AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s coaches have heaped considerable praise all week on strong-armed Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett.
Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker referred to him as “the NFL guy.” Defensive coordinator Ted Roof said he has one of strongest arms in college football. And safeties coach Tommy Thigpen said he hasn’t seen a cannon like Mallett’s since going up against Ben Roethlisberger at Miami of Ohio and Byron Leftwich at Marshall.
“He’s as good as anyone we’re going to face,” Thigpen said.
Translation: Auburn might have to score a lot of points to win today.
That hasn’t been a problem this season for the No. 17 Tigers (5-0, 2-0 SEC), who have been every bit the offensive juggernaut as the Arkansas team they’ll face in Fayetteville today.
Thanks to a rejuvenated Chris Todd at quarterback and a running game featuring Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb that ranks fifth nationally, Auburn has averaged 41.4 points per game.
Arkansas (2-2, 0-2 SEC), with the Michigan transfer Mallett throwing to a stable of big-play receivers in Bobby Petrino’s quarterback-friendly offense, has put up 35.8 points per game.
Betting the over today might be a sound decision.
“Any time you’re facing a team like that can score points, you’re going to have to be able to answer,” Auburn tight end Tommy Trott said. “Really, it’s going to turn into scoring more points than they can.”
Or, who can slow down the other team enough. In that department, Auburn has a distinct advantage. Although the Tigers have had defensive shortcomings, struggling on third downs and being unusually soft against the run (they are 82nd nationally, allowing 153.4 yards per game), they have done enough to get over the hump in several games.
The defense got crucial turnovers when things remained dicey against Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State and Ball State. Despite giving up oodles of yardage against West Virginia, the Tigers still intercepted five passes. And for three quarters last week they allowed next to nothing against the trainwreck that is Tennessee’s offense.
“I think it’s one of the best performances we’ve had this year,” linebacker Craig Stevens said. “After the first play, they didn’t score after that and we just basically stopped the run like we wanted to. So I think that it ranks toward the top - probably No. 1.”
Arkansas doesn’t have a league game it can point to like that. In two games against SEC foes — Georgia and Alabama — the Razorbacks have allowed 97 points and 955 yards of offense. They’re giving up 404.5 yards per game, 97th nationally. That’s only slightly better than the Ball State defense that Auburn hung 54 on two weeks ago.
Then again, the Tigers have been putting up those kind of numbers against everyone. Auburn has scored 207 points in five games this season, already eclipsing last year’s 12-game total of 203.
To put in perspective how far the Tigers’ offense has come, consider that it was only one year and two days ago that offensive coordinator Tony Franklin was dismissed by Tommy Tuberville mid-week after his offense, in every sense, was an unmitigated disaster.
With largely the same cast of characters, new coordinator Gus Malzahn has the Tigers averaging 512.8 yards a game, fifth best in the nation.
As a result, Auburn’s unbeaten and, for the first time since this time last year, ranked in the polls.
“It’s not getting to us,” Trott said. “People are just now starting to talk about us. Why weren’t they talking about us earlier? I guess we didn’t deserve it. We’re enjoying it, we’re playing good football right now and we’re not going to let our foot off the pedal at all.”