AUBURN, Ala. — One of the SEC’s most underrated rivalries resumes Saturday night in Jordan-Hare Stadium when Auburn coach Gus Malzahn goes up against his former employer — Arkansas.
This game that could go a long way in determining the final standings of the SEC West. Auburn (4-2, 2-1 SEC) is coming off a much-needed bye week after turning its season around with a three-game winning streak. Arkansas (5-2, 1-2 SEC) got a signature win for Bret Bielema in last week’s home upset against Ole Miss.
This isn’t the same kind of Auburn vs. Arkansas matchup fans have come to expect in the Malzahn and Bielema eras. There are plenty of wrinkles and new developments on both sides of the field. With that in mind, let’s break down each positional unit in this game and determine which of these teams have the edge.
Auburn: Sean White leads the SEC in passing yards per attempt, quarterback rating and completion percentage through the first seven weeks of the season. He’s been in a highly accurate rhythm during Auburn’s three-game winning streak, and he gets into grooves that jump-start the Tigers’ blistering offensive pace. John Franklin III practiced with the first-team offense last week and should be in line for some more snaps, especially considering Arkansas’ woes in stopping dual-threat quarterbacks.
Arkansas: Austin Allen is the MVP of the Arkansas offense so far this season, scoring multiple touchdowns in all seven games — something that no other quarterback in college football can say. He averages 266 yards per game and completes 63 percent of his passes.
Auburn: If they’re both healthy, Kamryn Pettway (508 yards and 4 touchdowns) and Kerryon Johnson (538 yards and 6 touchdowns) combine for the best running-back duo in the SEC. Pettway is coming off a career game against Mississippi State in which he carried the ball 39 times. Johnson will be a game-time decision after suffering an ankle injury in Starkville. The Tigers also worked on building depth behind those two in the bye week with true freshman Kam Martin and converted receiver Stanton Truitt.
Arkansas: Rawleigh Williams III leads the SEC with 785 rushing yards, and he’s found the end zone five times. Williams suffered a scary neck injury last season against Auburn but has come back to be the feature player for this Arkansas ground game. Freshman Devwah Whaley has added 306 yards on just 49 carries, with senior Kody Walker pitching in 110 more yards. Both of these units are deep and feature some of the best backs in the SEC.
Wide receivers and tight ends
Auburn: Senior Tony Stevens took over in the first half of the season with 24 catches for 408 yards and 3 touchdowns. He’s the go-to weapon for White, especially in the vertical passing game. Ryan Davis had his first career touchdown catch against Mississippi State and is the most consistent player in the unit. Marcus Davis should be stronger after dealing with a hand injury for most of the first half, and the freshman trio of Kyle Davis, Nate Craig-Myers and Eli Stove should be in line for more targets.
Arkansas: A huge reason for Allen’s success so far is the experience he has at his disposal at wide receiver. Arkansas has three of the SEC’s top 15 receivers in yards per game in Jared Cornelius, Keon Hatcher and Drew Morgan. Tight end Jeremy Sprinkle has 4 touchdowns and can be used in a variety of ways in Dan Enos’ offense. The Razorbacks don’t have the star names of an Alabama or a Texas A&M at wide receiver, but this is one of the best receiving corps Auburn will face all season.
Auburn: The shuffle along the offensive line isn’t permanent yet, as senior center Xavier Dampeer still has a chance to make his return from injury this weekend. But Austin Golson looks more comfortable at center, and the Tigers are playing better offensively with Darius James at left tackle. Alex Kozan and Braden Smith might be the best guard tandem in the SEC, with Kozan receiving some All-American buzz. Right tackle Robert Leff is growing in confidence after a shaky start.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks’ normally dominant offensive line has gone through some major changes in 2016, including the loss of position coach Sam Pittman to Georgia. The Razorbacks replaced three starters up front, and they’ve struggled with pass protection in several key games. Brian Wallace taking over at right tackle for Colton Jackson has been a positive change. Auburn and Arkansas have had their high and low points along the offensive line, but both are coming into this game off strong performances in SEC West wins.
Auburn: The strength of Auburn’s defense keeps getting stronger. Carl Lawson was the SEC’s Defensive Lineman of the Week in his last game, and Montravius Adams added a scoop-and-score to his long list of accomplishments as an athletically gifted defensive tackle. Marlon Davidson had the best game of his young Auburn career his last time out, and the second string continues to get good performances out of Jeff Holland, Derrick Brown and Andrew Williams. The Razorbacks have been prone to giving up sacks in huge chunks this season, and this line could take advantage.
Arkansas: Arkansas has its own star defensive end in Deatrich Wise Jr., who Kozan spoke highly of in interviews earlier this week. Wise has 4.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks this season, and plenty of NFL scouts are high on his draft stock. Jeremiah Ledbetter leads the team in sacks with 3.5. True freshman McTelvin Agim is already a key member of a veteran-led rotation. While Auburn has the advantage on the defensive line in terms of star power, don’t sleep on this Arkansas front.
Auburn: The Tigers’ linebackers continue to perform well above expectations this season, and they’ve done a better job in recent weeks of clamping down on big plays. Deshaun Davis is ready to roll after a minor injury early in the Mississippi State game. Tre’ Williams is playing the best ball of his career, especially in run-stopping. Darrell Williams has been an overlooked hero of sorts for this defense, as the production doesn’t drop off at linebacker whenever he’s in the game. Expect that trio to be on the field at the same time more often as Arkansas brings its pro-style personnel into Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Arkansas: Brooks Ellis is a tackle machine who garnered the praise of Gus Malzahn during his news conferences this week. But Arkansas is struggling with depth at the position behind Ellis, especially after Dre Greenlaw went down with an injury against Alabama. Dwayne Eugene played well in place of Greenlaw in the win over Ole Miss, but this team can’t afford more injury woes at the position.
Auburn: The Tigers’ secondary continues to grow after breaking out for several good games last season. The biggest change for Auburn has been fewer explosive plays allowed in the passing game thanks to great one-on-one coverage from the likes of Carlton Davis, Josh Holsey and Rudy Ford. The safeties are stepping up in consistency after some key miscues in the first half of the season. The Tigers currently sit 17th nationally in passing yards allowed per attempt, as they have active hands in coverage that generate plenty of pass breakups.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks are coming off a great performance in pass defense, as they held Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly to 18 completions on 39 attempts. Texas A&M averaged 10.2 yards per attempt against the Hogs earlier in the season, and Alabama put up 14.9 yards per attempt with a true freshman quarterback. Safety play has been a major concern, but that issue looked better for the most part against Ole Miss. Even with those consistency concerns, Arkansas has more interceptions than passing touchdowns allowed. This unit is solid when it plays up to expectations.
Auburn: Daniel Carlson continues his Lou Groza Award campaign as he’s 13 of 14 on field goals, 21 of 21 on extra points and has the best touchback percentage in the country. Kevin Phillips is averaging 40.47 yards per punt, and only two of his boots have been returned — for a combined loss of 5 yards. Auburn hasn’t done much in terms of kick returning this season, so keep an eye on some possible lineup changes.
Arkansas: Kicker Adam McFain was perfect in the win over Ole Miss after taking the starting job from Cole Hedlund. Punter Toby Baker is averaging 47.25 yards this season, which is good enough for fifth nationally. While the Razorbacks haven’t returned a kick or a punt for a touchdown this season, they’ve had better production than the Tigers in that category through the first seven weeks.
The bottom line
Both offenses are coming off of great performances and have proven they can attack their opponents in more ways than what they’ve been known for in years past. Allen provides more of an explosive threat in the passing game than White, but the Tigers have been clicking on offense since Rhett Lashlee took over play-calling duties from Malzahn.
The differences will come on defense. Arkansas’ woes against the run play into Auburn’s strength, especially if Johnson is ready to go by game time. The Auburn defensive line has a favorable matchup against Arkansas’ shaky offensive line. The Tigers’ linebackers and defensive backs have produced at a higher level than the Razorbacks.
That clear edge on defense, combined with the home crowd in what will be Auburn’s last major game inside Jordan-Hare Stadium this season, should make the Tigers the favorites. Arkansas’ offensive fireworks could make this one closer than the point spread, but Auburn has what it takes to grab a huge SEC West win if it plays up to expectations.