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Q&A: Talking Auburn with War Blog Eagle

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As part of our ongoing public service to bring you, the Razorback fan, the best and most in-depth information about the Hogs and their opponents, we like to invite our fellow bloggers over to our little corner of the Internet to give us the scoop on their teams.

In our latest installment, we're pleased to present a Q&A with our friend Jerry Hinnen, one of the funniest and most talented bloggers around and the author of War Blog Eagle. You may remember Jerry from his days at the The Joe Cribbs Car Wash; well, Jerry is continuing his fine work at the new digs. Many thanks to Mr. Hinnen for his time and insights. On with the show ...

To borrow phrasing from Stephen Colbert: Gene Chizik - great hire or greatest hire ever?

I have to go with merely "great hire" for now, sad as that makes me given the incredible job Chizik has done to date. He's quite obviously the front-runner for SEC Coach of the Year (isn't he?) and even if a certain offensive savant has received (and deserves) a huge share of the credit, Auburn was a completely fractured team in 2008 that's now united and having as much fun as I can remember an Auburn team having. Chizik deserves all the credit for that. But a certain ruddy-cheeked, height-challenged coach we won't name (rhymes wth Strerry Strowden) taught Auburn fans once and for all that one successful season (or even two) does not a coaching career make.

Who is more popular among Auburn fans - Chizik or Gus Malzahn?

Answering this question as an Auburn fan is like staring at an Escher painting--on the one hand, the offense is almost solely responsible for Auburn being the Auburn they are, and Malzahn is almost solely responsible for that offense. On the other, Chizik was solely responsible for hiring Malzahn in the first place. Malzahn's the reason Auburn's succeeding, but Chizik is the reason we have Malzahn. It's impossible to parse credit between the two of them. My sense is that if you put a gun to the head of 100 Auburn fans and told them they could only keep one, I think Malzahn would get named a handful more times ... but I could be wrong about that, and it would be very, very close regardless. (Me? I'd blurt out "Jus Chalzahnik" and hope for the best.)

The general perception of the Tigers is much like that of the Razorbacks: high-octane offense, leaky defense. What else should we know about Auburn?

Two things about the defense that the general public doesn't necessarily realize: first, their stats are skewed by the hyperdrive tempo of Malzahn's offense, which creates more possessions (and more plays) for both teams, not just Auburn. So while the Tigers do rank only 55th in total defense, they're 37th in the country in yards-per-play allowed. Combine that with Auburn's propensity to date for forced turnovers (7th in the country entering this weekend with 13) and the defense isn't quite as leaky as you might think.

Second: the strength of that defense has been the secondary. Neiko Thorpe and Walt McFadden have made for a great set of bookends on the corners, veteran safety Zac Etheridge has been predictably steady, and true freshman Daren Bates has really come into his own the last couple of weeks with a series of big plays. Mallett and Co. will obviously be the biggest test they've faced yet and after a handful of surprising breakdowns in Knoxville, I'm sure there's going to be a few missteps. But they're good enough that I can't see the Hogs winning without some semblance of a running game. If it's all Mallett all the time, I think Auburn has the advantage there.

Who are the Tiger players that are poised to have big games against the Hogs?

I couldn't help but notice that both Joe Cox and Greg McElroy finished their days against the Hog defense with yards-per-attempt numbers over 12 and efficiency ratings up over 200. I'll now direct you to Chris Todd's statistics for the year, which rank just below McElroy's in rating and YPA and well above Cox's. Auburn unfortunately doesn't have a Julio Jones or an A.J. Green, but Terrell Zachery has shown a knack for getting open deep and Darvin Adams has been truly adept at finding holes in various zones. Malzahn absolutely loves going deep, too--meaning that if the Hogs' secondary doesn't look much sharper than it did in their two previous SEC meetings, Todd and his receivers will put up some big numbers.

Defensively, our preseason All-SEC defensive end Antonio Coleman maybe hasn't been quite as dominant as we would have liked, but he's still tied for the team lead in sacks and a close second in tackles-for-loss. If Auburn can break out to an early lead and force the Hogs to abandon the run game, Coleman will pin his ears back and could cause Mallett some real problems.

Conventional wisdom is that the final score of this game will look like a basketball score. Do you have any reason to believe that the Auburn defense can prevent this from becoming a shootout?

Well ... not really. If Auburn could somehow shut down the Hogs' attempts at a running games, I'd say yes, because of the faith in the secondary I described above. But Michael Smith just killed us on draws and other tricky underneath plays last year, and Auburn hasn't really shown much ability to stop those kinds of plays yet this year, I wouldn't say--they've been good at both stopping and making the big play, and straight-ahead running games like Tennessee's haven't really given them too much trouble.

But if the opposing offense is patient enough to dink-and-dunk and six-yard-draw their way down the field, Auburn's going to have problems, and Petrino's too good a play-caller not to find a way to do just that. West Virginia piled up more than 500 yards and only avoided hanging 40-plus on Auburn by virtue of a series of terrible quarterbacking mistakes; while I don't think Arkansas's quite as explosive on the ground as WVU was, with Auburn playing on the road it'll take a surprisingly poor game by Mallett and another handful of turnovers for the Tigers not to give up at least 31-34 points.

On the flip side, do you have any reason to believe that the Arkansas defense can prevent this from becoming a shootout?

I feel like Homer McHomerson making a statement like this, but: unless Auburn or Todd is just off its game, no, no I don't. Joe Cox and Mike Bobo found a way to put up 51 points on the Fayetteville scoreboard, and not only are Chris Todd and Gus Malzahn a much better pairing than Cox and Bobo, Auburn has a running game that Georgia did not.

Last year, Malzahn's offense put up 528 yards and better than six-and-a-half yards per-play on the Hogs, and only scored 23 points due to a number of red zone breakdowns; this Auburn offense is vastly more talented than the Golden Hurricane version, and has scored 14 TDs and 5 field goals in 20 red zone possessions. If Auburn plays to its established capabilities, they're going to score a lot of points.

All that said: Auburn could very well play far, far short of said capabilities. The Tigers opened up the season playing five consecutive night games and will now face an 11 a.m. kickoff; God only knows how that might affect them. Todd has also been stunningly consistent to date and might be due for, say, one bad half. I'll also give your Hogs some credit--as bad as their overall defense has been, their red zone defense has been terrific (just 4 TDs allowed in 12 possessions, if ya didn't know). Auburn did have trouble with this last week in Knoxville and they very well could again.

Almost one year later, what is your take on the Tommy Tuberville era and how it ended?

If you want my take on the whole thing, well, how much time do you have? I'll try to make it short: he was a tremendous hire for Auburn and we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for returning the program to SEC competitiveness--and beyond, in that one glorious year--in the wake of Bowden's mismanagement. But whether because of distrust of the Auburn administration, complacency, just plain old age, or some witches' brew of all three, he and his staff lost the energy necessary to keep a program like Auburn on pace with an LSU, a Georgia, or an Alabama with a never-sleeping coachbot at the helm.

Which brings us to his departure: at the time, I believed that the debt I mentioned compelled Auburn to bring Tubby back for one more season; I believed that he deserved the opportunity to clean up his mess, even though I had essentially zero hope he and his staff were capable of doing so. But now? With the kind of energy Chizik and Malzahn and the other assistants have brought to the program? With the excitement that every Auburn fans feels when they wake up on Saturday mornings, just a year after arguably the most painful Tiger season of the past 30 years? Having kept Tubby seems unthinkable. Unnatural. In hindsight, that it was time for him to go seems beyond obvious.

The irony here is that despite the avalanche of criticism directed at the Auburn administration and A.D. Jay Jacobs, they showed tremendous, tremendous foresight in determining what was best for the football program, both in terms of Tubby's status and--as it turns out--what coach needed to replace him.

What is your prediction for the game and for the rest of Auburn's season?

As you might guess from the answers above, I do think it's going to be a shootout, and I do think Auburn will pull it out in the end--on paper, I think the offenses are about equal and that Auburn's defense is a hair better than Arkansas's. But I'm more worried about this game than any of Auburn's first five--Arkansas has to be the more desperate team, they're at home, and I have the nagging sense that Auburn is due for one of those games where things just don't work for no good reason.

So I'm officially predicting 37-35 Auburn ... but it won't surprise me much if that score is reversed.

Alabama is damn good this year. How much therapy/booze/illegal drugs would you require to handle the sight of Nick Saban raising the national championship trophy?

Saban raising the trophy ... eh, a few Miller Lites and I'd be good to go. Dealing with the Tide fans afterwards, though, is another matter, and after last season I went ahead and filled a standing prescription with my local veterinarian for a year's supply of premium-grade horse tranquilizer.

If forced to take a cross-country road trip with either Saban or Bobby Petrino, whom would you choose?

Seeing as how Saban and I wouldn't last 10 minutes before I blurted out something like "Yeah, I got my Master's from Auburn, ended up living in Atlanta for a while before I got this job in YOU'RE EVERYTHING THAT IS SOULLESS AND EVIL IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL," I'll say Petrino.