There’s no shortage of positives for Auburn football fans to take away from the Tigers’ 52-20 bludgeoning of Arkansas on Saturday night. The problem is that they can’t take away the positive they really want.
That positive, of course, would be greater hope the Tigers can build on their performance in Fayetteville with enhanced offensive production against Texas A&M and — especially, particularly, desperately — Georgia. But after Auburn’s implosion against LSU last week, that ship hasn’t just sailed; that ship has its mainsail hoisted, its jib scuttled and is already halfway to Barbuda at a speed of a dozen knots.
It’s true: No less than your humble Auburn writer himself said after a similar destruction of Mississippi State that Tigers fans shouldn’t give up hope for better results against better competition, that willfully ignoring the good things Auburn did in the present to focus on the bad things Auburn would probably do in the future was too cynical. But that was before Baton Rouge, where an excuse-less Auburn showed once and for all that any amount of optimism entering one of the Tigers’ most meaningful games is too much optimism.
It’s a shame, because there truly were a lot of positives from the Tigers’ second consecutive demolition of Bret Bielema’s Hogs. To wit:
Gus Malzahn made a concerted effort to correct the mistakes of the LSU debacle. The Tigers consistently mixed up their play calls on first down, pointedly kicking the game off with a throw on Auburn’s first play from scrimmage; they flashed a long-missing willingness to go up-tempo when sensing they had Arkansas off-guard, leading to one of the most comical 15-yard touchdowns in SEC history; they ignored the temptation to nurse their lead in the third quarter, going so far as to uncork a picture-perfect Ryan Davis reverse pass; they even coaxed (or permitted) Jarrett Stidham into keeping on the zone read, finally grabbing the free yards that have been available on the same play call for weeks.
Even if every one of these developments felt “too little, too late,” seeing them Saturday remains far preferable to not seeing them at all.
"Everybody was just juiced up and ready to go." Auburn recorded 35 points and 341 yards after a halftime rally. https://t.co/pz9VGPtQ2c
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) October 22, 2017
Kamryn Pettway looked like something akin to 2016 Kamryn Pettway. The one-two punch Auburn expected to boast at tailback all season finally materialized, with Kerryon Johnson maintaining his post-September success and Pettway showing glimmers of the power and shiftiness that made him the SEC’s leading rusher less than 11 months ago. He might not be all the way back just yet, but he’s closer to back than he’s been since his (unnecessary) pounding against Mercer.
This Auburn defense kept doing the things this Auburn defense does. 6 sacks, 3 turnovers forced (and if you watched Jeff Holland and Co. hunting poor Cole Kelley in a manner more befitting of a nature documentary filmed on the African savanna, you know we mean “forced,” under 5 yards allowed per play, 56 minutes played without conceding a Razorback touchdown.
Kevin Steele’s merry band of marauders has been a joy to watch all season. Nothing changed on that front Saturday.
Auburn’s cumulative two-season whipping of Arkansas finished at a final score of 108-23. Malzahn deserves every bit of the criticism he’s endured over the past week. But he also deserves some credit for administering the hellacious beatings suffered at the Tigers’ hands by several SEC West rivals over the past two seasons. Ask Tennessee: Things could be much better on the Plains right now, but they could also be much, much worse.
Malzahn’s problem? Even the Auburn fans who know things could be better no longer believe they will be. Yes, his team’s performance Saturday generated an abundance of positives. So did its performance against Memphis to end the 2015 season. So did its performances against Mississippi State and Arkansas last season. So did its performances against Mississippi State and Ole Miss this season.
To borrow an old line: We won’t be fooled again. Saturday was a blast. But it won’t mean anything until Malzahn proves it means something, in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 11.