Last Friday, I swapped emails with an old classmate about the upcoming game. "Think they'll blitz the hell out of this kid tomorrow?" he asked.
"I doubt it," I replied. "Auburn's been burned really badly by Arkansas running misdirection in the past. I imagine they'll back off of overpursuit on defense. I'd guess the game plan is to get an early lead, take away the running game, make them try and come back throwing the ball."
At least I was right about the second part. Problem was, that turned out to be Arkansas' game plan. The much bigger problem, of course, was that it worked to perfection.
Suffice to say, it was an ugly day for Auburn. Very little went right. A few scattered observations:
1. The offensive line was downright offensive. Losing a starting center is never a good thing, but all the pass protection breakdowns on the ends were even worse. For all the good press he's received over the last couple of years, Hugh Nall has not produced a consistently-performing line, even during the undefeated run of 2004; by the last two or three games, defense had it figured out, but Nall never adjusted his schemes. Based on the last three games of this year, it looks to me like that catch-up process has been accelerated. It doesn't help things any that Auburn has not recruited well on the o-line for a few years now. I take a back seat to nobody in my admiration for Joe Cope, but AU still shouldn't have to be starting walk-ons up front.
2. It's obvious now that the Auburn offense is suffering greatly from a diminished receiver corps. Losing three 1,000-yard receivers to graduation appears to have been a crippling blow. Yes, there's been some improvement since the first of the year, particularly on the part of Rodgeriqus Smith, but by and large the wideouts are not getting open. Give Arkansas' defense all the credit in the world, they deserve it, but the Hogs do not have a great secondary. They were still able to cause way too many coverage sacks on Saturday. With AU's passing threat neutralized, Arkansas was able to key on stopping the run in the first half, and after that the rest was just commentary.
3. The defense was lousy. No excuses. Bad tackling, overpursuit, dumb mistakes, you name it. For lack of a better explaination, I'd almost say the AU D has lost its mojo. It's doubtful that Auburn will play against two better running backs than Darren McFadden and
Felix Jones this year, but that's cold comfort at this point.
4. Driving home, I was struck by how similar this team's play has been to Georgia's 2004 squad. Both teams clearly thought their game against LSU was the season: win it, and the rest of the year is a cakewalk. Didn't turn out that way. Complacency kills in the SEC, and for all their successes, complacency has always been a hallmark of the current Auburn staff.
There are pieces to be picked up, and given the history of the team and that same staff, there's some reason for hope, but right now things look pretty bleak. As good as Arkansas played on Saturday--and make no mistake, they were real, real good--they're still about the fourth- or fifth-best team on the Auburn schedule. The answers are going to have to come very, very soon if AU is going to salvage the remainder of this season.
UPDATE: The JCCW says exactly what I was thinking regarding Tuberville, but didn't actually write.