Normally, a duel to start the season between a team that played in the national championship the year prior and an opponent that won all of three games is not one to catch, but something feels different about Saturday, when the No. 6 Auburn Tigers host the Arkansas Razorbacks.
As Bret Bielema heads into his second year of a rebuild at Arkansas, so too does Gus Malzahn, albeit one has had quite a bit more success than the other.
Still, Bielema's team is clearly on an upswing, while the Tigers have hit a bit of a downward trajectory in some ways after coming up 13 seconds short against Florida State in the title game.
Below, let's take a look at some of the finer details surrounding the matchup.
When: Saturday, August 30, 4 p.m. ET
Where: Jordan–Hare Stadium, Auburn, AL
Television: SEC Network
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):
- Over/Under: 57.5
- Spread: Auburn (-21)
Team Injury Reports
|Mitchell Loewen||DE||08/21/2014||is out indefinitely||Out||knee|
|Deatrich Wise Jr.||DE||08/26/2014||is probable for Saturday's game against Auburn||Probable||knee|
|Alex Kozan||G||08/02/2014||will miss the entire season||Out||back|
|Carl Lawson||DE||07/15/2014||is out indefinitely||Out||knee|
|Nick Marshall||QB||08/24/2014||is questionable for Saturday's game against Arkansas||Suspended||disciplinary|
|Jonathon Mincy||CB||08/24/2014||is questionable for Saturday's game against Arkansas||Questionable||disciplinary|
|Robenson Therezie||DB||08/24/2014||is questionable for Saturday's game against Arkansas||Questionable||eligibility|
Injury reports via USA Today.
What Arkansas Does Well…
…Might just be enough to make this competitive.
The Razorbacks won all of three games last year and were handed a 35-17 defeat by Auburn in Fayetteville last year, but progression seems to be the keyword around the program.
Brandon Allen is back under center for Arkansas a year removed from throwing for 1,552 yards and 13 touchdowns to 10 interceptions while hobbled. That experience and health will presumably pay dividends.
But the real meat of the Razorbacks' approach comes on the ground thanks to a three-headed monster consisting of Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall. Their production last season alone speaks volumes, with Marshall set to replace Kiero Small, who is now in the NFL:
|Jonathan Williams||150||900||6.0||75 (TD)||4|
With another elite rushing attack on deck and a healthy, experienced leader under center, the Razorbacks might be able to control the pace of the game in a hostile environment, somewhere they are 3-3 at since 1994 when unranked and the Tigers ranked.
It helps that Auburn has a major black eye heading into the affair.
The Battle Against Complacency
Auburn has already begun to slip in a way.
Quarterback Nick Marshall's offseason run-in with the law this past summer has put things in unnecessary territory, as Malzahn will indeed start Jeremy Johnson over last year's star player as a result.
Johnson has attempted just 41 passes so far in his career and is as versatile as Marshall, but it is hard to replicate what Marshall did last season—1,976 passing yards and 14 touchdowns, with another 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
"Jeremy Johnson will start, and then Nick Marshall will play," Malzahn said, per Joel A. Erickson of AL.com. "I'm not ready to say exactly when and all that, but he definitely will play."
It's a strange situation to monitor, as a rotation at quarterback typically has a negative impact on both participants as it breaks rhythm.
Outside of that, the Tigers are clearly the more talented team on paper, and its only true hurdle come Saturday may be a false sense of confidence. For his part, Malzahn is doing what he can to stress to his team that the same sense of urgency as last year must still be present.
"We're playing an Arkansas team we believe is going to be much improved, especially in the second year with their head coach," Malzahn said, per Erickson. "We had a good game versus them last year that was probably a little closer than the score, and our guys know we'll have to play well to be successful."
Given the bitter taste of how the title game ended last year, one can presume it won't be an issue for the Tigers. But an SEC showdown to start the season, no matter what went down last year, is a dangerous concoction indeed.
Which team wins?
Bielema is going to deserve a wealth of credit by season's end. While he may not match what Malzahn was able to do last season in the biggest one-year turnaround in SEC history, the Razorbacks are going to be a much better overall squad.
Just don't expect it all to come together right away.
Auburn is by far the more talented team on the field Saturday, hence one of the reasons Marshall might be held out most of the game to drive a point home to the entire roster. In theory, Arkansas can run the ball effectively, but the offensive guru that is Malzahn can do it even better.
Don't be shocked if the Razorbacks hang around in the first half, but eventually the talent disparity will shine through, and the Tigers will distance themselves comfortably.
Prediction: Auburn 38, Arkansas 14
Statistics courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.