When the Auburn Tigers (5-2, 3-1 SEC) travel to Fayetteville to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks (2-4, 0-3) on Saturday, two embattled coaches go head-to-head looking to put a positive spin on the season coming off tough SEC road losses.
Just as Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn was winning the Auburn faithful back over as a potential SEC West title contender, a second half collapse against LSU gave fans and boosters more cause for concern. Auburn built a 20-point lead against LSU in the first half only to lose 27-23. Sophomore quarterback Jarrett Stidham had his worst performance of the season, completing 9-of-28 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown. The bright spot on offense for Auburn was junior tailback Kerryon Johnson. Johnson pushed forward as an All-SEC candidate with 31 carries for 156 rushing yards and a score.
Everyone in Bryant-Denny Stadium knew Alabama was going to claim a win over Arkansas last week, even first-time Razorbacks starting quarterback Cole Kelley, but that did not stop the redshirt freshman from bringing a spark to the offense. Kelley was the lone bright spot for Arkansas last week, completing 23-of-42 passes for 200 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The usually reliable running game was limited to just 27 total rushing yards. Head coach Bret Bielema needs a good showing in front of the home crowd against Auburn to help keep his proverbial hot seat from reaching a melting point. Gaining his first SEC win of the season will go a long way with Razorback Nation.
Auburn at Arkansas
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Auburn -15.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Arkansas stop Auburn’s rushing attack?
The Tigers have one of college football’s best rushing attacks, generating 222 yards per game led by Kerryon Johnson. Even though Johnson has missed two games, he is second in the SEC in total rushing yards with 660, 28 behind Georgia's Nick Chubb. Johnson leads the FBS ranks with 13 rushing touchdowns.
Arkansas is trending the wrong way when it comes to stopping the run. Alabama rolled for 308 yards on the ground last week, raising the Razorbacks' per game average to 173. It's going to be another tough test for the Hogs, as they try to slow down Johnson, who has the benefit of running behind a great offensive line.
2. Can Arkansas run the ball?
This question will be asked throughout the season until the Razorbacks become more consistent with their run game. Arkansas was held to 106 rushing yards against South Carolina and managed just 27 last week in the loss at Alabama. Auburn has done a good job against the run, limiting teams to 118 yards per game. But LSU racked up 157 on 39 carries (4.0 ypc) so it's not impossible to run on this Tigers defense.
The problem for the Hogs isn't the ball carriers, but the push up front. After six games, the coaching staff is still trying to find the right alignment for the offensive line that can effectively run block and pass protect. Auburn certainly isn't going to make either task any easier.
3. Cole Kelley vs. Auburn’s pass defense
LSU quarterback Danny Etling, for his style of play, had a big game against Auburn, completing 13-of-24 passes for 206 yards, a touchdown and most importantly, no interceptions. His primary target was DJ Chark, who finished with 150 receiving yards on just five catches (and one rather important 75-yard punt return for a touchdown). Kelley, making his first collegiate start on the road against Alabama, connected with eight different receivers on his 23 completions with Deon Stewart, Jordan Jones and Brandon Martin (combined for 14 catches, 171 yards and the lone touchdown) doing most of the damage.
It goes without saying that Kelley will need to play extremely well if Arkansas has any shot at pulling off the upset. The Razorbacks' running game and offensive line struggles only add to the challenge facing the redshirt freshman from Lafayette, Louisiana. He does have size (6-7, 268) and a strong arm, so maybe he can catch the Tigers napping.
For different reasons on the fan’s expectation spectrum, both Gus Malzahn and Bret Bielema are at odds with their supporters. A loss for Auburn will more than likely take them completely out of SEC West title contention while a loss for Arkansas, especially a bad one, will drive a further divide among the fans and their charismatic head coach. Wins in the SEC come down to coaching and motivating players — who wants it more?
Arkansas shocked Auburn in Fayetteville in 2015 winning 54-46 in overtime. Auburn returned the favor, running roughshod over the Hogs (543 rushing yards, SEC regular-season single-game record) at Jordan-Hare last year with a 56-3 victory. Expect an angry Auburn team in Fayetteville ready to post a win before a bye week ahead of Texas A&M.
Prediction: Auburn 38, 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.