Sunday October 23rd, 2016

Life in the rough-and-tumble SEC West usually means hard-fought, close games decided by the smallest of margins, often turning on just a few plays. That was not the case at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night, where No. 21 Auburn had no trouble with No. 17 Arkansas, coasting to a 56–3 rout to improve to 3–1 in the division after an off-season of speculation about Guz Malzahn’s job status.

The running game was the key for the resurgent Tigers. Three different players—Kamryn Pettway and wide receivers Eli Stove and Stanton Truitt—scored touchdowns in the first quarter to put Auburn up 21–0, and the team cruised from there, with the Razorbacks unable to stop the opposition on the ground or mount any kind of counterattack.

Here are three thoughts on Auburn’s win:

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Auburn’s offense has its necessary identity

Early in the season most of the attention surrounding the Tigers rightfully centered on their quarterback battle, which pitted returnees Sean White and Jeremy Johnson against junior college transfer John Franklin III. Johnson and White essentially split time at the position in 2015, with neither doing anything to inspire confidence in the future of the position. The scrutiny only intensified after the season opener against Clemson, in which all three QBs were rotated in and out seemingly at random in a game Auburn could’ve won with better quarterback play.

Malzahn eventually settled on White as the full-time answer. He’s been steady enough, but Saturday night’s game revealed that the ground game is Auburn’s path to continued success this season. It’s certainly not pretty, especially when compared to the Cam Newton-led outfit in 2010 and the powerful attack of 2013, but it’s effective, and it’s what the Tigers need to concentrate on until they’re able to get a dynamic signal-caller back in the program.

Even without the services of Kerryon Johnson, who missed the game due to injury (to say nothing of the team’s leading rusher last year, Jovon Robinson, who was dismissed in August), Auburn ran all over Arkansas on Saturday night. Admittedly, this isn’t the biggest of accomplishments given the state of the Razorbacks’ defense, but the magnitude of the Tigers’ performance makes it meaningful. Pettway finished with 192 yards on 27 carries, Stove had 94 yards on three carries, Truitt had 78 yards on eight carries and Kam Martin had 80 yards on seven carries. All told, Auburn ran for 543 yards on 57 attempts, an astounding total and an absolutely embarrassing performance for Arkansas.

Can this be replicated against elite teams, and is it a recipe for a conference championship? Probably not, but it helps take the pressure off White, which is necessary if the Tigers are to beat the toughest opponents remaining on their schedule.

AP Photo/Butch Dill

The Iron Bowl is suddenly a lot more interesting

It’s basically a fact of life at this point: Alabama is the top dog in the SEC West year in and year out, with the other six teams jockeying for second and hoping to pull a stunner by winning the division. The past couple years, Ole Miss has been the Crimson Tide’s primary challenger. LSU looked poised to assume that status this season, but Texas A&M did instead following LSU’s two early losses (though it still could make some noise with Alabama looming in two weeks).

With the Aggies falling to Alabama on Saturday, Auburn might stand the best chance at toppling the king. The Tigers ultimately winning the West or even just upsetting Alabama are very unlikely propositions, but after their performance against Arkansas, they’re at least worth talking about. Auburn’s two toughest remaining games before the Iron Bowl are road tilts against Ole Miss and Georgia. They’ll be significant tests, to be sure, but they’ll also be eminently winnable, and should Auburn prevail (and Texas A&M takes another loss to fall a game behind the two Alabama teams), that’ll set up a winner-take-all matchup in the final week of the regular season. The Tide will be heavy favorites no matter what happens between now and then, but weird things happen in rivalry games—and an Auburn upset looks likelier now than it has at any point in 2016 so far.

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A step back for Arkansas

We’re eight weeks into the season, and it’s still hard to know just what to make of the Razorbacks. Their wins over TCU and Ole Miss seemed to indicate they were ready to move up in the SEC West pecking order. Their blowout losses to Alabama and now Auburn indicate otherwise. Getting routed by the Tide is certainly understandable, but Saturday night’s result is much less forgivable, even if the Tigers look like a much better team than we thought they’d be going into the season.

Here’s what we know: Quarterback Austin Allen is already very good and still can get even better; the defense has some solid pieces, most notably Deatrich Wise Jr.; and the offensive line and defense as a whole just aren’t where they need to be, especially at this point in the season.

At 5–3 with home games left against Florida and LSU and road matchups against Mississippi State and Missouri, Arkansas still has a decent shot at getting to eight wins, which would be its most in the regular season since 2011. But it would hardly be a shocker if the Razorbacks failed to reach that mark, and that outcome seems more likely honestly. Either way, it’s fair to ask whether this version of the program is the best that fans can hope for under Bret Bielema—an admittedly solid collection of talent that can beat anyone on a given day, but that doesn’t consistently compete for anything meaningful. No matter how many games they win the rest of the season, the Razorbacks need to start showing signs of growth in their weak spots in order to instill confidence in the prospect of growth in 2017 and beyond.

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