A week after being punched in the face and abused like a nerd at a biker convention by the Arkansas Razorbacks, the Auburn Tigers have the opportunity to show the college football world how this team and its new coaching staff respond to adversity when the Kentucky Wildcats come calling Saturday night.
Will Auburn of 2009 self destruct and allow the miasma of the Arkansas loss to pollute the remainder of the season? A loss to Vanderbilt in 2008 set in motion a chain of events that led to infighting, turmoil, midseason firings, and the first non-bowl season for the Tigers in a decade.
Or will the Tigers rebound, recover some of the offensive swagger that marked the first four games of the season and begin to find some defensive identity?
In the wake of the Arkansas debacle, Tigers' coaches and players circled the wagons and said all the right things. Practice would be tougher, focus would be more intense. The loss was a learning experience and would only serve to unite the team.
If all the talk doesn't translate to action on a cool Saturday night in Jordan Hare; if the Tigers don't get up off the mat and donkey punch Kentucky; if the Wildcats somehow defy their 12-point Vegas spread and walk away a winner you can forget about circling the wagons. It will be time to set them on fire.
Auburn's 5-0 start was somewhat of a mirage. It was a way-far—like one of those women who look really good from way far away. And then you get up close and wonder what the heck you could have been thinking.
Now we see what she really looks like. A mediocre Arkansas team shined a halogen-bright spotlight on Auburn's deficiencies.
The often-abused Razorback defense looked like Chuck Norris against an Auburn offense that seemed determined to pour gasoline on itself and light the match. Four fumbles that led directly to 17 Arkansas points were fatal.
The much-maligned Auburn defense displayed in both execution and scheme that all the maligning was justified. When children yet to be born are screaming from the womb "get some pressure on Mallet" it's pretty obvious that there was a defensive disconnect.
The book on Arkansas is pretty simple. Make Mallet move, and the Hog offense struggles. Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof opted to rush three or four and let Mallett have time to make a ham sandwich in the pocket. Fail.
The plan against Arkansas was a little different from what Auburn had done in five prior efforts. Maybe it's time to rethink the laid-back approach. Is it better to occasionally give up a big play because you're bringing too much heat or to die a thousand dinky and dunky deaths?
Laying back worked against West Virginia's inexperienced and athletic quarterback. It worked against Tennessee's Jonathan Crompton who for three quarters couldn't have completed a pass if he were throwing rolls of hundred dollar bills and the receivers were carrying fishing nets. It failed in epic fashion against Arkansas and the efficient Mallett.
The keep-it all-in-front-of-you approach is unlikely to provide positive results against LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia, and Alabama, all of whom dot Auburn's October and November dance card.
That slate is why getting off the floor, fixing what needs to be fixed and drop-kicking Kentucky is so vital to Auburn's season.
Sure, Auburn will get bowl eligible with an expected win over Furman. After the 5-0 open to 2009, just making a bowl can't help but feel like a letdown. The key to differentiating between middling mediocrity and a clear sign of revitalization under Chizik comes Saturday.
Forget the stats. Forget the numbers. Kentucky is a team Auburn has to beat.
It won't be easy. Kentucky's Rich Brooks is a seasoned veteran at the coaching game. The Wildcats are physical and won't be easily intimidated.
Kentucky is 0-3 in the SEC, 2-3 overall. Auburn is 5-1, 2-1. Depending on who you listen to, oddsmakers installed Auburn as the favorite by 11 to 12 points.
Don't be fooled.
Kentucky's three losses came to top ranked Florida, third-ranked Alabama (both undefeated), and 22nd ranked South Carolina (5-1).
Even against that slate, the Wildcats average 25 points and 167 yards rushing per game. The balanced Kentucky offense also averages 167 yards through the air per game.
South Carolina barely escaped at home, edging Kentucky 28-26. The Wildcats drilled Alabama's formidable defense for 20 points, piling up over 300 yards in the process.
An injury to starting quarterback Mike Hartline last week will change the dynamic.
Hartline had thrown for nearly 800 yards and six touchdowns on the year before he went down with a knee injury. He will not play against Auburn.
There was no official word as of Thursday regarding who Kentucky would call on to replace Hartline.
Junior Will Fidler came in for Hartline against South Carolina but was just 2-for-8. The Wildcats could move leading wide receiver Randall Cobb to the quarterback slot, but that move would significantly limit the overall effectiveness of the offense by eliminating the team's biggest pass-catching threat. True freshman Morgan Newton is a third possibility.
Regardless of who the Wildcats elect to put under center, it will be his first ever start at the position.
Are you listening Ted Roof? Please turn off the latest KISS CD, "Sonic Boom" (available exclusively at Wal Mart) that's rocking in your headset, and pay attention.
Kentucky's quarterback will be making his first ever start. He'll do so in one of the toughest places to play in the SEC. The last thing you want to do is lay back in coverage, rush three, and allow him to get comfortable.
You'll have a second-string quarterback who was second string for a reason, a true freshman who needed a redshirt season, or a receiver who used to be a quarterback and will run the Wildcat staring at your defense across the line of scrimmage. You'll have 87,000 fans trying to get into his head. Do not waste that opportunity. Turn the defense loose and let it make plays.
Auburn's offense should be able to put points on the board. It's time for the defense to take care of business. Take the chains off and let the Tiger defense do what it's traditionally done best—get after somebody.
Auburn's 5-0 start may be a mirage. So too could be Kentucky's 2-3 start. If the schedules were reversed, odds are that the records would be as well.
If Auburn's upswing is legitimate, the Tigers will rebound from a disjointed performance at Arkansas and wear down the Wildcats at home. If the 5-0 start was nothing but smoke and mirrors, Auburn is in for another rude awakening.
Faith remains for another week that the Tigers are, if not for real, at least wandering through the real neighborhood and checking out the houses.
The Tigers will send Kentucky to a very misleading 0-4 in the SEC and become bowl eligible to boot.
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