If you asked most Hog fans what the pivotal games on our schedule were before the season, they would have had Georgia (L), Ole Miss, and South Carolina circled on the schedule. We prognosticators said, "If we beat Georgia, we go 8-4; if not, 7-5. We chalked this weekend's Auburn game up in the W column in January. In 2008, Auburn didn't seem to have an SEC caliber QB, moved the ball like Berryville playing Shiloh Christian, fired the only coach to have predominant success against Auburn's arch nemesis and in-state rival, Alabama, and subsequently hired a head coach with a career 5-19 record (in the Big 12 North nonetheless. Hell, a bunch of Journalists from Columbia, Missouri have success here. Chizik can't?). I hate to be cliche (not really, I love it), but a wise man once said, "Don't count your October chickens in January." Now with the annual SEC West match-up looming only two days away, that January "W" doesn't seem to have manifested itself so easily.
It's been said before, a good coach surrounds himself with great assistants. No man did this better in college football than Arkansas legend, Frank Broyles (so well, in fact, the award for the nation's best assistant coach is his namesake). It seems Gene Chizik pulled a page from Broyles playbook for 2009. Chizik hired an up-and-coming offensive coordinator in Gus Malzahn. While Malzahn's college football resume is short, it's impressive. He gained notoriety in Springdale, AR guiding teams to state championships and gaudy offensive numbers using his Hurry-up No Huddle offensive strategy (he literally "wrote the book on it." Okay, maybe it was a video). Malzahn moved from Springdale to a tumultuous year with many of his star players to the UofA where he was blessed with one of the most talented backfields in NCAA history. This is where GUS MALZAHN popularized the Wildcat package with DMac and Felix the Cat. (Credit has been splashed around, but it was Malzahn who allowed David Lee to take it to the Miami Dolphins and Houston Nutt to the Ole Miss Rebels.) After the year in the Ozarks, Malzahn fled the tyranny of the Nutt Regime to allow his offense to blossom with Tulsa Hurricanes; all he did there was transform an offense into the nation's most prolific group in two years. Gene Chizik noticed, much to the joy of the Auburn faithful.
Now, onto the game. What's on the line? The Auburn Tigers enter a transformed team under Chizik and Malzahn. They're 5-0, and one of those lucky ones with national championship hopes on the line. While they haven't entered the meat of the SEC schedule, the difference in 2008 and 2009 is night and day. They average 41.4 points per game up from 17.3 and 513 yards per game up from 303 last year. Through 5 games this year, the Tigers have scored 207 points; last season, they scored 208... throughout the entire season. The strength of this offense is the ground game, nearly splitting the pass yards and rush yards down the middle. Not too bad for a coach whose offensive prowess is the HUNH. Chris Todd has been morphed into not only an SEC caliber QB, but also a passer deserved of some national recognition. The Tigers have won 19 games in a row with Chizik on staff going back to their undefeated 2004 season and before.
This all sounds bad for the Razorbacks of Arkansas. Not so, the last time Auburn played Arkansas with a record of 5-0 in 2006, Darren McFadden and his team walked away with a 27-10 victory. The last time the Tigers came in ranked, Arkansas beat them 22-25 just last year. History does repeat itself, and Bobby Petrino has built an offensive juggernaut himself. He now has his quarterback in 6-7 Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett who will fling the ball all over the field with his rocket arm to a stable of capable receivers. The Razorback offense has proven to be nothing short of explosive. The only defense capable slowing Petrino's Power Spread has been the Alabama Crimson Tide who possess, most likely, the nation's best defense.
Little has been said thus far about each team's defense for good reason. This should prove to be a scoring shootout; however, Auburn seems capable of controlling the clock while barreling the ball down the field with a very capable rush offense. The role of the defenses in this game will be who can stop who and when? Georgia finally came up with some defensive stops late in the game to give Arkansas a heartbreaking loss. Which team will do that this weekend?
Arkansas proved against Alabama that they're capable of stopping the run against a premier team. The Hogs gave up only 134 yard rushing, but that number was greatly inflated by a 52 yard run which should have been stopped for a loss. Auburn's defense is not Alabama's and the Hogs will be able to move the ball at will.
The early Vegas line on the game is Auburn -3 as it should be. The Razorbacks haven't beaten anyone, but have also only lost to the upper echelon of SEC squads. The Tigers have beaten up on weaker competition, but allowed quite a few points against them. This bodes well for the Razorbacks. Ask any of the early season prognosticators now what the pivotal game on the Razorbacks schedule is... the Auburn Tigers. As if a win in the tough SEC West at home isn't motivation enough, Arkansas native and former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville commented this week that Arkansas is a lower level SEC team and that Auburn's margin of victory will be at least three touchdowns. If that's not enough of a spark to light a fire under Hog Nation then I don't know what is. Vegas expects a close game as do I, and I'll be rooting the Hogs on to a victory on Saturday.
Woo Pig Sooie!