Given all of the mid-week excitement on the Plains, it is almost easy to forget that Auburn has an SEC home game on Saturday against a team that has flummoxed Tuberville-coached Auburn squads in the past. This includes the last Auburn-Arkansas matchup in Jordan-Hare, when the Razorbacks destroyed the then-No. 2 ranked Tigers 27-10.
All of that seems to be an afterthought at this point as Auburn has “relieved” OC Tony Franklin of his duties midseason amid a streak of truly terrible offensive performances resulting in a 4-2 (2-2) record.
Has there ever been a Top 20 team in major college football history to can a coordinator at the midway point like this? Does it matter? The answer to the former? A qualified “who knows?” The latter? We’ll know for sure on Saturday.
The truth is that given the upheaval, there truly is no way to predict what Auburn will look like against the Razorbacks this week. The statistics are fairly stark: Auburn’s offense is terrible, but so is the Arkansas’ defense (ranked 103rd vs. 113th, respectively). The Auburn defense, however is ranked second nationally compared to Arkansas’ 88th-ranked scoring offense.
On paper, it seems that Auburn should have a fair chance of notching a win here. Vegas seems to agree. They have Auburn as 19-point favorites, which is interesting considering that there is little indication that Auburn can even score 19 points, much less defeat an SEC division foe by that margin.
In truth, this game should come down to how the players respond to all that has happened this season and this week. Confidence is key.
If the players respond well to the changes brought about by Franklin’s ouster, Auburn should score a victory Saturday. If the sense of chaos lingers, Arkansas should be primed for an upset opportunity that Bobby Petrino could take advantage of quickly.
Throughout the offensive maelstrom, Paul Rhoads has maintained a steady hand on the defense. That bodes well at home against a rebuilding Razorback squad.
But what about after Saturday? Win or lose, the bye week will come at a good time. Auburn can reset, rest, and prepare for a first-ever trip to Morgantown.
That game, more so than this week’s contest against Arkansas, will tell the story of Auburn’s season. If Auburn can come together and win that Thursday night game, there is real hope for the rest of the season.
Any reasonable chance of making it to the SEC championship game, given Alabama’s resurgence and LSU’s continued excellence, ended when the clock hit triple zeroes in Nashville, but there is still a chance of winning key games (Georgia and Alabama) down the stretch and salvaging an almost-lost season.
Here are three reasons why.
Auburn still has plenty of it in many key areas—defense, offensive line, and running back. If Tuberville can settle on a QB (at this point Kodi Burns seems like the choice) and design schemes that favor the talent, Auburn has a team that can beat anyone in the SEC by playing ball control offense and continued stout defense.
Believe it or not, Auburn’s second half actually has some silver linings. Georgia comes to Auburn. The ‘Bama game proved that the Bulldogs are beatable when their run game is hampered and Matthew Stafford is pressured. That favors Auburn.
As for the Iron Bowl, Alabama has been a monster this season, no matter how difficult that is for an Auburn fan to admit. Nevertheless, the intangibles in the contest clearly favor Auburn.
The current Iron Bowl winning streak is unprecedented, and it matters. Auburn has confidence playing in Tuscaloosa and would love nothing more than to make number seven cost Alabama a chance at the national championship.
Tuberville uses the role of the underdog as well or better than any coach in college football. Just ask Urban Meyer. When things get tough, he has an innate ability to rally the team into an “us against the world” mentality that seems to work for Auburn more than it does not.
Having said all of this, there is no question that this week marks the biggest challenge Tuberville has ever faced as a coach. Bigger than Jetgate. Bigger than having defensive coordinators lured away by other programs. Bigger than the annual offseason rumors linking him to every coaching job from Arkansas to Dallas to Manchester United.
No, taking a chance like going with Franklin then firing him at midseason with a team ranked in the Top 20 and still working on a New Year’s Day Bowl bid is more than anything Tuberville has faced in his remarkable and tumultuous decade as Auburn’s top man.
History tells us this is when he is at his best.
The Auburn Nation certainly hopes that the Riverboat Gambler can still win another big hand.