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After Auburn

I'm not one for hyperbole, but the mere mention of "56-3" changes things.

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I'm not one for hyperbole, but the mere mention of "56-3" changes things.

 Arkansas just got punished so badly on the so-called Plains of Auburn that it merits a serious reflection on where, precisely, the program's needle rests. Yes, it was one game. But it was a game that essentially destroyed much of the progress heretofore, called into question the acumen of the staff and the desire of the players, and left the Hogs bruised going into a bye week.

 And, most galling, it happened at Auburn, in front of a fan base that had grown so disgruntled with Gus Malzahn that when the Tigers played LSU only a few short weeks prior, it was viewed as a potential referendum on both coaches. Les Miles got booted the next day when his team's last-second touchdown pass was taken off the board and Auburn's six-field goal effort yielded a narrow win.

Since that time, Malzahn's decision to hand off play-calling to Rhett Lashlee has been a decision that, like many in-season shakeups, has drawn short-term dividends. Against the Hogs' hapless and clueless unit, Auburn simply ran and ran and ran some more, with Eli Stove blistering down the field for a 78-yard end-around score on the first play from scrimmage and the rest of the Tiger backs battering the hell out of the Hog linemen and safeties (you'll note I exclude linebackers here, as by my calculation, they were never involved in much of a tackle at all) to the tune of 543 rushing yards.

That's a pathetic showing in any circumstance, but for Arkansas, fresh off such an inspired and unifying win over Ole Miss, it was flat-out insulting. Auburn beat Arkansas State by only 37 points earlier this season, and dispatched with a flailing mess of a Mississippi State team by less than half of the margin that went up in scoreboard lights Saturday evening.

So what to do? Robb Smith's tenure as defensive coordinator could well be ending far sooner than anyone would have projected. It turns out that having the likes of Martrell Spaight, Darius Philon, and Trey Flowers, along with reasonably solid anchors like Rohan Gaines back deep, makes a major difference in how a defensive unit plays. The "experience" guys that the Hogs are leaning upon right now are simply nowhere near as athletic or instinctive, and that deficiency is garishly visible on most plays. Spaight provided speed and leadership in the middle of that unit, and Flowers and Philon imposed tension and strain on the backfield.

At this juncture, Deatrich Wise, Tevin Beanum, Brooks Ellis, and Taiwan Johnson all resemble a lesser caliber of player, and the statistics bear this out. Most damningly, they're all continuing to log plenty of playing time, which could be a rough indictment of the fieldworthiness of the youngsters down the depth chart. You won't convince me that McTelvin Agim couldn't mirror Beanum's paltry numbers (zero sacks, zero tackles for loss, zero fumbles forced or recovered in eight games) with his eyes closed, arms bound behind his back, and feet anchored in concrete.

The offense provided no relief, and in fact looked horrific. Dan Enos is trying to maximize Austin Allen's effectiveness behind a tattered mess of an offensive line and it's about to blow up all over creation when Allen's braced knee or some other necessary appendage gives out. The playbook on how to deal with this unit is shockingly basic: cede an occasional downfield throw or inside run, but keep the heat on the quarterback because you will find yourselves gobbling up a fumble or pinning the Razorbacks far behind the chains. Arkansas has become sickeningly predictable on first down, too, which hearkens back to a certain coach whose defiant reliance on the smoke draw at least comported with logic when the likes of Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Fred Talley or Cedric Cobbs lurked behind the quarterback.

Bret Bielema took a few cheeky jabs at Malzahn's circuslike offense when he came here, and that nonsensical gum-flapping should cease permanently now. This wasn't quite the farce that transpired when Kliff Kingsbury brought Texas Tech to Fayetteville last fall and picked on a Toledo-stung bunch still trying to capture an offensive identity. No, it was an ass-kicking, an outcoaching and outclassing, and it hurt.

There are still four winnable games on the schedule, granted, but even those woebegone fans in Starkville and Columbia have to be foaming at the mouth, to borrow a Randy Rainwater-ism from years ago, at what's coming their way in November. The bye week is the only thing with good timing for the Hogs this weekend, and all it might prove to be is the intermission before the tragic final act if some serious deficiencies aren't resolved over the next several days.

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