When the Arkansas Razorbacks (5-2, 1-2 SEC) take the field against the Auburn Tigers (4-2, 2-1) Saturday night, bragging rights for the fan bases and on the recruiting trail will be on the line for both programs.
Auburn, with one conference loss, is still technically in the running for a potential share of the SEC West title but must take down in-state rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl to make it happen. Arkansas is already out of the hunt with two conference losses but could put together a nice five-game run to finish the season if the Razorbacks can take care of Auburn on the road.
The Tigers come into the game on a three-game winning streak putting a renewed focus on the run game and trusting a better-than-average defense to keep the games close. Auburn’s defense is allowing just 16 points per game, showing a true bend-but-don’t-break mentality.
Arkansas looks like a typical Bret Bielema-coached team that stumbles a little early in the season, finds its identity, and then starts steamrolling teams to finish out the year.
Arkansas at Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 22 at 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Auburn -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Arkansas Stop Auburn’s Tailbacks?
Auburn has looked like a different team with offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee calling the plays, not head coach Gus Malzahn. The Tigers’ emphasis on a ground and pound approach, with a great interior offensive line, has opened up passing lanes for Sean White and helped balance out the offense. Starting running back Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway have been a deadly duo with Johnson rushing for 538 yards on 105 carries with six scores and Pettway rushing 91 times for 505 yards with four touchdowns. Their production is big reason why Auburn is 12th in the FBS in rushing offense (262.8 ypg).
Arkansas’ season statistics against the run are not very good, allowing 175 rushing yards per contest. But the stat line is misleading. The Razorbacks have done a good job against tailbacks, not against running quarterbacks. As good as Johnson and Pettway are, White might be the difference-maker on the ground for Auburn, even if it’s just four- and five-yard gains.
2. Can Auburn Stop Arkansas’ Tailbacks?
The Hogs’ rushing game has not been as good as years past with an offensive line featuring three new starters, but the line is coming around. Starter Rawleigh Williams is emerging as an All-SEC-caliber back leading the conference in rushing with 785 yards (140 att.) and five touchdowns. Backup Devwah Whaley is picking up his game with 306 yards (49 att.) and a score, proving to be an effective replacement for Williams when he takes a breather.
Auburn’s rush defense has been average this season, allowing 147 per contest. Arkansas took advantage of an average Ole Miss rush defense last week for 200 net yards on the ground.
3. Which Quarterback Will be the Difference-Maker?
Both Auburn’s White and Arkansas’ Austin Allen find themselves atop the SEC in various quarterback categories. Allen has been far more prolific with 1,861 yards and 18 touchdown passes, tops in the SEC, while White has thrown for 1,187 yards with six scores. White and Allen are first and second, respectively, in the conference in QB rating at 157 and 156.
Auburn has played against teams that like to pass the ball, but one could argue Allen is the best passing quarterback the Tigers have faced so far this year other than Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. The Hogs are very average against the pass but is White effective enough to take advantage of that opportunity?
Neither team is short on experience coming into the game with Arkansas’ two losses coming to undefeated Texas A&M and No. 1 Alabama. Auburn’s losses have come at the hands of Clemson and the Aggies, so both teams have only lost to teams that are undefeated and currently ranked in the top six of both polls. Both squads already have key wins against SEC West opponents, Arkansas over Ole Miss and Auburn over LSU (Les Miles’ final game), with both victories coming at home.
As far as this game goes, Auburn has two advantages: 1) playing at home and 2) coming off a bye. Arkansas handled the Tigers at home last season in an overtime shootout, winning 54-46 after being tied at 24 at the end of regulation.
This matchup is really a coin-flip preference. Expect another tight game with defenses loosening up in the fourth quarter if one team has not gained an edge in the turnover department.
Prediction: Arkansas 34, Auburn 31
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.