plane-fueled meeting with AU officials and Chizik’s infamous heckled landing in Auburn. Today, each brings in a top SEC offense and at best a mediocre defense.
Lots has been written about the offenses and the defenses, but I believe today’s game, like most recent AU/Arkansas tilts, will be decided in the running game. Particularly, today’s game will be decided by Auburn’s ability to control Arkansas’ running game. In the past, when Auburn has played poorly against Arkansas, the problem has been their ability to stop Arkansas running backs. That will tell the tale today. If Arkansas rushes for fewer than 100 yards, Auburn wins. If they rush for more than 150, Arkansas wins. If they rush for 100-150, the game will be a toss-up, likely decided by a late turnover.
Auburn will not stop the Arkansas passing game, but as long as Arkansas cannot run, Auburn will manage the Arkansas passing game, forcing Mallet to move the ball via multiple short passes, hoping to force errors and to benefit from some unforced ones. Auburn will, barring multiple turnovers, move the ball and score points. So, the key for today is Arkansas’ running back, Smith. He killed Auburn last year but he has struggled this year. I am sure he is hoping for another encounter with Auburn to vault him back to last year’s form.
Look for Smith to play better than he has played so far. But look for Auburn to keep him from being effective enough to turn the game in Arkansas’ favor. Both teams score, but Auburn’s defense will be opportunistic enough to give their offense more and better positions. Auburn wins, 31-23.
Dr. Jolley is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University. He works in the theory of judgment, the history of 20th- Century philosophy, metaphilosophy and philosophical psychology. He also likes football and was recently profiled by The New York Times. His book “The Concept ‘Horse’ Paradox and Wittgensteinian Conceptual Investigations” was published in 2007. “Leisure with Dignity,” his column for TWER, runs bi-monthly to monthly. Write to him at [email protected].