That was the kind of weekend that just messes your metaphors all up: The SEC is suddenly a blank slate, waiting for some errant team to come along and shape the landscape to their will. The stars are aligning for the Razorbacks, but can they connect the dots?
With the Hogs one game removed from our most crushing loss since 1998, the SEC-West is as ill-defined as ever, and three opponents left on our schedule rank in the top 10 nationally. At a glance, all of those games are more winnable than they are losable. Willy Robinson has always had Malzahn's number, even with much weaker defenses, but Malzahn's never had Cam Newton at his disposal. Getting South Carolina late is the best time to get them, no matter how good they are right now. And the LSU game feels like a sealed deal in Little Rock. Running the table would make us a lock for BCS contention.
But that's if the lack of execution this past weekend can be chalked up to rust. I'd be inclined to think it so if those missteps weren't so familiar. The offense needs to wipe the sleep from their eyes and blink themselves awake before they travel to the Plains this weekend. Georgia's subsequent performance doesn't speak well of the only true regular-season road success of the Petrino era, and it's hard to imagine the Hogs grinding out the fourth quarter against a team that can both afford to go very conservative and run a mean two-minute drill.
I just can't help but read heartache in the tea leaves. Our offense continues to under-perform. Yes, the Hogs managed to run the ball against the Aggies, and they should be praised for winning the possession battle by a wide margin. But I think if Mallett and Green would have arbitrarily begun running the option against that A&M defense, they would have seen quite a bit of success. And failed drives accounted for a lot of the time the offense was on the field, especially in the fourth quarter.
No, our main issues continue to be execution, especially on third down. Despite ranking third nationally in passing offense, our passing numbers on third down rank us 38th, just behind — wait for it — Tennessee. There are at least three more losses on this schedule if we can't get our act together.
Fair or not, especially in light of our running woes, Mallett's still the key. His arm has been so inconsistent that we really do have to begin wondering if he's hurt. Is that left shoulder injury affecting his throwing motion? Or has his intent on putting some elusive "touch" on shorter passes gotten into his head? Despite his good numbers, he's looked mortal, which is disconcerting in a deity. This weekend, he's going to have to perform miracles with Nick Fairley in his face.
Any descriptor short of "valiant" fails to communicate the efforts of our defense this season. They rank third in the SEC in total defense, and that's without the fluky turnover margin that bailed them out last year. Willy Robinson has validated Petrino's patience. This is a tough, well-coached squad. Their successful in-game adjustments for Jeff Fuller, as frightening a pure receiver as they've seen this season, were heartening.
Still, they don't look put together to defend against a team like Auburn, which averages 276 yards per game on the ground and boasts a quarterback with tailback specs. Account for Newton, and you still have to fear some combination of Michael Dyer, Onterio McCalebb and Mario Fannin. Arkansas ranks 43rd nationally in run defense, 18 spots behind Mississippi State and 20 spots behind South Carolina, both of whom lost to the Tigers. Kentucky stifled the running backs but had no answer for Newton, who imposed his will in the fourth quarter, engineering a winning drive that played out like a foregone conclusion.
Gene Chizik himself admits that the Auburn secondary has yet to meet a team like Arkansas this season, but it's not like he's fielding a bunch of youngsters. Most of them saw Mallett and company last season. We have to hope they meet with as little success this year, because we're going to have some scoring to do.