Saturday October 10th, 2009

So Gene Chizik isn't Vince Lombardi after all.

Just when I was feeling really good about writing this column in the preseason, Chizik's team goes and lays an egg in Fayetteville. But as frustrating as Saturday's 44-23 loss to Arkansas may have been for everyone in the Loveliest Village on the Plains, it's not time to fall back into booing-Jay-Jacobs-at-the-airport mode. Auburn still has most of the same players who went 5-7 last year, so it was a little unrealistic to think the Tigers could slide through the early section of the SEC meat grinder unscathed. And besides, there's a reason everyone in the SEC calls the Razorbacks' hometown Fayettenam; it's the place winning streaks go to die.

But here's the bright side for Auburn. A win against Kentucky next week makes the Tigers bowl eligible. There's another guaranteed win (Furman) still on the schedule. And if the Tigers can win one or two against LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama, they'll finish the regular season 8-4 or 9-3. Ask yourself this, Auburn fans: When Chizik was hired, how realistic did 9-3 sound?

This assumes, of course, that the league hasn't figured out coordinator Gus Malzahn's offense. We already know Auburn doesn't play a heck of a lot of defense, so the Tigers' offense will have to carry them. (That's yet another statement you probably never would have believed last December.) Judging by Ben Tate's 186-yard, two-touchdown day and the Tigers' 20-point explosion in the third quarter, Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle scheme hasn't been completely solved.

Maybe Reynolds Razorback Stadium is just kryptonite to the Malzahn offense. Remember, it was Malzahn who jumped from Spingdale (Ark.) High in 2006 to offensive coordinator at Arkansas, only to be undercut by then-head coach Houston Nutt. Saturday was supposed to be Malzahn's triumphant return.

Instead, it served as proof that Bobby Petrino has Arkansas moving in the proper direction. The Razorbacks were obviously better, but their schedule -- which includes trips to Gainesville and Oxford in the next two weeks -- wasn't going to give them many opportunities to prove that. Saturday's win showed that while Ryan Mallett, Michael Smith and company can score in bunches, Willy Robinson's defense can also do its part. Saturday, the Razorbacks held Malzahn's offense to four three-and-outs in the first half.

Arkansas will only get better, but so will Auburn. At some point this season, one or both will play spoiler in the SEC West race. Saturday was a meeting of two SEC programs on the rise. Unfortunately for Auburn, one of them had to lose.

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