Rested Tigers return to the field against the struggling Razorbacks
His Razorbacks are reeling from three consecutive losses by less than a score, and life in the SEC gets no easier for second-year Arkansas head coach Chad Morris this week with No. 11 Auburn heading to Fayetteville. The Tigers (5-1, 2-1 SEC) are coming off a bye with a still-fresh wound after dropping their Week 6 contest to then-No. 7 Florida (24-13). The Tigers will be amped up and ready to post a win in the middle of a three-game road trip as they await No. 2 LSU next week, while the Hogs (2-4, 0-3) are desperate to shake a conference losing streak that dates back to Oct. 28, 2017.
Can two big Florida offensive plays sink an entire Auburn season? Tiger fans hope not. On their opening drive, the Gators scored on a 64-yard Kyle Trask touchdown pass to Freddie Swain. Then, ahead 17-13 with 9:04 left in the fourth quarter, Florida put the game out of reach on an 88-yard Lamical Perine touchdown run. After those two explosive plays, Auburn is regrouping for what the Tigers hope is a run at an SEC West title with LSU, Georgia and Alabama left to play.
Call the Hogs snakebitten or just plain unlucky, but the team has lost three winnable games — a home loss to San Jose State (31-24), a neutral-site affair with then-No. 23 Texas A&M (31-27), and a 24-20 loss to Kentucky in Lexington after holding a lead into the third quarter. The play in the pocket has been the culprit for Arkansas this season. And the task ahead gets no easier against an Auburn team loaded with future NFL talent.
Auburn at Arkansas
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 19 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Auburn -19
When Auburn Has the Ball
Auburn true freshman quarterback Bo Nix has to feel the weight of the War Eagle world on his shoulders. After heading to The Plains boasting five-star recruiting status, the dual-threat has struggled in his role as a collegiate starting quarterback, especially in conference games. Against A&M, Nix was limited to 100 passing yards and a touchdown. He rebounded for a great game against Mississippi State, hitting 16-of-21 for 335 yards with two touchdowns. Then came Florida in The Swamp. Nix was made to look green in the pocket, connecting on 11-of-27 attempts for 145 yards with one passing score and three picks. The Hogs have been generous against the pass at times this season, allowing 402 yards against SJSU, and Nix will look to find his rhythm against Arkansas before facing LSU.
The Tigers are at their best when they have a rushing attack that can dictate the flow of the game, and they have had that this season. As a unit, Auburn is running for 230 yards per game, ranked 20th in the FBS. JaTarvious Whitlow leads the way with 544 yards on the ground and is tied for the most rushing scores in the SEC (7), but after rushing 18 times against Florida, Whitlow left the game with a knee injury that required surgery. In his absence, forgotten senior tailback Kam Martin and sophomore Shaun Shivers will be asked to pick up the slack.
Arkansas was tough against the run vs. the Aggies, limiting them to 89 yards on 33 attempts, but then the Hogs were trampled by the thundering Wildcats for 330 yards on 54 totes. Backup Kentucky quarterback Lynn Bowden did much of the damage, rushing 24 times for 196 yards with two scores. The Hogs might provide just the elixir for Auburn coach Gus Malzahn in his quest to find the right formula for his quarterback while also keeping the running game going with two backup running backs.
When Arkansas Has the Ball
The best part of the Arkansas offense this season has been running back Rakeem Boyd. The A&M transfer leads the SEC in rush yards (617) and is tied for second in touchdowns (5). As a team, the Hogs are averaging 149 yards per game on the ground. Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, Boyd has an undisclosed injury, leaving his status up in the air for Saturday. There is talent behind Boyd in Devwah Whaley, but Boyd would be sorely missed if he has to sit.
The play in the shotgun has been disappointing for Arkansas, which has alternated between Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel. Hicks began the season as the starter before giving way to Starkel against Colorado State. Of the two, Starkel has a better completion percentage (59/51), but he has thrown as many interceptions as touchdowns (7/7). Starkel was pulled against UK after going 7-for-19 for just 41 yards. In relief, Hicks hit 5-of-8 for 81 yards but was sacked on the final two offensive plays of the game that could have won it for Arkansas.
If the quarterback has time to throw, there is young talent ready to make a play in Mike Woods, Trey Knox, and Treylon Burks. The quarterbacks have been overly dependent on tight end Cheyenne O’Grady, one of the best receiving talents on the team. Look for the Tigers to follow O'Grady wherever he goes and to be ready should the Hogs try to force the ball to him.
If Auburn comes to play, especially on defense, there is too much firepower for the Hogs to handle. The Tigers defense is holding the opposition to 338 total yards with a stranglehold on the ground game at 101 yards per outing. Expect big games from Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and Tyrone Truesdell along Auburn’s defensive front. If the Tigers are caught looking to LSU, this could be close for a couple of quarters until Arkansas wears out. For its part, will Arkansas bounce back from three frustrating losses with something to prove, or take the field flat?
Prediction: Auburn 48, Arkansas 17
— 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 and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.