Certainly Jen Bielema, if anyone, would see this as #karma — Auburn won its way into the BCS Championship Game by winning the kicking game in its all-for-the-marbles showdown with Alabama on Nov. 24, then lost the national championship because the same said kicking game let the Tigers down on Monday night.
Auburn cornerback Chris Davis was the hero in the 34-28 upset of the Crimson Tide, one that sent Auburn onto Atlanta where it dispatched Missouri for the SEC championship, but on Monday he became the goat. Davis returned Alabama’s ill-advised field goal attempt at the end of regulation 109 yards for the game-winning touchdown on Nov. 24. On Monday, Davis was conspicuous as one of the two defensive backs (the other was senior safety Ryan Carter) who took bad angles at Florida State’s Rashad Greene, turning a short pass from Jameis Winston into a 49-yard play in the final minute and gave FSU a great opportunity for the winning touchdown. Davis was holding onto a Seminoles receiver for an interference call in the end zone on third-and-8. And Winston knew who he was targeting on the game-winning throw: the 5-11 Davis, with 6-foot-4 Kelvin Benjamin running a slant into the middle of the end zone and catching the ball up high.
Hate to single out a player for a bad last minute like that, but Davis was such a nationally acclaimed hero after the field goal runback against Alabama, it’s interesting to have watched what the football gods had in store for him and his teammates in Pasadena on Monday night.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn typically doesn’t miss a trick in preparing his teams for championship games, but Florida State gave the Tigers so much to think about offensively and defensively — and Auburn held its own so well in those areas — it turned out that the kicking game was the decider. Auburn was strangely out of sorts fielding punts and kickoffs, and Cody Parkey missed a 33-yard field goal in the first half that turned out to be the deciding points. Auburn also gave up a 100-yard kickoff return that gave FSU its first lead since 3-0 early, and the Tigers were apparently the only ones unsuspecting the Florida State fake punt from near the FSU 40-yard line when Auburn had stormed out to a 21-3 lead and seemed totally in command. Jimbo Fisher, it seemed to everyone else, had no choice but to call for some fourth-down razzle-dazzle to keep the football, and thus a reverse on the fake punt, which changed the momentum. Florida State would score the game’s next 17 points and went on a 24-3 run before the Tigers hit the end zone again — too early, with 1:19 left, it turned out.
It always turns out into “what might have been” for the loser. Think about how closely Arkansas and first-year coach Bret Bielema came to beating Auburn in early November. An injury to the Hogs’ starting quarterback basically leads to a turnover that stops a scoring drive, plus another turnover by the backup quarterback that gives Auburn a short field to score, and then a stop on three plays from inside the Auburn 5-yard line late in the half. That’s 21 points in a game eventually decided by 18 in Auburn’s favor. And that’s not even considering the botched onside kick by Arkansas after its first touchdown, giving the Tigers another short distance to drive. Auburn also avoided any turnovers in Fayetteville. Consider, when forecasting next year’s record, that Arkansas was a handful of plays here or there — especially in all four November games, when the Hogs could have thrown in the proverbial towel and given up — from at least being bowl eligible.
But we can’t leave the Championship Game discussion without noting Malzahn’s genius even on the last snap, when all that was left to attempt was the typical wild lateral play. Auburn’s had some rhyme and reason to it, and a view of the play from an end zone camera shows Tre Mason facing almost the same look from Florida State that Davis encountered on the last play to beat Alabama. All Mason needed was one of his hefty linemen (Greg Robinson, perhaps), taking out one of those mammoth FSU defenders and Mason would have had a wall down the left sideline. Instead, one FSU defensive tackle breached the wall, forcing Mason to cut back into the pursuit that at one point was on the other side of the field.
TO COLLEGE STATION: Sometimes I wonder if the SEC office has ulterior motives with its scheduling, and that it’s not all random. After tonight’s Arkansas league opener in College Station, the Razorback return home for two games, only to face the two best teams in the league in Florida and Kentucky. Then it’s back on the road to LSU and Georgia, which have been extremely hard on the Hogs over the years.
A&M was, coincidentally, the opener for Arkansas on the road last year as well. The Hogs shot poorly, as was the case most of the time on the road; the Aggies destroyed Arkansas on both the defensive and offensive glass. It was an ugly rout for Arkansas and a bad start to league play. The Hogs, for the third straight year, won just once away from home in league play, at Auburn. And notice the SEC schedule this year doesn’t have Arkansas playing at Auburn. Random, huh?
Used to, in the old Southwest Conference, the trip into College Station was brutal. You basically couldn’t get there from here without flying a puddle jumper from Dallas or going on sall team-charter planes. I remember one flight into College Station in a rainstorm that was harum-scarum for all the passengers of one of those American Eagle turbo-props. One year, the schedule worked out nicely enough, when I was traveling to every Southwest Conference road game, that we could drive from a Thursday night game in Dallas to a Saturday night game in College Station and not have to deal with DFW airport on the Aggie leg.
In Eddie Sutton’s first season as Razorback coach, the Hogs were returning for a game in College Station after having an historic double-overtime game that introduced the region to the fun but short-lived “Mad Hatters” student section at old Barnhill Arena (a group of mostly football players have fun at the road team’s expense). In that return match, Arkansas got what Sutton thought was a home call, a blocking foul on an Arkansas guard at the top of the key that let A&M hit two foul shots with 1 second left to win 62-60. A&M would win the league title over Arkansas and Texas Tech by one game, and back then the SWC was sending just one team to the NCAA Tournament and nobody to the NIT. That’s how close Sutton came in just his first season to taking a moribund program to the post-season.
Sutton and Arkansas would get a little bit of a payback five years later in Fayetteville when U.S. Reed stepped in front of A&M’s David Goff, hurling a shot from 60 feet, to take a bogus charging call. Reed got two shots to break a 44-all tie and hit the second for a stunning upset of the Aggies, so angering then A&M coach Shelby Metcalf, that he wouldkn’t allow any Arkansas writers into his post-game locker room.
The year before, freshman Tony Brown threw in a 30-foot jumper at the buzzer to force overtime in old G. Rollie White Coliseum. The Aggies would eventually win, but Brown became a Razorback fan favorite from that point on. Starting in 1981, Arkansas enjoyed some amazing success in tough G. Rollie White, which only held about 6,000 people but could sound like a 15,000-seat facility.
Now, the Aggies play in spacious Reed Arena and have been awfully tough in there since it opened. However, this bunch of Aggies have yet to come together, losing at home to North Texas last week 61-41. Arkansas was criticized for its run of pastsies over most of December, but it’s nothing compared to the joke of a schedule A&M lined up for nonconference, but now you can see why the Aggies went so soft.
Still — and this is true throughout the SEC — nothing a team has done in nonconference play seems to matter when the league tips off. For example, who saw Tennessee going into LSU on Tuesday night and winning by 18? Recall when John Pelphrey’s second team at Arkansas started 12-1 with big wins over ranked Oklahoma ansd Texas squads, only to go 2-14 in SEC play.
This Arkansas team, though, is the best and most unselfish of Mike Anderson’s three teams, and its deeper. No one player is essential to the Hogs’ success like has been the case in recent years. The team still may not take its shooting on the road, but Anderson and his staff have devised a better zone-defense attack that doesn’t consist merely of passing the ball around the perimeter until somebody fires up a challenged shot.
Arkansas should win tonight, but until the Hogs beat someone in the SEC other than Auburn on the road, fans have a right to be apprehensive, especially in College Station. Arkansas didn’t really prepare itself for the road with this year’s schedule — outside of the three games in luxurious Maui in November, the Hogs have been in state for every game in the 11-2 start.