Arkansas vs. Auburn Complete Game Preview
After perhaps the longest offseason for college football fans in quite some time, it is finally game week all across the SEC.
And, unlike most season openers at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Saturday's game could play an important role in the Auburn Tigers' drive to get back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game and to get a spot in the first College Football Playoff.
For the first time since 1995, Auburn is kicking off the season with conference football.
The Arkansas Razorbacks will be looking for a program-changing upset after dropping 11 straight conference games, including all eight in 2013. Traditional football-minded Bret Bielema has fueled the fire of this growing SEC West rivalry in recent months with a wide range of comments on Auburn and Gus Malzahn, an Arkansas native who once held the offensive coordinator job at the program.
Auburn, on the other hand, will take on the unfamiliar task of being a sizable favorite in a conference game while dealing with the indefinite suspensions of starting quarterback Nick Marshall and starting cornerback Jonathon Mincy. The Tigers have a few gaps in the depth chart to fill from last season's storybook season, and this season opener will go a long way in how the opening half of their brutal schedule will shake out.
Before we get to the breakdown of this SEC West showdown, here is all the basic info for the Tigers' and Razorbacks' season opener:
Arkansas Keys to Victory
Rattle Jeremy Johnson
Sophomore quarterback Jeremy Johnson will make his first start against an SEC opponent Saturday, and Arkansas should try to take advantage of his inexperience before Marshall takes the field.
The Montgomery, Ala. native hasn't gotten consistent playing time against a power-conference opponent and only went into the game as part of special packages as a true freshman. The Razorbacks don't have a top SEC defense by any means, but they will be stiffer competition than Johnson got against the likes of Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina last season.
The Arkansas defense should focus on forcing Johnson into making early mistakes. A turnover or two could swing momentum toward the visitors in a hurry and put them well on their way to a major upset at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Take the Crowd out of Things Early
After almost eight months of waiting, the fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium will no doubt be amped for their highly ranked team's SEC opener.
But if Arkansas can either jump out to a fast start or simply match Auburn punch for punch in the opening half, the crowd might get restless and not as hostile when the Razorbacks are on offense. The Tigers' home-field advantage will most likely be a factor in Saturday's game, so as much as the visitors can lessen that influence, the better.
Arkansas' last two road trips in its disastrous 2014 season were actually the team's two best trips—a 10-point loss to Ole Miss in Oxford and a near-upset victory against LSU in Baton Rouge. If they can maintain early success in Auburn, the Razorbacks could put themselves in a position to finally get the big road win.
Chew That Clock and Make It Count
One effective way to make sure Malzahn's high-powered, no-huddle offense doesn't score as much is to keep the football out of its hands.
Arkansas will most likely stick to the ground-and-pound game to work the clock, generate first downs and give Auburn fewer chances to stick the ball in the end zone. This route didn't necessarily work last season, as the Razorbacks averaged holding on to the ball only three seconds more than uptempo Auburn.
So even if Bielema's offense has made enough strides and can hold on to the ball, it still will have to make all that possession count for something. Holding on to the ball for long stretches of time will do you no good if you don't score, so long drives aren't the goal—long scoring drives are the goal. Arkansas didn't do much of either last season.
Auburn Keys to Victory
Put the Pedal to the Metal and Don't Look Back
The rivalry between Malzahn and Bielema started last summer with the ongoing pace-of-play debate. Malzahn prefers his ultra-fast methods, while Bielema opts for a more methodical, traditional style of football.
The Auburn offense will most likely want to show its fans and the rest of the college football world it can play faster in 2014, but reaching new speeds against Bielema and Arkansas would do more than just make a statement.
Arkansas' ball-control offense will seek to limit Auburn's time with the football, so the Tigers should make every possession count from the opening whistle. This Arkansas team is not designed for a shootout, which gives Malzahn all the more reason to try to light up the scoreboard—it could knock his opponent out early and set the tone for the season.
Run, Run and Run Some More
When teams elected to go to the ground against Arkansas in 2013, the results were usually positive, as the Razorbacks were ranked 91st nationally in rush defense by allowing 4.67 yards per carry.
Auburn lost a pair of key figures from its No. 1 rush offense—running back Tre Mason and H-back Jay Prosch—but it has a trio of seasoned seniors in Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Brandon Fulse to replace their talents—and let's not forget about freshmen Peyton Barber and Roc Thomas. Four offensive linemen with starting experience are back this season, and both quarterbacks the Tigers plan to use against Arkansas have had success running the football.
While the talk of balancing the offense has dominated the offseason headlines, Auburn is still a powerful, run-first team at its core. The Tigers' talented wide receivers will get their chances to shine, but the big plays will most likely come through the play-action game for at least the first few matchups this season.
Continue to Improve Against the Run
A quality ball-control offense is predicated on a rushing attack that will grind out consistent yardage and get the first down.
Even though Arkansas didn't do enough on both sides of the ball to grab an SEC win last season, it still had the nation's No. 21 rushing offense at 208 yards per game. Those are not Auburn-like numbers on the ground, but the Razorbacks' underrated group of running backs created the conference's third-best ground game a year ago.
Auburn made a statistical leap in its rush defense last season, but it still finished middle of the road nationally. With the Tigers returning most of its defensive core and entering the second year of the Ellis Johnson 4-2-5 system, they will have a great opportunity to show how far they have come since last season. If they falter, it could be a frustrating day for the home team.
Arkansas Players to Watch
DE Trey Flowers
The Alabama native is the star of an Arkansas defense desperate to turn things around this season. The Razorbacks finished 11th or worse in the SEC last season in every major defensive category, but Flowers was a bright spot for a team that finished the year without a single conference win.
Flowers, a third-year starter, spent the offseason racking up watch list and second-team all-conference nods after deciding to return to Fayetteville for his senior season. While Arkansas might have fallen to the depths of the conference since Flowers decided to become a Razorback, his presence could prove to be vital in the program's quest to end a long losing streak and make a bowl game.
The senior, who put on 12 pounds over the offseason, brings both size and athleticism to the Arkansas pass rush. He had a career day in his last visit to Jordan-Hare Stadium, where he tormented the 2012 Auburn backfield with 3.5 sacks. Flowers' stats might have taken a step back last season, but he still will be a handful for the Tigers' shuffled offensive line.
RB Alex Collins
Like Flowers is to the defense, Collins is the no-doubt star of the Arkansas offense.
Bielema's offensive M.O. at Wisconsin was to develop a massive offensive line and play power football with a stable of talented running backs. The speedy Collins is the leader of the Razorbacks' current trio, one that includes Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall.
The Arkansas head coach may look at Collins, Williams and Marshall as "1A, 1B and 1C," but Collins—the nation's No. 1 all-purpose back in 2013—got the bulk of the carries and yards last season. Although the defending SEC Freshman of the Year only broke the 100-yard mark once against a conference opponent last year, he came close against Auburn last year and will be the No. 1 target for the hosts' defense Saturday.
TE Hunter Henry
Henry is another sophomore looking for more production this season after standing out on a winless team in 2013.
Standing at 6'6" and weighing in at 255 pounds, Henry will surely be a handful for Auburn in both run blocking and receiving. The former freshman All-American finished last season second among SEC tight ends with 409 yards and four touchdowns.
Henry had a quiet day against Auburn in Fayetteville last season, but expect him to have a bigger role in the Arkansas offense this season now that he has established himself as one of the conference's best tight ends. The middle of Auburn's defense will be tested with quarterback Brandon Allen knowing he has a reliable option down the middle of the field.
Auburn Players to Watch
QB Jeremy Johnson
Is there any question who should lead off this list for Auburn?
Johnson will make his second career start Saturday, and this time, his opponent will be tougher than the Western Carolina Catamounts. The sophomore has split reps with Marshall all throughout fall camp and has made great strides in the eyes of his coaches.
The Auburn offense will look at least a little different with Johnson running the show instead of Marshall. Johnson comes from more of a power-running mold as a quarterback and had flashes of real talent throwing the ball at times for a remarkably run-heavy offense. Johnson's development and leadership will be tested from the opening snap for an offense that has a lot of pressure to succeed in 2014.
QB Nick Marshall and CB Jonathon Mincy
Marshall and fellow senior Mincy will most likely get some playing time against the Razorbacks, but their drug incidents in the offseason will cause them to miss the start of this game.
The question now is: How long will the two starters sit out during the season opener? Malzahn said his staff has a plan for both Marshall and Mincy, but, as of Monday, there is no specific news on what that plan will actually entail.
The Tigers have reliable backups behind the two—coaches and teammates raved about Johnson and Jonathan Jones during fall camp. But all eyes will be on No. 14 and No. 6 on Saturday as their team opens the season against a hungry SEC opponent without their talents.
MLB Cassanova McKinzy
Between Collins and Henry, the strength of Arkansas' traditional, power-based offense looks to be concentrated down the middle of the field. Auburn will look to McKinzy to be a defensive leader in that area after his offseason swap with Kris Frost from his old spot at Will linebacker.
McKinzy led the team in tackles last season as a sophomore, and he will return to the position he rotated at as a freshman in 2012. He has the versatility to be a solid, all-around leader for the Tigers defense after focusing on improving his calls from the middle linebacker this offseason.
There is a chance McKinzy might be used in an additional role on third downs, too. McKinzy got practice time pass-rushing from defensive end this fall as the Tigers look for a replacement for the departed Dee Ford and the injured Carl Lawson. Defensive line coach Rodney Garner said McKinzy has natural skills at the position, so look for him to get a chance at Allen on Saturday.
What They're Saying
Next Saturday, we’ve got the whole world to show what we’re about ... You’re going to see a defense that is a lot more aggressive. I don’t mean aggressive by the number of blitzes called, I’m talking about the way they play. They’re communicating very well before the snap, the formations they play, they know what they are supposed to do and they are playing very, very angry. One thing we should be able to do is we should be very angry about what happened a year ago. Our kids show it on a daily basis.
Defensive end Trey Flowers on using Auburn's 2013 success as motivation, via The Red and Black's Connor Riley:
To see what Auburn did last year, we are able to use that as a motivating factor. If everyone buys into one thing, and believes and trusts in the coaches we can make it happen too.
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano on stopping Auburn's offense, via Neiswanger:
How do you stop it? I think you have to out-discipline them. You have to play with more precision than they execute with. Because they hurry up, and they’re moving, moving, moving. They’re just counting on you making a mistake.
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson on Arkansas' offense:
Well, their personnel's very good, so I wouldn't say that's the biggest thing. The biggest thing is that they've got some really good players. But their formations and personnel being so drastically different from our own, and obviously, it's a big adjustment for us to get ready for them. Being the opening game, we've obviously had a lot more time, too. Our players are starting to get a good, comfortable feel for it, getting lined up more quickly and ironing out some of the wrinkles.
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee on opening the season against an SEC opponent:
So I think for both of us, there's a lot of sense of urgency when you open up with a conference opponent and want to start off the right foot...I'm just looking at it, I think Arkansas has won four of the last five here. So, we know what we're getting into. They're a very good team, they're going to be much improved. Just look at how they finished the year last year where they basically beat LSU in Baton Rouge.
Senior tight end C.J. Uzomah on the start of the season:
We’re ready for the season. We have been hitting each other for too long now in our minds. We’re definitely ready to start.
A lot can change in the course of an offseason.
We saw that with Auburn last season, as the Tigers went from winless in the conference to SEC champions under a brand-new coaching staff.
Arkansas' situation heading into 2014 is somewhat similar. The Razorbacks did not win a single conference game in 2013, but the head coach is back for another year. While Bielema has a new defensive coordinator, he has the same offensive coordinator, starting quarterback, most of his playmakers—and the same insistence on playing "normal American football."
The Razorbacks had an entire offseason to improve in Bielema's offensive system and implement Robb Smith's defense, but the talent gap will still look to be too much against the defending SEC champions. Arkansas' motivation and desire to grab a stunning upset against a growing rival with lots of personal history among the coaching staff will only get the visitors so far Saturday.
I see this game going one of two ways—Auburn will either jump on Arkansas early and put the game out of reach, or Arkansas will hang around past halftime. Either way, the Tigers' run-based offense will be way too much for the visitors' shaky defense to handle, and Malzahn's team will notch an important multi-touchdown victory.
Auburn 45, Arkansas 20