AUBURN, Ala. — On Saturday, Auburn will face Arkansas in the first game between top-25 teams inside Jordan-Hare Stadium in more than two years.
The ranked matchup signals a return to normalcy on the Plains for football season after a disappointing 2015 season and a slow start to 2016. But the matchup itself — Bret Bielema’s Arkansas team vs. Gus Malzahn’s Auburn team — being one of the best games of the week in college football isn’t usual.
Since Bielema and Malzahn became head coaches, this series has been between either two unranked teams or a ranked Auburn team looking to avoid disappointment. Auburn hasn’t faced a ranked Arkansas team since Bobby Petrino was on the sidelines. It hasn’t faced an Arkansas team coming off a win in that span, either.
But this is different. No. 21 Auburn is riding high off a three-game winning streak and a bye week, while No. 17 Arkansas is coming off an emotional home upset of Ole Miss. The Razorbacks have been red-hot on offense and will be looking to grab back-to-back SEC West victories ahead of their traditional November surge.
This is a different kind of Auburn vs. Arkansas game, one that hasn’t been seen since Chizik vs. Petrino. To help with the adjustment to this top-25 showdown, here are five key things to know.
Rest vs. Rust
Auburn’s focus during the bye week wasn’t on a future opponent or a particular area of improvement. The Tigers just wanted to get healthy again after a grueling first six weeks of the season. Now running back Kerryon Johnson is back at practice, along with center Xavier Dampeer, who hasn’t technically lost his starting job yet on the offensive line.
There is the issue, though, of possible rust after taking a week off during a winning streak. Will Auburn be able to get off to a quick start after the bye? First offensive drives were an issue in the first half of the season, and the Auburn staff put those under the microscope during the break.
Auburn’s rest could be an advantage, though, against Arkansas. The Razorbacks are heading into their eighth straight game of the season, and they’re coming off of two physical and emotional home games against Alabama and Ole Miss. They might be in a better position to wear down Arkansas in the second half of this one.
Healthy and hungry
According to his coaches, Johnson has been highly motivated to get back from his ankle injury and play against Arkansas this weekend. His return, if it indeed happens, couldn’t come at a better time for Auburn.
Arkansas is ranked 123rd nationally — sixth-worst — in rushing yards allowed per attempt. And, as the SEC Network’s Cole Cubelic pointed out on Twitter, the Razorbacks have given up a ton of big plays on the ground:
Rushes of 20 yards or more allowed:
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) October 18, 2016
At full strength, Johnson and Kamryn Pettway is the most productive rushing duo in the entire SEC. Big plays are out there for Auburn’s rushing attack, and it’s starting to click more in the last several weeks behind a strengthening offensive line. That, combined with the desire to put on a show for the home crowd, could lead to a huge evening of work.
For the first time in the Bielema era, Arkansas is averaging 30-plus passing attempts per game this season. Junior quarterback Austin Allen has picked up where his older brother Brandon left off in the Hogs’ passing revolution, as he’s the only quarterback in FBS football to have seven multi-touchdown games this season.
Allen already has 18 touchdowns this season to five different receivers, including the experienced trio of Keon Hatcher, Jared Cornelius and Drew Morgan. Allen is averaging a healthy 8.5 yards per attempt and is completing 63 percent of his passes despite some protection issues from the offensive line in front of him.
In years past, the experience and focus of the Arkansas offense has been on the running back spot. Rawleigh Williams III is a fantastic back — he’s second in the SEC in rushing yards per game at 112.1 — but the real wow numbers from this Razorbacks offense is coming from the passing attack.
But even with the growing emphasis on the passing game in the Arkansas offense, the Razorbacks still dominate in terms of time of possession. Only one other team in college football —Utah — has averaged having the ball in its hands more than Arkansas this season.
Auburn’s defense is always focused on getting off the field as quickly as possible, but it might hold an even higher importance against Arkansas. Long drives for Arkansas take more time off the clock than it will for any other opponent this season. Forcing some 3-and-outs will be crucial to the overall success Saturday evening.
That style of play will also affect how Auburn moves the ball on offense. The pressure will be on the Tigers to take advantage of every opportunity on that side of the ball, because they might be more limited against the Razorbacks. Wasted drives or costly turnovers can loom even larger.
Take a look at the turnovers
Turnovers change games, and they’ve had a huge effect on the final scores for both Arkansas and Auburn this season. In their two losses this season to Texas A&M and Alabama, the Razorbacks were in the negative when it came to turnover margin. They were also in the negatives in their season-opening escape against Louisiana Tech.
For Auburn, the opposite side of the spectrum has been a major change. After being in the negative in the turnover department in each of the first three games of the season, the Tigers have been either at zero or in the positives in all three of their games during this current winning streak.
Close games like this one usually come down to who makes fewer mistakes. Auburn has put a higher emphasis on both holding onto the ball and forcing defensive turnovers over the bye week. If that pays off, it could be the difference between a crucial home win or a deflating loss.