In my Outback Bowl preview, I noted that in terms of the 2010 season, Auburn might have been better off just losing to Northwestern. If the price of victory was going to be raising expectations to the kinds of unmanageable heights the 2002 Cap One and 2007 Chick-Fil-A wins did, Auburn would have been better served just saying “thanks, but no thanks.”
Which, come to think of it, maybe they did. (Ben Tate: a hero to the last.) In any case, Gene Chizik sort of came away with the best of both worlds: a massive victory with which to send his seniors off and cap his first season, but with the kind of obvious issues that should keep expectations well tamped down.
How tamped down? If the very early returns from ESPN’s Mark Schlabach and Rivals.com are any indication, “fourth place in the SEC West”-level tamped down. Anyone not an Auburn fan will probably respond to that with “Well, duh: 3-5 in the SEC, hardly dominant in your bowl win, the best defensive player graduating from a unit that was plenty shaky to begin with … what’s your point”?
My point is to contrast Auburn’s absence with this, from Schlabach:
16. Arkansas Razorbacks With quarterback Ryan Mallett returning to school, the Razorbacks could be the sleeper team in the SEC. The Hogs won five of their last six games in coach Bobby Petrino’s second season, and their only loss down the stretch was a 33-30 overtime defeat at LSU. Nine starters might be coming back on offense, including all of Mallett’s favorite weapons. Four starters must be replaced on defense, including tackle Malcolm Sheppard and linebacker Wendel Davis.
Rivals isn’t quite as optimistic about the Hogs, but plugs them in at No. 23. Both top-25s agree, anyway, that Alabama-LSU-Arkansas will finish 1-2-3 in some order. (Well, to be more accurate, that LSU and the Hogs will finish 2-3 in some order.)
This despite the fact that Auburn’s “3-5 in the SEC, hardly dominant in bowl win, best defensive player graduating from a unit that was plenty shaky to begin with” profile fits Arkansas just as snugly as it does the Tigers, with All-SEC tackle Malcolm Sheppard playing the Antonio Coleman role. Why? Two words, ones that rhyme with “Schmyan Schmallet.” (And maybe two others that rhyme with “slimeweasel.” Err, “Crobby Cretrino.”)
— Auburn’s defense wasn’t great, but it was still a damn sight better than the Hogs‘, and assuming Etheridge-for-McNeil is an even swap, Auburn returns one more starter on D
— If Auburn was less-than-perfect and a little lucky in their bowl game, they were miles better than the Hogs, who were way-less-than-perfect and hella lucky against weaker competition
— Auburn won an SEC game on the road this year; Arkansas did not
— Auburn will get immediate help from a top-10 or even top-5 recruiting class; Arkansas’s class as currently constructed is battling it out with Vandy’s as the worst in the SEC
— Whatever spike the Hogs should going from Year 1 (or 2, if you count the transfer year) of the Petrino/Mallett marriage to Year 2/3 should be surpassed by the spike going from the first year to Year 2 of the reign of Malzahn and Chizik/Roof, right?
The point of all this is not to stamp my feet and whine that Auburn’s being overlooked and deserves the attention the Hogs are getting; while I certainly think Auburn’s due for a huge 2010, quarterback has to be chalked up as a question mark until it’s not, Ben Tate might be hard to replace, there’s no star defender, etc. There’s reasons to overlook Auburn, reasons to focus on Arkansas.
But the point is that when you’re looking for your 2010 SEC sleeper–and that you can’t have a top-25 with just three SEC teams is the principal excuse for ranking the Hogs in this exercise, I’m sure–there’s just as many reasons not to overlook Auburn, just as many to overlook a team like Arkansas. But for whatever reason, the preseason Angel of Expectational Death* appears to be in the process of passing over Auburn’s (and Georgia’s and Tennessee’s) door.
That’s a heck of a stroke of luck if you ask me–an even bigger one if we hit next August with this same set of assumptions intact**, of course–and one whose echoes of the 2000 season couldn’t be more welcome.
*It has the face of Skip Bayless and the voice of Pam Ward.
**Seriously, you don’t want to be the team that’s expected to take a big leap forward in the SEC. Ole Miss this year; Georgia 2008; Auburn 2003, 2008; Arkansas 2007, 2003; Alabama 2000; South Carolina, like, every year; I could go on. If your team is ranked way higher in the pre-season than it was at the end of the previous year, that’s a bad, bad sign.