We asked College And Magnolia’s Jack Condon about the Tigers this year. As always a big thanks to him and go check out their work as well!
1. What is the mood in Auburn after last week's game? Are fans worried that second half could be something that carries over and affects them this week?
JC: We're all pretty devastated, rightly so. That was our chance for the first victory in Baton Rouge this millennium, and we blew a 20-0 lead to fail at getting it. What's worse is that there were so many moments that would've made it a smooth victory for us and stifled the LSU comeback. A tackle here, one assignment there, and we're sitting at 6-1 with a pretty solid top ten ranking. There are two ways to look at it -- like the LSU loss in 2013, which galvanized the team and led them on a winning streak all the way to the national championship game, or like the Texas A&M loss in 2014, which ruined the team and led to a collapse down the stretch. I think we've got too much in front of us to collapse, and honestly, everything is still alive for us. Auburn can still reach the SEC Championship, as unlikely as it might be with two top five opponents in our last two SEC games. Fans are definitely worried that many of the same old Gus mistakes popped up in that loss, but I think Gus even realizes how important that was, and so we should come out hungry this weekend.
2. With two close losses to LSU and Clemson, is the sense that the team is really close to being playoff contenders soon? Or is there some sense of overachieving this year?
JC: I touched on this a bit in the answer above, but those two losses aren't anything to be upset about, except for how they happened. If you looked at the schedule before the season and said we'd lose by a combined 12 points at Clemson and at LSU, a lot of people would be satisfied. It's the way we lost, with zero offense at Clemson, and the collapse last week. When Auburn is playing well, like they did against all the M teams in the SEC and in the first quarter last week, they're pretty unstoppable. I think they match up well with Georgia and Alabama, but this is the year they would likely need to make something happen, as a bunch of that offensive line leaves next season. The defense will still likely be very good, and the skill positions on offense will also be rock-solid, but this would've been the year for a playoff run barring a great offseason on the offensive front.
3. What is the overall consensus about Gus Malzahn? Obviously because of his local ties some fans around here are very interested in his time at Auburn, and do fans view Arkansas differently because of this connection?
JC: I've seen some thoughts on this subject over the past couple of days, where some people think that Bielema will get fired and Arkansas will call Gus home. I don't think that would happen. After his first year, Auburn fans were ecstatic with him, but every year since that it's been one thing or another to take the shine off of him. In 2014, it was the late season collapse after looking like the best team in the country midseason, and in 2015 it was the fact that he couldn't get Jeremy Johnson ready for the big stage and preseason expectations fell flat. Last year we saw a close loss to Clemson with the quarterback merry-go-round probably preventing us from winning the game, and then we were too injured to truly compete late in the year. This year, it's more coaching decisions. Many other coaches would be undefeated with this team right now, and there's no excuse to win less than 8 games with this talent. If we can't beat one of A&M, Georgia, or Alabama down the stretch, we'll be 7-5 and probably looking for a new coach. Gus has had the talent, just hasn't produced the results we want. Auburn fans understand that we're comparing him against one of the best coaches ever across the state, but that's just the reality right now. You can't wait for Saban to retire, you have to compete against him.
I don't think there's any different feeling toward Arkansas because of Gus, but there certainly would be if he ever became the head coach in Fayetteville down the line.
4. How has Jarrett Stidham looked this season? Has he developed in the quarterback most hoped for?
JC: I think Stidham's grown each and every game this season and he's been fantastic for the most part. Many people will focus on the 11 sacks against Clemson and think he's been very subpar, but Clemson's got a great front and that was just a bad night. Other than that, he's reintroduced the deep ball to the Plains, and we've seen a much more efficient passing offense. We aren't throwing the ball more, but it's so much smoother and everything's more efficient when the ball's in his hands.
5. How has the defense looked this year? What is their biggest strength right now?
Our defense has been better than it was last year. Against LSU, there were some breakdowns on jet sweeps and long plays, but we still saw pretty solid pressure on the quarterback and the running backs did very little. Overall, they've been a brick wall against the run and getting after the quarterback all year with a huge number of sacks and TFLs. The defensive backs honestly haven't really been all that tested yet because o the pressure up front, and so I would have to say that's our biggest strength -- attacking the QB.
6. What is your prediction for Saturday?
I tend to think it'll be tough to start, just because Bielema seems to be coaching for his job and it's a night game, etc., but like you said, the run game should be able to find holes and wear Arkansas' defense down. We'll likely hit a deep ball early, and then a kill shot late with another one, making the final score much more amenable to Auburn fans. It won't be an evisceration like last year, but it won't be particularly close either. I say 38-17 Auburn.