Auburn poses another difficult assignment for Razorbacks

Arkansas junior quarterback Austin Allen /

It has to be daunting to be a football coach in the SEC. One week your squad knocks off the No. 12 team in the nation, and the next week, you’re playing the No. 21 team in the nation but are a 10-point underdog.

That’s the situation Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema’s Hogs (5-2, 1-2 SEC) are in as they prepare for Saturday 5 p.m. game at Auburn against Gus Malzahn’s Tigers (4-2, 2-2 SEC). For the fifth time this season, the Razorbacks’ game will be televised by ESPN, giving Arkansas great national exposure

On paper, I thought Ole Miss looked better than the Razorbacks last week. The chunk plays Arkansas’ defense gave up against Alabama, Texas A&M, and even TCU were a big concern against the Rebels. However, the Razorbacks shored up some defensive holes and put together their best overall performance of the season to top the Rebels 34-30 in front of a raucous Razorback Stadium crowd. It was a great victory. Ranking among the biggest in Bielema’s three and half seasons at Arkansas.

While Auburn’s not as highly ranked as Ole Miss was last week, I’d argue the Tigers are the more difficult opponents for the Hogs. Auburn may not be as explosive as Ole Miss, but the Tigers do boast a quick-hitting running game with plenty of bells and whistles to draw tacklers’ attention away from the actual point of attack. Malzahn mixes in enough option principles into his spread scheme to keep opponents even more off guard.

One might be tempted to call Auburn’s running game smoke and mirrors, but it’s not. Deception is built into the scheme, but the Tigers are a physical offense. Kerryon Johnson, who is nursing an injured ankle, and Kamryn Pettway are downhill runners, who also make the most of the one-on-one situations the Tigers’ offense provides. The both average 5 yards a carry and have the ability to exploit poor tackling angles

The Razorbacks did a much better job tackling against Ole Miss, but Auburn presents a more-balanced approach to moving the ball than the Rebels, who rely on downfield throws to offset deficiencies in the running game.

Auburn quarterback Sean White doesn’t have Chad Kelly’s arm, but he’s the most efficient passer in the SEC, right ahead of Arkansas’ Austin Allen, with a 69.7 percent completion percentage (92 of 132 throws) with six touchdowns and 1,187 yards against just two interceptions. White’s top targets are Tony Stevens (24 catches, 3 TDs, 408 yards), Ryan Davis (19 catches, 1 TD, and 155 yards), and Kyle Davis (9 catches, 1 TD, 212 yards).

Considering the struggles the Razorbacks have had getting set against no-huddle teams, the Hogs should expect Auburn push the tempo on Saturday. Arkansas safety Josh Liddell said the Razorbacks would concentrate more on getting set this week than trying to celebrate after a play as they were caught doing several times against the Rebels. Evidently, the Razorback coaching staff made that a point of emphasis this week.

The Tigers are a very balanced football team with an edge to the running game. While Auburn’s offense isn’t on the level of Alabama’s or Texas A&M’s, it is in the same mold. Teams have broken Arkansas’ defense when the safeties became too engrossed in run support. For the Razorbacks to be successful against Auburn, the Hogs have to discipline their eyes and their minds. Unfortunately, that will keep the Razorbacks from playing as fast as the can.

As big a chore as it might be to keep the Tigers in check offensively, it might be an even bigger task for the Hogs’ to put up big numbers on offense.

The Tigers are stout on the defensive side of the ball with Kevin Steele calling the shots. Auburn’s defense is not as dominant as Alabama’s, but it has more in common with the Crimson Tide’s than it does Ole Miss’.

Auburn allows an average of just 13.2 ppg., this season. The Tigers have held Clemson to 19, Texas A&M to 29, LSU to 13, and Mississippi State to 14 points this season.

The strength of the defense is up front with a healthy Carl Lawson (6-2, 253) leading the way in a hybrid defensive end/linebacker role. Think a poor-man’s Lawrence Taylor, and you get the idea of the type of player he is. Marlon Davidson (6-3, 273) plays a more traditional role defensive end role in Auburn’s 3-4 front. Inside, the Tigers are mountainous with Montravius Adams (6-4, 309) and Dontavius Russell (6-3, 308) playing the tackle and nose guard spots.

Linebackers Tre Williams (6-2, 240), Darrell Williams (6-2, 231), and DeShaun Davis (5-11, 239) are head-knockers and are key in Auburn holding opponents to just 147 yards rushing per game.

Arkansas receivers coach Michael Smith said Auburn’s secondary compares favorably to Alabama’s

“A very physical, handsy defense that’s fast,” Smith said. “Their secondary runs well. Long-armed corners that play great technique. It’s going to be a challenge for us. I’ve compared them to some of the guys at Alabama we played a few weeks ago.”

Nickel back Jonathan Ford, safety Tray Matthews, and cornerback Carlton Davis are returning starters, and Nick Ruffin and Joshua Hosley split time at the other spots

“They’re a really good secondary,” Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen said. “Got a lot of guys who have played a lot of football, and they’re always around the ball. Big, fast, and they’re pretty good players.”

Certainly, the competition came down a couple of notches from Alabama to Ole Miss last week, but I think we did see improvement from the Razorbacks against Ole Miss. The Hogs running meshed for the first time this season with Rawleigh Williams Jr. and Devwah Whaley both picking up solid yardage.

Running the ball against Auburn will be tougher than against the Rebels, but the confidence built against Ole Miss should benefit the Razorbacks. As long as the Razorbacks can forge some semblance of a running game, Arkansas’ passing game should be effective.

This needs to be a big game for Keon Hatcher, Jared Cornelius, and Drew Morgan. Hog tight end Jeremy Sprinkle would be help, but he was wearing a walking boot on his foot Monday. Bielema said he would play, but the question is how effective he will be and for how long. Tight end Austin Cantrell made a key catch last week, but he does not boast the same speed, hands or experience as Sprinkle.

As always penalties and turnovers have to be kept to a minimum for the Razorbacks to have success. Playing on schedule or ahead of the chains is key for the Razorbacks to maintain drives and Auburn’s offense parked on the sideline.

A victory Saturday would send the Razorbacks, who have an open date on Oct. 29, into November bowl eligible with the prospects of an upper-tier bowl trip still in play. A loss would continue the Razorbacks’ roller-coaster ride of a season, and knock the Razorbacks back a step in their march for progress.

I think Hog fans are in for another nail-biter, possibly going down to the last possession.

Prediction Arkansas 34, Auburn 27