Arkansas returns to action after a much-needed bye last Saturday, as the Razorbacks host Florida in a critical game for positioning within the SEC. Thanks to Tennessee’s three-game losing streak in league play, the Gators now control their destiny in the SEC East. Coach Jim McElwain’s team has a couple of hurdles to clear before booking a trip to Atlanta for the conference championship game, starting with Saturday afternoon’s game in Fayetteville against a hungry Arkansas team.
Arkansas limped into its bye week after a 56-3 thrashing at the hands of Auburn on Oct. 22. The Tigers gashed the Razorback defense for 543 rushing yards, while Auburn’s defense harassed quarterback Austin Allen all night and prevented the ground game from getting on track (25 yards). A bye week last Saturday came at a good time for coach Bret Bielema, especially with both sides of the ball looking to hit the reset button after the performance against Auburn, and Allen needing a week to heal from a knee injury. While the loss against the Tigers was a setback, the Razorbacks could close 2016 on a high note. After Saturday’s matchup against Florida, Arkansas hosts LSU and then hits the road for games against Mississippi State and Missouri. All four games are very winnable and a 9-3 finish would be another step forward for Bielema.
For the second consecutive year, Florida is off to a 6-1 start under McElwain. However, the Gators haven’t exactly faced the toughest of schedules. Of Florida’s six wins, only Kentucky (5-3) has a winning mark entering Week 10. The Gators lost at Tennessee after opening up a first-half lead, but the Volunteers’ head-to-head advantage has disappeared after recent losses. Florida’s defense is among the nation’s best once again, while the offense remains a work in progress. The Gators ranked just outside of the top 10 in the first playoff rankings, but this team still has a lot to prove. With games against Arkansas, LSU and Florida State remaining, Florida has opportunities for marquee wins.
Florida holds a 9-1 series edge over Arkansas. These two teams have met only six times since 2003, with one of those meetings taking place in the 2006 SEC Championship. The Gators have an eight-game winning streak over the Razorbacks.
Florida at Arkansas
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 5 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Florida -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Austin Allen Against Florida’s Secondary
The SEC’s No. 3 passing offense (Arkansas) meets the SEC’s No. 1 pass defense (Florida). The Gators rank first in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and have allowed only five passing scores through seven games. Anchoring this unit for coordinator Geoff Collins are two standout cornerbacks. Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson are lockdown corners, and this duo has combined for seven interceptions and four pass breakups through seven games. The safety positions are in capable hands with Marcus Maye, Marcell Harris and Nick Washington.
It’s no secret Florida’s secondary is loaded with talent and is difficult for any opposing quarterback to throw against. However, it’s also fair to say this unit hasn’t really been tested in 2016. Only one of the first seven opponents (Missouri) ranks higher than 60th in passing offense. And even the Tigers are a questionable offense, as there has been a significant difference in the performance of Missouri’s passing game against non-conference opponents and SEC matchups.
Arkansas’ Austin Allen has been one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks through the first eight weeks of 2016. The junior has completed 62.2 percent of his passes for 2,048 yards and 18 scores. Allen is also battle-tested, throwing for 400 yards against Alabama and 371 against Texas A&M. The Razorbacks are loaded with talent at receiver, giving Allen a full complement of receivers to attack the field. Jared Cornelius (24 receptions), Keon Hatcher (28) and Drew Morgan (41) are the primary weapons at receiver, with tight end Jeremy Sprinkle (20 catches) a reliable safety valve over the middle of the field. Can Allen deliver another clutch performance for the Razorbacks against one of the nation’s best defensive backfields? Or will Florida’s secondary contain Morgan, Sprinkle, Hatcher and Cornelius?
2. Florida’s Defensive Line
The offensive line is usually a strength of any Bret Bielema-coached team. However, that’s not the case so far in 2016. Arkansas’ front five has struggled to protect quarterback Austin Allen at times, surrendering 21 sacks and 52 tackles for a loss. Left tackle Dan Skipper and center Frank Ragnow are the anchors, with converted defensive lineman Hjalte Froholdt at left guard, Texas transfer Jake Raulerson (right guard) and Brian Wallace or Colton Jackson expected to round out the starting five on Saturday.
Arkansas’ front five is certainly battle tested with games against Alabama, Texas A&M and Auburn already under its belt. However, another huge test is on tap against the Florida defensive line. Just like the secondary, the Gators’ defensive line is one of the best in college football. Despite dealing with a couple of injuries here, Florida is limiting opponents to just 105.1 rushing yards per game and has accumulated 21 sacks and 39 tackles for a loss. Freshman Jabari Zuniga leads the team with five sacks, and there’s plenty of depth supplied by CeCe Jefferson, Bryan Cox, Jordan Sherit and Keivonnis Davis off the edge. On the interior, junior Caleb Brantley doesn’t post huge totals (13 tackles), but he’s a key cog in this unit.
It’s cliché to say, but this statement holds true: Games are won or lost in the trenches. Florida’s defensive line has a big advantage over the offensive line from Arkansas. How will coordinator Dan Enos counter this front four? Will the Razorbacks use a lot of shotgun looks and quick passes to alleviate the pass rush? Or can the front five of Arkansas deliver a clean pocket for Allen to throw from? Whichever team wins this battle is likely to come out on top on Saturday.
3. Florida’s Offense
On paper, the Florida offense against the Arkansas defense is a matchup of weaknesses. Surprisingly, the Razorbacks have struggled to get stops on defense this year, allowing 6.8 yards per play – last in the SEC. Arkansas is also last in the SEC in third-down defense, has surrendered 17 plays of 40 yards or more and is 13th in the conference by allowing 31.4 points a game. Those totals are surprising for a unit that returned nine starters this fall and had All-SEC players at each level.
After a disappointing start to the season, can Arkansas’ defense turn it around over the final four games? This unit has struggled to stop teams with mobile quarterbacks or power run teams, so the matchup against Florida is a little more in its favor. The Gators are averaging 30 points in SEC contests but managed only 24 against Georgia last week and 13 against Vanderbilt in early October. An injury to quarterback Luke Del Rio pressed backup Austin Appleby into action for two starts, but Del Rio is back under center and completed 15 of 25 passes for 131 yards against the Bulldogs last Saturday. While Del Rio is the better quarterback for Florida’s offense and is efficient on the short or mid-level passes, he’s averaging only 6.9 yards per attempt and has only three completions of 40 yards or more. The Gators have an improving offensive line (nine sacks allowed) and can utilize a solid stable of running backs to keep the chains moving. Jordan Scarlett (468 yards) is the team’s leading rusher, with Lamical Perine, Mark Thompson (back from a one-game suspension) and Jordan Cronkrite also factoring into the rotation.
While Florida’s offense has been sluggish at times and hasn’t faced the toughest slate of defenses, this unit isn’t beating itself (only 10 turnovers lost) and can test the Arkansas defense on the ground. And if the Gators have success on the ground early, opportunities to hit play-action passes to receiver Antonio Callaway (16.3 ypc) and tight end DeAndre Goolsby should be available. The Razorbacks need to win the battle on first and second downs and force Florida into long-yardage situations on third down.
Under Bret Bielema’s watch, Arkansas generally plays its best football at the end of the season. The Razorbacks went 3-1 in November last year, with the only loss coming in a one-point defeat against the Dak Prescott-led Mississippi State Bulldogs. The balance of power in 2016 in the SEC is clearly tilted to the West Division. Arkansas has played a tougher slate, while Florida is a bit of a mystery. The Gators have a standout defense, but the offense has yet to show enough consistency to challenge Alabama for the SEC title. With a bye week to prepare, hit the reset button and make a few tweaks on both sides of the ball, the Razorbacks protect Allen just enough to move the ball, and the defense stuffs the Gators late to pull off the upset.