A week later and people around the SEC, outside eastern Alabama, are still a little jarred at the Arkansas-Auburn matchup. The Tigers are, 24 hours before kickoff, nine-point favorites at home. At some books, that line is -11 1/2.
Auburn played Clemson close and played Texas A&M closer than the Razorbacks did, but beyond that, the teams look similar on paper. Even, probably.
Let’s take a look, position-by-position, how they stack up.
Austin Allen is a potential SEC first-team quarterback. In fact, he was SEC Country’s first-team midseason All-SEC quarterback. He leads the league in completions, yards and touchdowns and he’s tied for the league lead in touchdown-to-interception ratio at 3 to 1. He is, seven games into his starting career, already a player, if not a star.
Sean White is tied with Allen in that TD-to-pick ratio. He has 46 fewer completions in almost 100 fewer attempts. White’s thrown six scores in seven games. He is, by all accounts, a stereotypical game manager. He also leads the SEC in completion percentage, which means if Arkansas’ secondary doesn’t play lock-down defense, he can, conceivably, pick them apart.
Edge: Arkansas, for the playmaking
Arkansas is developing a legitimate two-headed attack in its backfield. Although it’s taken a while, Devwah Whaley has run for more than 200 yards over the last three games as the No. 2. The starter, Rawleigh Williams III, doesn’t seem to get full credit as the league’s leading rusher with 785 yards. The two combined have six scores. The backs have been stifled before, though (see: Alabama game), so it’s important they take some of the load off Allen.
As good as Williams and Whaley have been, Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway have been better. No other duo in the SEC has more than 1,000 yards rushing between them. They bring different skills to the table and coach Gus Malzahn has been known to let the hot hand ride. Even when both are playing similarly, they’re a hard twosome to wear down.
Jared Cornelius remains the only player in the SEC to average more than 20 yards per catch. Despite missing a game, he’s in the top five in the league in receiving yards. Drew Morgan is fourth in the SEC in catches. Keon Hatcher’s five touchdown receptions are tied for second. Only Ole Miss’ Evan Engram has more touchdown catches at tight end than Jeremy Sprinkle. This is the best unit on the roster.
Auburn has Tony Stevens as its primary target. He leads the Tigers in virtually every receiving category, except yards per catch. He’s top 10 in the SEC just about everything, too. Kyle Davis matches Cornelius’ YPC mark at above 20, but his nine catches don’t qualify him among the league leaders. Ryan Davis is the No. 2 and he is competent. In all, though, Auburn’s wide receivers are asked to move the chains and catch the occasional ball from White. They haven’t been game-changers yet.
Things were much, much better for Arkansas in this area against Ole Miss. It was arguably the unit’s best game, considering the opponent. They still gave up two sacks on Allen, but Arkansas ran for more than 200 yards and Allen lit the skies again. Frank Ragnow is a consensus SEC first-teamer and Dan Skipper is up for the second team. Continued improvement from the other three spots is paramount, especially against one of the best front fours in the SEC.
Alex Kozan was a freshman All-American and has done nothing since to change that notion. He could be a full All-American by season’s end. The crew has given up 15 sacks, though, which is a little worrisome considering Auburn has thrown the ball just 150 times, the third-fewest in the SEC. But Kozan and company grade the road for the No. 12 rushing offense in the country.
Arkansas has 15 sacks this year after getting just 20 in 13 games last year. The pass rush has gotten better, but it still isn’t what most would have hoped. Jeremiah Ledbetter has 3.5 and Deatrich Wise Jr. has another 3, but Wise, considered a potential borderline first-round pick, doesn’t have any in SEC play. Arkansas’ rushing defense, which starts up front, is just ninth in the SEC.
Montravius Adams was named a midseason All-American by one publication. Carl Lawson is a first-round pick according to Pro Football Focus. At tackle and end, the two have established themselves as one of the top three combos in the league. Lawson is second in the SEC with 6 sacks and although Adams doesn’t get behind the line as much, he’s large in the center and can chew up blockers.
The loss of Dre Greenlaw a couple weeks ago could have been devastating to a unit that sorely lacked depth. It still could. But in Arkansas’ first game without its second-leading tackler from last season, the Razorbacks won with relative unknown Dwayne Eugene making the most of his opportunity. But Eugene can’t be expected to play every snap, so someone like freshman De’Jon Harris will need to fill in capably on occasion. Brooks Ellis is as solid as they come as the other linebacker in Arkansas’ 4-2-5 set.
Tre’ Williams is the primary for Auburn and he does a little of everything. Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams are the other two starters and the three all rank among the top five on the team in tackles. They might not be stars, but they’ve been fundamentally sound and behind a dangerous defensive line, they often have time and space to make the necessary plays.
Arkansas’ secondary, taken as a whole, has been average. It ranks seventh in the SEC in pass defense. With seven interceptions, the Razorbacks can make plays, and they’ve turned three of those into scores. Safety has been the big weak spot, though it was far better against Ole Miss as Josh Liddell returned to form at free safety. He and Santos Ramirez will have to be good back there as the third option, De’Andre Coley, will miss the first half because of a targeting ejection against the Rebels.
Jonathan Ford is as underrated a defender in the SEC as there is. He makes tackles, knocks down passes and plays a physical brand. Auburn also sends its defensive backs into run support and even on blitzes on occasion and they’ve excelled. Combine that with the third-best passing defense in the league, and the Tigers in the back have been one of the biggest surprises in the league.
Toby Baker remains the best punter in the SEC. Now it appears he has a kicker to join him as Adam McFain, who took over two games ago, has been perfect on his tries since. The return game still leaves something to be desired and kickoffs could go into the end zone more often, but things are trending up.
Auburn is last in the SEC in punting. The team also has the fewest punts in the SEC, too, so that hasn’t hurt them as much. They’re down at the bottom, with Arkansas, in kickoff returns, too. Daniel Carlson is the best kicker in the nation and a potential NFL pick. He’s 13 of 14 in field goals this year and turns stalled drives into points better than anyone.