Out West to Fayettville.
Will the Tigers run past Arkansas in 2013?
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn opponent preview. On November 2, the Tigers play Arkansas in Fayetteville, where the Tigers haven’t won since a last minute Wes Byrup field goal gave Auburn a 9-7 win in 2007. This trip is typically thought of as one of Auburn’s toughest, usually with the dreaded 11:00 AM kickoff. While it’s true that Auburn has suffered some epic beatdowns in that stadium, did you know that Auburn is actually 5-4 in Fayetteville all time?
Arkansas opens with three cupcakes at home, followed by a trip to Rutgers. Louisiana Lafayette, Samford and Southern Miss should be little trouble. Rutgers should be a test. Then the schedule gets rough. The Razorbacks host Texas A&M, travel to Florida, then host South Carolina. A trip to Tuscaloosa follows the next week. Arkansas gets a week off after the likely mauling by those four teams, but will it be enough time to fully recover? After Auburn, Arkansas is at Ole Miss, hosts Mississippi State and finishes at LSU. Frankly, that Rutgers game is critical to any Razorback bowl chances. Lose it, and somehow they have to come up with three wins against the Mississippi SEC teams, and Auburn.
The general consensus among various media outlets and opinion pieces is that this is pretty much a toss-up game featuring two teams that cratered last season, and have new coaches this season. For the Tigers, Gus Malzhan took over a program that has pretty good familiarity with his schemes and his coaching style. The transition has pretty smooth, and folks are excited about Auburn football again. Arkansas faces more of a rebuild under new coach Bret Bielema. The similarity with both head coaches is that they both seem to have hired an excellent line-up of assistants. And of course, both guys are considered hard nosed discipline guys>
Bielema’s offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is one SEC foes will readily recognize. Chaney has spent the last few years at Tennessee, orchestrating fireworks in the Vol passing game. I think most folks agree that offense wasn’t the problem at Tennessee during Derek Dooley’s tenure. What’s going to be interesting is to see what is eventually synthesized between Bielema’s physical running style offenses he produced at Wisconsin, and Chaney’s spread-passing tendencies. If the Arkansas spring game is any indication, Arkansas will load up heavy in a variety of formations, and they’ll run the ball in a variety of ways. The leading rusher was 254 pound fullback Patrick Arinze. However, this offense did pass the ball efficiently, with what was considered a depleted receiving corps and very green quarterbacks. Of course, they were going against the Arkansas defense, with a veteran offensive line. Kudos to Bielema for playing ones against ones in that game. I’d like to see that at Auburn, in the future.
Last year, Arkansas gave up even more points than Auburn did. The Razorbacks gave up 30.4 points per game, compared to Auburn’s 28.9. The job of plugging the leaks falls to veteran defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who came with coach Bielema from Wisconsin. Ash has a pretty consistent history of fielding top 20 defenses, but he has a project on his hands this year. Arkansas has an underrated group of starting defensive linemen, but depth is an issue. At this time, Arkansas is still trying to put together a starting linebacker corps, and plug holes in a very leaky secondary. No returning player defended more than five passes last season, and teams diced the Razorbacks for 285 passing yards per game and 8.2 yards per pass. This year at the Razorback spring game, one thing that was evident was that receivers are still breaking tackles and getting away after the catch.
Senior kicker Zach Hocker is the returning bright spot in the special teams area. He had something of an off year in 2012, but returns as the leading scorer in Arkansas history this season. Also, he’ll likely be the team’s punter this year. Last year’s punt returner, sophomore Nate Holmes returns, and will likely handle kickoff returns as well. The Razorbacks didn’t do very well last season returning kicks and punts, and they lose leading return man Dennis Johnson to graduation. For all the Razorback woes last seasons, they did decently on kick coverage, and were actually pretty good on punt coverage.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Arkansas offensive line: Auburn will likely go with a tackle rotation of Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeffery Whitaker. Dee Ford, Kenneth Carter and Nosa Eguae will be the primary ends. The Tigers have depth beyond those six guys, but none except Ford have distinguished themselves, either. Arkansas counters with a veteran offensive line. The leader of this line is senior center Travis Swanson. He’ll be flanked at guard by junior Brey Cook and sophomore Mitch Smothers. Senior David Hurd and sophomore Grady Ollison are the tackles. Going against this line last season, Auburn stayed in their gaps and played the run decently. They got almost no pressure on the Arkansas quarterback, though. And the line pretty much collapsed in the 4th quarter, allowing most of Arkansas’ rushing yards then during two late touchdown drives. We expect Auburn to be better up front this year than in recent years, but right now it’s Advantage: Arkansas.
Auburn linebackers vs. Arkansas backs: Auburn’s starting linebackers coming out of spring drills are sophomores Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Neither has a huge amount of game experience, and it’s a concern going into the season. For purposes of playing Arkansas, you’ll have to count star Justin Garrett as a linebacker, and it’s going to be interesting to see how he fares against some of the bigger Arkansas backs and tight ends. Auburn is going to have to be strong here, because the Hogs will test Auburn at the line of scrimmage. A trio of young sophomore tailbacks were rotated this spring, giving the Razorbacks a variety of sizes and skill sets. In no particular order, these guys are Jonathan Williams, Nate Holmes, and Kody Walker. Arkansas has a pair of battering ram fullbacks, senior Julian Horton and junior Patrick Arinze. It’s youth on youth, in this matchup, but it is game nine of the season, and will be less of a factor. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Arkansas receivers: Auburn is surprisingly deep at corner, and should get good play from starters Chris Davis and Jonathan Mincy. Both are also physical corners, not afraid to come up in run support and lay a hit. Last season, those guys actually didn’t do too badly containing more dangerous Arkansas receivers. The quarterback had all day to throw, but few big plays were given up. This year, the Razorbacks will have a new look at receiver. There will be more of an emphasis on run blocking, but Auburn’s guys have the physical tools to deal with that. Senior Julian Horton returns after catching 14 balls last season. He’s been buried on the depth chart behind some great ones in previous years. On the other side, senior Javontee Herndon returns with 21 catches from a year ago. Depth will come from sophomores D’Arthur Cowan and Keon Hatcher. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Arkansas secondary receivers and quarterback: . Junior free safety Jermaine Whitehead has really come on this spring, so the real question is who will play strong safety for the Tigers. Right now, converted corner Joshua Holsey is atop the Auburn depth chart there, but senior Demetruce McNeal will return this fall and likely make a serious run. Arkansas will likely use fewer secondary receivers than many of the previous folks Auburn will have played, but watch out for the tight end out in the flat. Bielema liked to do that at Wisconsin; fake a block, and release wide open. The top Arkansas tight ends right now are seniors Mitchell Loewen and Austin Tate. Tate caught 14 balls last year, but none went for big yardage. At quarterback, the new starter for the Razorbacks will be sophomore Brandon Allen. There was a competition this spring in Fayetteville, and Allen came out slightly ahead. Then the runner up, Brandon Mitchell promptly transferred. Allen was pretty inconsistent last season in mop-up time, but that was being asked to run Bobby Petrino’s high-octane passing attack (with Bobby P. not calling the plays.) This year, he’ll have a better situation with a run-first offense utilizing play action. Advantage: Even.
Punting: Auburn returns senior punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can’t be returned. Clark had 70 punts for a 39.8 yard average, but only 5 were returned, for a total of 4 yards. Zach Hocker will punt for the Razorbacks this season. He’s got a strong leg, but how he’ll do as a punter is an open question. Last year, Arkansas was pretty good covering punts, giving up 6.1 yards per return. Returning punts for the Hogs will be speedy sophomore Nate Holmes. He averaged just 6.4 yards per return last year, with almost no blocking. Auburn counters with veteran Quan Bray, who averaged 8.5 yards per return. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn didn’t score enough to generate many kickoffs in 2012, but when they did, Cody Parkey nailed 33 of 48 of them for touchbacks. Arkansas’ Zach Hocker was just as good, hitting 39 touchbacks on 58 attempts. Both of these guys can put the ball in the stands from the 35 yard line. When Parkey wasn’t putting the kickoff out of the field of play, Auburn gave up only 16.6 yards per return. Arkansas gave up 21.2. Neither team set the world on fire in the return game, and both lose their leading return man to graduation. (Onterrio McCalebb and Dennis Johnson, respectively.) As a team, Arkansas averaged 18.3 yards per return, and Auburn averaged 22.4. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn’s Cody Parkey was 11 of 14 on field goal attempts, and perfect on his extra points last season. The Razorbacks’ Zach Hocker hit 11 of 18 field goal attempts, and all of his PATs. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Arkansas defensive line: Auburn’s starting A-Day unit of sophomore Greg Robinson, redshirt freshman Alex Kozan, junior Reese Dismukes, junior Chad Slade, and sophomore Patrick Miller looked dominant. In addition, the 2nd line did well against the starting D-line. By all accounts, Avery Young, who started three games at right tackle last season, is having a monster summer. He may fit into the lineup somewhere this fall. Arguably, the defensive line is the strength of the Arkansas team. Senior tackles Bryan Jones and Robert Thomas are big, tough run-stopping guys that are still agile enough to play two-gap effectively. While Arkansas was terrible on defense last season, it wasn’t because teams could run up the middle on them. Arkansas’ ends, senior Trey Flowers and junior Chris Smith are real trouble for any team to deal with. These guys had a field day against two freshman Auburn tackles last year, combining for five tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries. I think Auburn will be better this season up front, but they’ll have to show me against these guys. Still, I think Gus Malzhan’s scheme will better suit the linemen Auburn has. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. Arkansas linebackers: Auburn finished spring with a trio of dangerous running backs, and more are on the way this fall in the incoming class. Junior Tre Mason is a 1000 yard incumbent, JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne wowed the A-Day crowd with his power and agility, and junior Corey Grant is a threat on the outside. In addition, the Tigers will have bruising senior H-back Jay Prosch paving the way. Arkansas doesn’t have tiny linebackers, but none of the projected starters tip the scales at 230 or more, either. And there’s a serious experience issue. Only senior Jarrett Lake posted any significant tackles for the Razorbacks last season, and he had only 11. He’s currently tapped as the middle linebacker. Penciled in on the outside are junior Daunte Carr, and junior Braylon Mitchell. Senior Austin Jones will be in the mix. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Arkansas corners: Auburn’s starters on the outside post-spring are juniors Jaylon Denson and Trovon Reed, neither of who have done much previously on the field. Backups Sammie Coates and Ricardo Lewis should add an explosive dimension when they sub in. Junior Tevin Mitchell is the best of the Arkansas corners returning. On the other side, the Razorbacks have redshirt freshman Jerrod Collins listed as the starter. Junior college transfer Carroll Washington may well be the starter by the time this game is played. He comes in as the number one junior college corner in the nation. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Arkansas safeties: Auburn has some matchup nightmares as secondary receivers, starting with C. J. Uzomah and Quan Bray. Few safeties can keep up with either in a foot race. If a team puts extra corners in to shut that down, Auburn will run over them. Put in beefier safeties, and those guys will be wide open. The real question is who’ll pull the trigger for the Auburn offense. The QB competition is said to be neck and neck between junior Khiel Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace. Neither distinguished himself on A-Day. The race will become five-headed for a while when the newcomers arrive this fall. One of the many inexplicable things that happened last season was Khiel Frazier being yanked for the season at halftime of the Arkansas game. He was 9 out of 14 passing at the time. Auburn inserted Clint Mosely, who had much less mobility, to be mauled by the Arkansas defensive ends. Arkansas’ starting safeties are senior Eric Bennett and sophomore Rohan Gaines. Gaines was second on the team in tackles, but these two only combined for 8 defended passes on the whole season. Advantage: Auburn.
The real strength of this Razorback team is on the lines. If Auburn can just break even on these areas, I think superior Auburn talent can take this game over. However, this is a road game, against a hostile crowd. One thing to note about Bielema’s teams is that they don’t generally kill themselves with penalties and turnovers. They’ve typically been among the leaders in the nation in those categories and if the Arkansas spring game is any indication, that’s been a focus in Fayetteville so far. There were no fumbles, only one pick and two penalties in their spring game. Can Auburn avoid mistakes? A few turnovers could negate any talent advantage against the Razorbacks.
Auburn’s success this entire coming season will hinge on the lines of scrimmage. Auburn was frequently whipped up front on both sides last season. If the Tigers are going to start winning in the SEC, they must get better on both lines. If we’ve gotten beat up front earlier in the year, it will happen again in Arkansas. If Auburn becomes as strong as I think they could, this game could be a big mismatch.
Bielema fielded a remarkably consistent product at Wisconsin during his seven-year tenure there. They usually overwhelmed teams with deficiencies up front. Unlike his situation at Wisconsin though, he’s inheriting a bit of a depleted team at Arkansas. Conventional wisdom says that it will take time to build things the way he wants them. At Wisconsin, Bielema took over a program that was already in the upper echelon of the Big Ten, from Barry Alvarez. The Auburn Tigers certainly witnessed the effectiveness of that program, being smashed in the mouth a 24-10 loss in the 2006 Capital One Bowl in Alvarez’s last game.
Prediction: Auburn exceeds expectations in 2013, while Arkansas comes into this game after a particularly brutal October. Auburn wins this one, 37-20.