While we very much enjoy each one of our weekly blogger Q&A exchanges, we have to admit that we circle the Auburn game on the calendar every year and look forward to it as a particular favorite. That's because we're such big fans of Jerry Hinnen and his War Blog Eagle site. His humor, insight and compulsively readable writing style make it a true pleasure to match wits with him.
Many, many thanks to Jerry for finding the time to answer our questions this year in the midst of learning to change diapers and function without sleep (he recently became a father). Once you read this half of the Q&A, be sure to check out our answers to his questions over at War Blog Eagle.
A lot of the pregame hype is quite rightfully centering around Cameron Newton and Ryan Mallett. What other offensive players should the Hogs be worried about? And who else on the Razorbacks' roster concerns you?
The only other true skill-position star for Auburn thus far this season--since the tailbacks, while solid, have been too fumble-prone and have shared the ball too much for any one of them to shine--has been receiver Darvin Adams. We thought replacing Chris Todd might result in receptions being spread out a bit more, since Todd often developed tunnel-vision for Adams, but it turns out our quarterbacks just love throwing to Adams all the time because no matter how bad a pass you throw, he usually makes the catch anyway. Newton, as irony would have it, is of course even more infatuated than Todd ever was.
So expect to see plenty of Adams Saturday. But it's also worth worrying about the Auburn offensive line. They got pushed around and frankly dominated, physically, by the Clemson front. Chizik and line ocach Jeff Grimes both called them out in the press the week following, and they've been lights-out ever since, powering Auburn to more than 300 yards rushing against both Kentucky and a Carolina defensive front that handled itself pretty damn well against Alabama. If Auburn can get some first downs and long drives early in the game, the line has the potential to take over against a tired Hog front in the fourth.
As for who on the Razorback roster concerns us, GregChildsJariusWrightJoeAdamsD.J.WilliamsGregChildsJariusWrightJoeAdamsD.J.WilliamsGregChildsJarius WrightJoeAdamsD.J.WilliamsGregChildsJariusWrightJoeAdamsD.J.WilliamsGregChildsJariusWrightJoeAdams D.J.WilliamsGregChildsJariusWrightJoeAdamsGregChildsJariusWrightJoeAdamsD.J.WilliamsGregChildsJarius
I could go on, but you probably get the point. Our secondary, to this point it has not been teh good.
What approach will the Tigers take to slowing down Mallett and his receivers? How can the Hogs' D contain Newton (or is that even possible)? Is a shootout inevitable, or will the defenses hold?
To answer your third question first, I don't think a shootout is inevitable, especially if you're defining a shootout as both teams landing in the 30-40 range. Auburn's defense is due for a good game, coming back home after the total egg they laid in Lexington, and they've shown against Miss. St. and Carolina they're perfectly capable of keeping even dangerous offenses somewhat in check. On the other side, I have to admit I'm impressed with the improvement in Arkansas's defense, and Auburn's attack under Malzahn has always had the potential for a 40-point explosion ... but it's also always had the potential to turn in three straight three-and-outs and put up three points in a half. (Remember how it began last year's Arkansas game?) I'll honestly be more surprised if both teams cross the 30-point barrier than if both wind up below it.
The approach Auburn takes against Mallett and Co. will probably be the same they've taken against every passing attack so far this season: deep help, no bombs allowed over the top, keep everything in front of you, let the LBs stuff any running attempts, and wait for either a big play by the defensive line or a screw-up by the quarterback. This strategy worked great against Chris Relf, was iffy against Kyle Parker and Stephen Garcia, and utterly collapsed against Mike "Hey, I got Accurate in the Offseason" Hartline. Mallett obviously has the goods to keep the chains moving ,but we also know he's shown a tendency in the past to get impatient and look downfield for openings that aren't there. If he takes what Auburn gives him, D.J. Williams is going to have an absolute field day and Auburn's going to have a hell of a time getting off the field.
That's assuming, however, that Auburn doesn't get those big plays by the defensive line. Whatever Auburn's secondary does or doesn't do, our best pass defense is going to be to get pressure on Mallett. You've probably heard the name Nick Fairley by now; he was quiet against Kentucky but a total wrecking ball in every other game Auburn's played this season, and I'm expecting him to come up big at home. If he can get any help from the defensive ends (Antoine Carter in particular), Auburn should get just enough heat to keep the Hogs from going off completely. I think.
As for Newton: he and the line have played so ridiculously well ever since the first half of the Clemson game (especially executing the offense's new staple, the inverted veer), I've come to think that he's simply going to get his yards on the ground. The key for Arkansas will be to not bite on Malzahn's bevy of play-action fakes and double moves; Newton's shown both a willingness to throw into coverage downfield when his primary read is covered and and some inconsistency on the shorter routes when forced to check down. Essentially, if Newton is throwing and it's not to a wide-open receiver, the advantage shifts to Arkansas.
Sometimes it seems like Gus Malzahn receives the bulk of coaching-related praise we hear about Auburn. How much credit is due to Gene Chizik for the Tigers' resurgence, and how much should go to his coordinators? (And on a semi-related note, we have a strange fascination with Chizik's complete and utter lack of sideburns. What look is he going for, exactly?)
Ah, the million-dollar chicken-or-the-egg question when it comes to Auburn. Does Malzahn get the credit for creating the offense that's (almost singlehandedly) made Auburn a winner, or does Chizik get the credit for hiring Malzahn? Without Malzahn, Chizik's quite probably lost, but without Chizik, there's no Malzahn in the first place. What we need is that old picture of the vase-or-two-faces where the faces are Chizik's and the vase has Malzahn's name inscribed across it. Or something.
In the end, I think credit has to be shared almost equally. But that would give Chizik more than I think a lot of fans outside of Auburn would give him. It's worth remembering that Auburn has shown a dramatic increase in resilience and mental fortitude since Chizik came on board, pulling off several comebacks they never would have even attempted under Tommy Tuberville. (Arkansas fans can contrast the third-quarter fightback of a year ago with the roll-over-and-die routine Tubby's teams usually performed when behind against the Hogs.) Auburn also genuinely seems to be a tighter-knit, team-first, happier team than they were under Tuberville, and that starts with the head man.
Oh, and about the sideburns? I think this will answer your questions:
(Editors Note: Jerry had no idea that we made this exact same Simpsons/sideburns joke in our Reasons to Hate post yesterday. Great minds!)
Lee Ziemba. Kodi Burns. Michael Dyer. Kiehl Frazier. Why does your team so rudely pluck top recruits out of Arkansas? Are there no quality high school players in south Alabama?
Well, first of all, Auburn's not really in south Alabama--it's more east-central Alabama. And so when it comes to south Alabama, yes, there's plenty of quality high school players, and many of them come to Auburn ... but a lot of them choose to go to Alabama. Or sometimes LSU. Or even Florida.
The point is that Auburn doesn't have it all that easy when it comes to recruiting. You try sharing a state with Nick Saban where the majority of fans grow up rooting for the team Saban coaches and one of its hotbeds (Mobile) is as close to Baton Rouge as it is to you. Even when the Tide have been in one of their fallow periods (i.e. any time anyone not named Saban or Gene Stallings has been coaching them since the Bear passed away), Auburn has needed to supplement its in-state crop with some out-of-state gems. A lot of these come from Georgia, but the Dawgs don't make that an easy task, either. So we sometimes look even farther afield ... and no offense or anything, seriously, I don't want to be rude, it's not me, but from here it looks like it's a lot easier to pull kids out of Arkansas than it is Louisiana or Tennessee or even South Carolina (though Auburn's had some recent success in all those places.) I get the feeling Petrino will change that if he stays put, but for now, that's how I see it.
Last question: how do you see the game unfolding, and what implications will the result have for the SEC West race?
Oh man, I don't know. On paper, I see a lot of reasons Auburn wins: we're at home, our great rushing game is going against the sorta-iffy Hog rush D (yes, I saw what the Tide did in that second half), the defense can't possibly play so poorly two weeks in a row, we're at home, I think we can get to Mallett, he still hasn't entirely proven himself on the road yet, Malzahn's going to be good and ready for this one, we're at home. But I also can't shake the fact that Auburn is 1. undefeated 2. favored 3. on the verge of a huge season 4. facing a supremely dangerous Arkansas team. Auburn loses that game every time. Over and over and over again. Why should this year be any different?
I'm telling myself it's because this team--and its flurry of close calls already this season--understands both its own mortality and Arkansas's excellence in a way Tubby's teams never did (and that even the woefully unfocused 2009 team didn't when they went to Fayetteville last year). And in the end, I have to think Auburn's the team that holds its opponent just under 30 points and nudges past that same mark themselves, winning 31-27 or 30-28. But it won't surprise me at all if that score is reversed in Arkansas's favor, or even--much--if Mallett goes bananas and Auburn is run off the field again. Arkansas's had too much success in this series, in this situation, to feel all that confident as an Auburn fan.
(Oh ,and since I feel so unshaky making a prediction for this game, can I just leave the implications alone until we see what happens? Please? Thanks.)
(Thanks again to Jerry for his time and insight. And don't forget to check out our answers to his questions over at War Blog Eagle.)