Jerry Hinnen is an awesome blogger, and the War Eagle Reader is a great Auburn blog. It was a pleasure, and my privilege to do a Q&A session with Jerry.
I regret that I did not get this up earlier, but Big Blue Madness also fell today, and posting this in the middle of perhaps the biggest UK sports event since 1988 would have been a disservice to Jerry, and to the rest of us who deserve a chance to read and analyze his comments.
You can read my responses to Jerry's questions at War Eagle Reader here. And now, without further ado, here are my questions and Jerry's responses, after the jump.
1. Kentucky has a long losing streak against Auburn, 16 straight, with the last victory coming all the way back in 1966. Given that history, what, if anything, does Auburn have to be concerned about from Kentucky?
What do we have to be concerned about? It pretty much boils down to four words, two of which rhyme with "Blandall Blobb" and two with "Sperrick Spocke." The history here is comforting, certainly, but it doesn't mean all that much when Rich Brooks has Kentucky playing as consistently as they have during my lifetime and Auburn still has all kinds of bruises left over from the screeching halt to the Tuberville era. I don't know of any rational Auburn fans that have this chalked up as a certain victory just because of the names on the uniforms or wins that happened 25, 30, 35 years ago.
2. I think most UK fans know about Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb, but what is it that Auburn is doing to make their rushing game so potent? Considering the O-line, the athletes, or the offensive schemes, which do you think is the most important factor in the potency of the Auburn O this year? In the passing game, can Auburn take advantage of our corners like South Carolina did?
About the running game, it really has been a combination of factors: 1. the line has shown their gratitude towards the coaches for abandoning Tony Franklin's passive lose-weight-and-finesse-people plan for the gain-weight-and-crush-people plan by, well, crushing people 2. Malzahn has a bag of tricks worthy of Felix the Cat 3. Tate and McCalebb both compliment each other perfectly and are playing at a very, very high level. But the No. 1 reason Auburn's been so successful is that with one notable exception, they've been extremely balanced--West Virginia tried focusing too much on the run and Chris Todd and Darvin Adams burned them in the air, Tennessee laid back to keep the receivers from getting loose deep and Tate went wild. The reason things ground to halt against Arkansas was because the passing half of that equation collapsed--Todd had a bad game, the receivers couldn't get open, and what had been a sound protection scheme to that point suddenly sprung leaks. In theory, yes, I would say Malzahn and Todd would find a way to exploit any weaknesses on the outside, but it won't happen if Auburn executes as poorly in the passing game as they did in Fayetteville.
3. When Gene Chizik was hired at Auburn, the whole SEC could hear a giant, "Say what?!?" emanating from the Plains. I would guess that a lot of that early skepticism has given way to more hope by now. Tell me what you think of your new coach, and your take on how the Tiger fans are viewing him at this point in his first season.
Most Auburn fans are delighted with Chizik, and with good reason--he's already matched last season's win total six games in, in the space of little more than a month last winter he and his staff put and/or held together a better recruiting class than any of Tuberville's recent efforts, and perhaps most importantly he's taken a fractured and divided program and made it unified, driven, and fun again. No small potatoes, all of that, and I've said a few times by now that obviously Auburn's much-maligned athletics administration got it exactly right when they ejected the worn-down Tuberville and hired Chizik to replace him.
At the same time, no one's proposing to build statues just yet--Terry Bowden taught us all a while back that one terrific first season doesn't necessarily equal long-term success, and while Chizik deserves a tremendous amount of credit for this year's success, Malzahn's singular genius has an awful lot to do with it, too. Chizik also deserves credit for the decision to hire Malzahn in the first place, of course, but there's also the nagging sense that we might not find out how good Chizik really is unless (until?) Malzahn departs.
4. Ryan Mallett and the Arkansas offense simply shredded the Auburn defense last week. Was that an anomaly, or should it give Kentucky hope?
Here's a dirty little secret that even most Auburn fans aren't paying attention to: Auburn's defense wasn't really that bad last week. They weren't good, certainly, and they're probably not going to be (they're just too thin, too young--Auburn took only 26 defensive players total to Fayetteville). But they're playing opposite an offense whose hyperdrive tempo means that a 3-and-out takes almost no time off the clock at all ... and Auburn's first five possessions vs. the Hogs resulted in three 3-and-outs, just one first down, and one devastating fumble on a kickoff return. After stopping the Hogs on two of their first three possessions and allowing just 6 first-quarter points, the Auburn defense just plain wore out before allowing three TDs on Arkansas's next four.
So the question isn't really what Kentucky's offense can do: they'll move the ball some, I have no doubt--if Cobb and Co. could manage against Carolina, they can manage vs. Auburn--and will very likely cross the 20-point barrier. Whether they can score enough to win the game, however, depends on whether the defense can force Auburn's offense off the field and force the Tiger D to start sucking wind again. How much hope Kentucky has of that, well, again, Ithink comes down to whether Todd's performance against Arkansas was a fluke or the start of a trend.
5. Pick the closest to how you think Auburn fans view Kentucky football:
- Like them OK
I hope this doesn't offend anyone, but I'd say "Indifference." As long as the 'Cats are in the SEC they're not "Irrelevant," but the two teams just don't play enough and Kentucky's never won enough for them to be worthy of "Loathing" or "Contempt." At the same time, there's only room for one lovable "Like them OK" loser in this league, and that's Vandy. Things obviously change once hoops season rolls around, but in the fall, Kentucky's just kind of there, the same way I'm sure Mississippi St. is to fans of Georgia or Tennessee or other East division teams that play them once in a blue moon. (I'm well aware you guys are at a different level than the Bulldogs at the moment, but it's the closest analogue I've got.) Again: that's not to say I'm not on the worried side about tomorrow's game, but there's only room for so many teams on your average fan's radar.
As for a prediction, man, the schedule is doing you guys no favors at all--the reports have been that Auburn's had a solid, focused week of practice in the wake of the disaster in Fayetteville, and after the one-week aggravation of playing an 11 a.m. kickoff Auburn's back under the lights that treated them so well in the 5-0 start. Locke's kick returns are going to be a huge factor in keeping this game close, but I think eventually a locked-in Auburn offense is going to be too much for the 'Cats to keep up with and the Tigers pull away by 10-14 points. If Todd's spraying the ball around again, though, all best are off.
I want to thank Jerry for kindly inviting me to participate and for doing such a great job, and apologize to him for not getting this up sooner. I hope you enjoy reading it, and please do visit War Eagle Reader and check out all the Auburn stuff they have there. Know the foe, as they say.