Auburn vs. Arkansas preview: Key matchups and prediction

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers begin a tough November stretch Saturday night against the Razorbacks. Will their surprisingly successful season continue.

Auburn and Arkansas meet Saturday night at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in what, on paper, should be a fairly comfortable win for the Tigers. Gus Malzahn's team is 7-1 (3-1 SEC) and one of the nation's biggest surprises after a 3-9 campaign in 2012. On the flip side, Bret Bielema's side (3-5, 0-4) has lost five straight games and given up 104 unanswered points. But, the game isn't played on paper, and Arkansas has a history of ruining Auburn's seasons.

Last year, we knew Auburn was in rough shape at the end of a 1-3 September, but it wasn't until a 24-7 home loss to an awful Arkansas team on Oct. 6 that we knew the season was truly off the rails. In Gene Chizik's first year at the helm in 2009, Auburn got off to a 5-0 start. That streak was snapped with a 44-23 loss at Arkansas.

In 2006, No. 2 Auburn (5-0) was pounded at home by the Razorbacks, 27-10. The Tigers were 4-1 after a season-opening loss to USC in 2002, before a 38-17 home drubbing at the hands of the Hogs. In 2001, 6-1 Auburn was two weeks removed from an upset of then-No. 1 Florida, and Arkansas walked away with a 42-17 win over the Tigers. In 1995, Auburn missed out on an SEC Championship Game berth because of a 30-28 loss to the Hogs.

Auburn fans should justly feel comfortable going into Saturday's game, but be vigilant. Anything can happen.

Auburn's offensive line vs. Arkansas' defensive line

Auburn leads the SEC in rushing yards per game (315.4) and per carry (6.4), and the Tigers' are tied for second with only seven sacks allowed. A lot of that is because of the top-notch stable of running backs and the elusiveness of Nick Marshall, but make no mistake: the offensive line has played really well. Auburn's linemen will face a tough test against Arkansas' front four.

The Razorbacks rank eighth in the SEC with 44 tackles for loss and are tied for second with 20 sacks. They have three players (Chris Smith, Trey Flowers, Darius Philon) among the conference's top 14 in sacks, and Flowers and Smith are ranked third and fourth, respectively, in TFLs. We saw Auburn's run game shut down by Mississippi State earlier in the year, but Marshall was able to pick the Bulldogs apart in the passing game. Hopefully, the trio of Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will be able to wear down the Hogs, but don't be surprised if the Tigers' offense stumbles at times due to that Arkansas line.

Alex Collins vs. Auburn's front seven

The Tigers rank fifth in the SEC by allowing 140 rushing yards per game, and shutting down Johnny Manziel's ground attack in the win over Texas A&M was an impressive feat. However, Arkansas freshman Alex Collins is already proving to be a stud running back, and Auburn had trouble stopping the last great running back it saw.

In the Tigers' only loss of the season, LSU running back Jeremy Hill went wild, carrying 25 times for 184 yards and three touchdowns. Hill is currently second in the SEC, averaging 115 yards per game, and Collins is third at 99 yards per contest. Arkansas' offensive line is performing well, as evidenced by Collins' rushing totals (797 yards, 5.7 per carry) and the number of sacks they've allowed (20, tied with Auburn for second-fewest in the conference). If Auburn can shut Collins down, the Tigers will win in a romp, but that's easier said than done.

Auburn's secondary vs. Brandon Allen

The reason Auburn should be able to win comfortably if Collins is bottled up is because of Allen's track record this year. The Razorbacks have had some excellent quarterback play from Tyler Wilson and Ryan Mallett in recent years, but Allen hasn't been living up to that standard. He's completed just 44.9 percent of his passes this season, and while he's thrown eight touchdown passes, he's also tossed seven interceptions. That bodes well for a secondary that is tied for fourth in the conference with nine picks this season.

Frankly, if the game is placed on Allen's shoulders and it's up to his arm to keep the Razorbacks competitive, they don't have a shot.

No. 11 Auburn vs. The Rule of Tess

In case you didn't realize, ESPN2's Joe Tessitore will be calling the game from the booth. Similar to the old Rule of Gus that applied to NCAA Tournament games called by Gus Johnson, the Rule of Tess has become accepted in the world of college football. Tessitore often broadcasts close games, and it's not uncommon for favored teams to go down in his presence. Take last week, for example. Tess was in Columbia, Mo., and the fifth-ranked Tigers saw their undefeated dream season fall by the wayside after a field goal attempt doinked off the uprights in double-overtime.

Is worrying about the Rule of Tess superstitious and irrational? Of course, but being a college football fan is nothing if not a superstitious and irrational endeavor.

Prediction

Yes, Arkansas has given Auburn trouble over the years (the Tigers hold a tight 11-10-1 all-time advantage in the series), and yes, a night game on the road could create an environment ripe for an upset. But as much as history and atmosphere may be on the Razorbacks' side, talent and coaching are not. Bielema could build a really good program once he has the athletes to fit his system, but right now he doesn't have that luxury. He'd probably take great pleasure in beating Malzahn, who has laughed off the safety concerns related to the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, but Auburn's coach has shown an ability to keep his team focused and take care of business. That's what will happen in this one.

Mason has apparently predicted a 200-yard, three-touchdown performance. That's a tall order against any SEC team, but he should have a good game. Auburn might struggle running the ball early, but the Tigers should be able have more success as the game goes on. Mason's prediction is ambitious, but a 150-yard, two-score performance seems like a real possibility. Per usual, Marshall won't be asked to do too much through the air, and he, along with Grant and Artis-Payne will do a fine job complementing Mason on the ground. On the other side of the ball, Arkansas won't pose much of a threat in the passing game, and while Collins will have a few good runs, he just can't carry the entire team on his shoulders.

Auburn will finally avoid giving fans cardiac arrest and pull away in the second half to win, 45-17.

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