Auburn and Arkansas are two SEC West rivals — and fan bases — that should be familiar with each other in the Gus Malzahn vs. Bret Bielema era.
But both Top 25 programs aren’t exactly playing to their traditional types under those two in 2016. For example, Auburn has one of the best defenses in the SEC and is succeeding with a quarterback who isn’t a traditional dual-threat.
Arkansas has some tweaks to its Bielema formula, too. So, to understand the 4-2 Razorbacks better heading into the Saturday night showdown at Jordan-Hare Stadium, we enlisted the help of SEC Country’s own Arkansas beat reporter, Jason Kersey.
This week’s edition of An Opposing View grilled this Hogs expert on the Arkansas upset over Ole Miss, the red-hot start for Austin Allen and some under-the-radar players to watch.
Justin Ferguson: What exactly clicked for Arkansas in the upset win over Ole Miss that didn’t happen in its earlier SEC losses to Texas A&M and Alabama?
Jason Kersey: “The Arkansas offensive line played better against Ole Miss than it has the entire rest of the season, so that certainly helped. It’s still unclear whether that was just an aberration or a sign of the drastic improvement that unit will need to keep improving the rest of the season.
“I think we’ll find out the answer to that this weekend against an Auburn defensive line that will be one of the toughest the Hogs will face all season.
“Arkansas’ defense also stepped up and made some key stops. The Hogs especially got good play out of safeties Santos Ramirez and Josh Liddell, who have struggled most of the year.”
JF: There’s a notion that Arkansas is still mostly a ground-and-pound team under Bret Bielema, but these Hogs aired it out a ton in 2015 and have continued to do so in 2016. Why has Austin Allen been such a quick success in this passing offense?
JK: There are a couple of reasons for that. First, Arkansas doesn’t have the offensive line of a traditional Bielema team this season. That has forced the Razorbacks to improvise some. A lot of the shift you refer to has come from offensive coordinator Dan Enos and his style.
“The Hogs also have really, really good receivers in Keon Hatcher, Drew Morgan and Jared Cornelius, as well as a top tight end in Jeremy Sprinkle. They have helped make the transition between Brandon and Austin Allen seem really smooth.
“But I also think Austin Allen deserves to get a lot of credit. He is really outstanding and has displayed a toughness that I’m not sure many expected. He’s also been clutch in the fourth quarter of several games this season.”
JF: A lot of focus is going to go in this matchup of Arkansas’ offensive line vs. Auburn’s defensive front. The Razorbacks seemed to play better up front against Ole Miss for the most part, but why has the offensive line gotten off to a slow start this season?
JK: “The biggest reason for that — as Bret Bielema will tell you ad nauseum — is that the Hogs had to replace three guys on the offensive line. And that is true, but we also haven’t seen the development from guys like Hjalte Froholdt that one might have expected. Jake Raulerson — a graduate transfer from Texas — has also struggled some.
“The Hogs’ O-line has performed better since coaches replaced right tackle Colton Jackson with Brian Wallace about a month ago.”
JF: What is the biggest strength and the greatest weakness of this Arkansas defense? How much will De’Andre Coley’s first-half suspension affect this unit?
JK: “The biggest strength of the Arkansas defense is without a doubt its line. The Hogs have senior defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr., who some project as a possible first-round pick, as well as veterans like Tevin Beanum, Taiwan Johnson and Jeremiah Ledbetter. True freshman and former 5-star prospect McTelvin Agim has also been really good this season.
“Linebacker depth and safety have clearly been the Arkansas defense’s biggest weaknesses. The linebacker situation only got worse with Dre Greenlaw’s injury a couple weeks ago, although Dwayne Eugene filled in pretty nicely in his first start against Ole Miss. Still, Arkansas doesn’t have much depth behind starters Eugene and Brooks Ellis, so if one of them were to get injured, the Hogs might be in a lot of trouble.
“As far as Coley’s suspension goes, I’m really not sure what effect that will have. He probably wasn’t going to start this week anyway, but it certainly does kill some of your depth back there against an offense that can be powerful and likes to play fast.”
JF: Who are some of the lesser-known Arkansas playmakers on both sides of the ball that Auburn fans should keep an eye on Saturday night?
JK: “Senior cornerback Jared Collins hasn’t been discussed much this year, but that’s only because he’s done such a good job that teams really aren’t testing him. Junior nickel back Henre’ Toliver has also played really well this season at a couple different spots.
“On offense, I’d keep an eye on true freshman running back Devwah Whaley. He isn’t the starter — sophomore Rawleigh Williams III leads the SEC in rushing — but Whaley has slowly been working his way into the offense over the past few weeks and should get at least 10 carries Saturday. Whaley was one of the top-ranked high school running backs in the country last season.”
JF: Finally, what’s your score prediction, and how do you see this game playing out?
JK: “I’m picking Auburn to win, 35-31. I think both teams will score points and put up big offensive numbers, but in the end, Arkansas’ defensive weaknesses and the fact that the game is at Auburn lead me to lean toward War Eagle in this one.”