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Malzahn metamorphosis — 2013 Auburn annihilates Arkansas

Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire

It’s one thing for a fan base to be confident heading into a game. It’s quite another matter when Las Vegas is confident.

“Our friends in the desert,” as SEC broadcaster Brent Musburger is fond of saying, really liked Auburn against Arkansas on Saturday evening, despite the fact that Auburn’s best win to date in the 2016 season came against an LSU team which fired Les Miles after it fell to Gus Malzahn’s group.

That LSU win was the most pivotal of the season and Malzahn’s career — had it not occurred, Auburn might have faced the crisis of confidence which clearly existed in the LSU program. Yet, while the team desperately needed to survive against LSU, the offense hadn’t yet figured things out.

Auburn’s offense began to scuffle in 2014. It fell into the abyss in 2015 and started there in 2016. On the night of the victory over LSU — created almost entirely by coordinator Kevin Steele’s defense — Auburn’s offense continued to run into a brick wall in the red zone, but a change in the relationship between Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee had just begun to emerge. Malzahn had maintained play-calling responsibility in losses to Clemson and Texas A&M. He bit the bullet (with his job very much in jeopardy at the time) and allowed Lashlee to call plays against LSU.

That was a night (September 24) when the defense needed to carry the offense. It was unreasonable to expect the offense to straighten itself out on a dime. Once Auburn got through that trial by fire — in a game of two coaches dancing on very hot seats — the Plainsmen did, in retrospect, cross a threshold.

Auburn fans noticed first.

In the first quarter against Mississippi State on October 8, Auburn rolled to a 35-0 lead late in the second quarter. Running back Kamryn Pettway steamrolled for 125 yards and three touchdowns in that span of time, under 30 scoreboard-clock minutes. Auburn’s running game — so lethal in the team’s 2013 march to an SEC title and a national runner-up finish — had clicked back into place.

The obvious cause for caution — if not outright skepticism — was simple: This was Mississippi State, a team which lost to South Alabama (a team which hasn’t yet won a Sun Belt Conference game) and then to Kentucky this past Saturday night.

Las Vegas, though, was convinced Auburn was back, as were Tiger fans.

This Auburn team — despite the lack of a single convincing offensive performance in 2016 against any opponent of real consequence — was installed as a 10-point favorite against an Arkansas squad which had just beaten Ole Miss. Yes, that’s the same Ole Miss team which had led Alabama by a 24-3 score earlier this season. It’s true that Ole Miss is a bipolar team, and that the Rebels’ defense is a horror show, but the Rebels had made consecutive New Year’s Six bowls and have proved to be Alabama’s toughest opponent in the SEC over the past three seasons.

Auburn, a 10-point favorite over Arkansas? The line felt funny to some, although the analytical indices — the S&P+ ratings and others — loved Auburn and lent substantive heft to the idea that the Tigers were about to beat Bret Bielema’s brakes off.

Regardless of anyone’s thought process, however, this much was certain: Auburn needed to consolidate the gains made against Mississippi State. If they didn’t translate to a strong performance against Arkansas, the Tigers’ season would have remained in a dark and uncertain place.

As nighttime fell over Jordan Hare Stadium, the lights could not have been brighter, warmer or more beautiful for Auburn fans.

They have their team back, the one which appeared in 2013 and played Alabama on even terms in the Iron Bowl.

October 22, 2016: Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn during an NCAA football game between the Auburn Tigers and the Arkansas Razorbacks at Jordan Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala. Auburn won 56-3. (Photo by Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire)

October 22, 2016: Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn during an NCAA football game between the Auburn Tigers and the Arkansas Razorbacks at Jordan Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala. Auburn won 56-3. (Photo by Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire)

It’s a game which doesn’t require much of any analysis — since when does a 56-3 smackdown need it?

The truly amazing stat of this game, which captures the totality of Auburn’s dominance: The Tigers threw for just 89 yards. They didn’t need an ounce of passing. Like a power pitcher with a great fastball or cutter, Auburn didn’t need a secondary pitch. The Tigers showed Arkansas what pitch they were throwing. They dared the Razorbacks to hit it.

Bielema’s Hogs utterly whiffed.

Pettway collected 192 yards, but he needed 27 carries (averaging just over 7 yards per carry). Three other Auburn players rushed for at least 78 yards apiece while averaging at least 9.5 yards per pop. Auburn busted off five different runs of 27 yards or longer. The large collection of chunk plays made third downs largely irrelevant for the run-based Tigers. They faced only 12 third downs all game, an average of three per quarter. They scored at least 14 points in three of those four quarters, thriving with backups as well as starters.

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Anyone still skeptical of Team Gus will say, “Let’s see this team play a good opponent on the road.”

First, Ole Miss — on the schedule in Week 9 — might not be that good. Second, Auburn just might be powerful enough that it will render good opponents markedly deficient over the next few weeks.

Only time will tell, but AU might not get tested until a meeting with a man named Nick Saban and a Tidal wave which clothes itself in Crimson.

Alabama faced a 57-yard field goal attempt on Saturday against Texas A&M before reconsidering and throwing a Hail Mary. That was the first invocation of the 2013 season on Saturday.

Auburn’s performance against Arkansas was the second. It was much more an indicator of where the Tigers’ season is headed.

Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee — turnaround artists par excellence — hope that what happened against the Hogs can be sustained for the rest of the season, especially against the team they would love to beat the most.

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