Part 1: The Hex
The history of the Auburn-Arkansas rivalry is not a long one, like Auburn-Georgia, nor is it studded with bizarre oddities like the Auburn-LSU series. But it is one fraught with more than its share of upsets and shocking outcomes, not to mention season-wrecking derailings (or season-derailing wrecks!) that knocked Auburn out of SEC Championship Game appearances and bigger bowl berths.
So, before we break down this year’s matchup and look at what Auburn has learned (or should have learned) about itself up to this point in the season, let’s look back at the brief but electrically charged history of Tigers vs. Hawgs.
We begin with the first clash between the two, when Arkansas was still a member of the oft-not-lamented Southwestern Conference. All that stands out in the collective memory of your intrepid columnists about that 1984 Liberty Bowl tilt was Auburn’s wishbone attack facing Arkansas’ then-newfangled “flexbone” offense. Suffice to say the good guys won, even with Bo Jackson sidelined with an injury. No hex detected as of yet.
Once Arkansas entered the SEC in 1992, however, an astute observer could already sniff the beginnings of what we will refer to as the “Hawg Hex” in the air. That 24-24 draw in Jordan-Hare denied Pat Dye a winning record and possibly a bowl berth in his final season. The following year, when Terry Bowden’s first squad traveled to Fayetteville for the first time in Auburn history, they had to wait while tractors scraped snow and ice off the field, even as AU equipment guys raided local stores for heavy winter gear they hadn’t known they’d need to bring. Clearly, this was a sign of Hell freezing over, as Auburn actually managed to defeat Arkansas 31-21 in a season where doing so made a difference.*
The next clash of note came in 1995, and with this game the Hawg Hex was in full effect. Had Auburn prevailed, they would have won the SEC West Division and played in their first SEC Championship Game. Arkansas led 30-20 with time winding down until Pat Nix engineered a scoring drive (and two-point conversion) to pull the score to 30-28. Getting the ball back, Auburn drove into field goal position and Matt Hawkins lined up to win the game on the final play.
Of course, he missed. The Hex had struck again. Heck, even the sporting gods frowned on this game—its climactic moments occurred just as the Atlanta Braves were recording the final outs of the decisive game of their only World Series victory on another channel, so the viewing audience was probably exceptionally low.
The 1999 game is just a blur in the Wishbone’s memory. Amid much media hype that Tommy Tuberville was leading his first Auburn team to his home state, the Tigers laid an immense egg in Fayetteville against a mediocre Hawgs squad, losing 34-10 in a contest that wasn’t even that close. Certainly other games that season were much more winnable—crushing last-second losses at home to Ole Miss and Mississippi State spring to mind—but a win at Arkansas would have given Tuberville a winning record and likely put the Tigers in a bowl game. With the loss, Auburn would end the season 5-6 and home for the holidays.
The Hawg Hex bloomed into full, unquestionable, awful intensity in the back-to-back thrashings of 2001 and 2002. In the 2001 contest, Auburn held things close until a series of unfortunate events, mostly orchestrated by running quarterback (and perpetual thorn-in-AU’s-side) Matt Jones, led to a runaway 42-17 victory in Fayetteville. The following year, in Jordan-Hare, Jones was joined in the mayhem by the seemingly untackleable Fred Talley at running back (ahh, the miserable history of Auburn defenses facing the scrawny scat-backs!), pacing the Hawgs to a 38-17 win. ** (There is a generation of young Auburn fans whose parents threaten, “Do your chores—or else Fred Talley will run loose on you!”) In both of those seasons, an Auburn victory would have put the Tigers in the SEC Championship Game. In both of those seasons, Arkansas came from nowhere to administer unholy beat-downs to the Tigers.
Of course, when it comes to knocking Auburn out of bigger things, the 2006 Arkansas game probably retires the trophy. Auburn fans almost seem to forget that the Tigers achieved 11 victories that season (including a delicious bowl win over Nebraska that should be savored greatly)—an accomplishment equaled or exceeded by only few the greatest squads in modern AU history. And yet, for all of that, the Tigers’ loss to Arkansas spoiled the picture because it knocked Auburn out of contention for conference and perhaps national honors. A win over Arkansas that day ultimately would have given Auburn the SEC Western Division title and a berth in the SEC Championship Game against the about-to-be 2006 National Champion Florida Gators—a team the Tigers had already beaten that season. After the opening kickoff, however, the fact that the day would belong to Arkansas was never in doubt. The Hawgs won 27-10 in a contest that wasn’t as close as the score indicates. Then-Hawg OC Gus Malzahn (why is that name familiar?) impressed observers by pulling out all the stops in a trick-play fiesta that left Auburn’s defensive players dazed and confused (and at least one Wishbone writer wistfully dreaming that Gus might someday become Auburn’s offensive coordinator).
The 2008 game pitted first-year Razorbacks Coach Bobby Petrino against his former boss, Tommy Tuberville, in what would turn out to be the latter’s final season. This Hawg squad was considered poor at best and would go on to finish with a 5-7 record. Even so, they managed a 25-22 victory that condemned the Tigers to a losing record, prevented them from reaching six wins, and likely knocked them out of a bowl appearance. Two months later, Tuberville was out and Petrino was being hailed as one of the brightest coaches in the SEC. So goes the Hawg Hex.
Before someone points it out—yes, we do understand that in most of those years, it wasn’t just the loss to Arkansas that did the Tigers in; yes, a win over some other team would have given Auburn the requisite number of wins instead. But the point is, in most of those years, the “other” teams were the Floridas and LSUs and Alabamas. Arkansas is not a bad program, but they’re not Florida or LSU or Alabama. They are a team that most Auburn fans reasonably believe we should defeat more often than not. And while we do manage at least occasional (but decreasingly frequent) wins over them,*** we seem to lose to them far more often than we should, and at the most inopportune of moments, to boot. The overall record currently sits at 10-8-1 in Auburn’s favor. Only a narrow, hanging-on-at-the-last-second 2-point win in 2007 stands between us and a dead-even series, with Arkansas taking the last four. Thus: The Hawg Hex.
So: In the words of Lenin, what is to be done? What can we take from this season’s performances by each team that gives us some indication of what’s going to happen on Saturday, and what the Tigers can and should do to increase their chances of pulling out the critical victory?
Part 2: How to Break the Hex
Let’s look first at Auburn and how we got to where we are today: sitting first in the SEC West at 6-0.
The Tigers have played four BCS-level teams and two cupcakes. Of the four BCS-level games, Auburn won three of them by a field goal each, and the fourth by eight points.
The reasons why those games were as close as they were are legion and have been well-documented. Each one featured a different dysfunction somewhere along the way, whether it be failing to show up for at least one quarter (or half!), turning the ball over at inopportune moments, failing to create turnovers by the opponent when they would do the most good, giving up vast tracts of real estate to short-passing attacks, and so on.
Why are we 6-0 despite these issues? It’s obvious: the X-factor at quarterback is (so far) a magic eraser capable of wiping away all that bad juju almost singlehandedly. Just. Thus, four very close wins from games in which either the offense or defense or both appeared to check out of the game for at least a quarter. (In retrospect, the offseason mantra of “Good to Great” could have effectively been shortened to “Sign Cam.”)
Arkansas, meanwhile, has looked impressive even against very good teams—and everyone knows how they performed against Alabama. Their defense is much improved (from a defense that, a year ago, was still perfectly capable of shutting down Auburn’s offense for much of that game). The quarterback is arguably the best passer in the conference and will be facing a pass defense allowing 65% of opponents’ passes to be completed—a defense for which the word “porous” might actually be a compliment.
This is, of course, somewhat by design, due to Ted Roof’s schemes favoring stopping the run and the long pass—though surely the expectation was for a lower short-pass-completion percentage than that. (While simulating this game on X-Box, the in-game AI actually admonished Auburn-coaching Ringer for playing an unsound pass defense!) No one believes that Auburn is going to suddenly change defensive philosophies mid-season, so a reasonable expectation would be for a lot of Hawg receivers to catch the ball on Saturday and for the Tigers to surrender mucho yardage via the air.
So is the defensive side of the equation hopeless? Not quite. We believe Auburn can salvage this situation in three ways:
1: Tackle better when opponents catch the ball. Auburn has gone from being one of the better-tackling teams in college football five or six years ago to one of the worst now. We’ve seen far too many missed tackles, too many defensive players diving at ankles and missing, in the past month.
2: Get pressure on Ryan Mallet. Mr. Fairley and Mr. Carter need to do Saturday what they were never able to do against Mike Hartline in Lexington: arrive at the quarterback while he still has the ball and rudely introduce him to the turf. Mallett is not the same type of quarterback as Hartline, who skips around and zips the ball out of there in something like one-and-a-half seconds every play. Mallett can be gotten-to. He’s hard to bring down and he has a quick release, but Auburn needs to at least make him uncomfortable back there and throw off the timing of the Petrino offense. Can it be done? We think so. Arkansas has not faced a defensive line like Auburn’s yet. (But they played Alabama, you argue. Guess what? The Tide is last in the SEC in sacks. Believe it or not, Kentucky has almost twice as many sacks as Alabama.)
3: Generate long, sustained drives on offense. If you watched the Alabama comeback against the Hawgs, the Tide seemed to go mostly with the wildcat formation in the second half and Arkansas had a hard time stopping the run later in the game. Auburn needs to keep running the ball—and not just with Cam carrying it—to wear down the Hawg defense. We have already seen this season that while Dr. Gustav prefers the “pedal to the metal” approach on offense, he’s fully capable of slowing things down and grinding it out and running the clock (the Soul-Crushing Drive against Kentucky was the latest example), and this is probably what we will need to do during at least part of the game this week.
Taking the games each has played against its three strongest opponents, we find that Auburn’s scoring differential (4.6) is only marginally ahead of Arkansas’s (3.3). Halfway through the season, remarkably, the only common opponent they have shared so far is Louisiana-Monroe; both the Tigers and the Hawgs held the War Hawks to a single score, with Auburn running up 52 points to Arkansas’ 31. Ryan Mallett threw for four hundred yards and three touchdowns in that affair, while Cam threw for 245 and three TDs. What can we learn from that? Not much really. We’re terribly, terribly in the dark going into this game.
What do we know? As Coach Chizik might put it, “Auburn has learned how to win close games.” (The Wishbone adds, “And also learned how to give us all heart attacks on a weekly basis.”) Arkansas, meanwhile, has shown the ability to lose close games—or at least one close game. But we honestly don’t have enough evidence to go on, beyond that. Arkansas’ defense is better than last year, but Auburn’s offense is better, too. The Hex aside, trends point toward another close game, and we can only hope that prevailing in such contests truly is a “learned” skill.
Any other reasons for optimism? Any other signs that the dreaded Hawg Hex might be broken, at least this year? Here are three more small reasons for optimism:
1: As much as Auburn gets flagged for this and that (often seemingly imaginary) violation, Arkansas is actually the most penalized team in the SEC. It would be nice to watch a game in which Auburn is the least-penalized team on the field for a change. Perhaps this will be the week.
2: Arkansas is 11th in the SEC in turnover margin, including giving up a surprising seven interceptions. Despite Auburn’s difficulties of late in generating turnovers, this is another micro-trend that might benefit the home team.
3: While Auburn has seemed to pick random quarters to not play well, Arkansas overall has been a first half team. They did not score a second half touchdown in their last two games and they have been outscored in the fourth quarter for the season. Meanwhile Auburn has outscored its opponents in every quarter, but the Tigers are at their best in the fourth, where they are outscoring opponents 41-13. What does that means for Saturday? Expect Arkansas to jump ahead early, then turn the ball over a time or two, and finally see Auburn come from behind and give us yet another nail biter.
In sum: while the Hawg Hex is malevolent and mighty, it may not be strong enough to slow down CamZilla. The X-factor, we believe, may be just enough to overcome the Hex factor.
And whatever happens on Saturday, just remember—regardless of the result, next week we’ll have seven whole days to talk about Les Miles.
* The 1993 Auburn win over Arkansas did make a difference in terms of preserving an undefeated Auburn streak that would ultimately reach twenty games the next year. Conversely, however, one might well argue that because the Tigers were on probation, they had nothing tangible (bowl berths; SEC title game appearances) on the line to lose anyway.
** The orange t-shirt Van wore to the 2002 Auburn-Arkansas game (at the behest of Tommy Tuberville and his “all orange” campaign) was the same shirt Van wore to the 2001 Iron Bowl—and we all remember what happened there. Those were the only two games to which that shirt was ever worn. Suffice to say, it has never seen the light of day again.
*** The 2000, 2003, and 2004 games deserve special mention because, while Auburn prevailed in each of them, the Hex still lingered in the background and made its presence felt at times. The outcome of the 2000 contest was in doubt till the final whistle and a late (intentional) safety by Auburn—reflecting how desperate the Tigers were to get the thing over with—brought the final margin to only 21-19. The 2003 Auburn victory, 10-3, was largely due to holding calls nullifying long scoring runs by Matt Jones and one of the backs. And in 2004, Arkansas (of all opponents!) scored more points—20—against the eventual Sugar Bowl Champs than any other team the Tigers faced in the regular season.
Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.
John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.
Previous Wishbone columns can be found here.
Scootin’ Newton photo by Plainsman photo editor Emily Adams.
Scootin’ Newton t-shirts by Wear Eagle.