War Eagle, everybody! With the start of SEC media days, it's time to get back to previewing Auburn's 2010 opponents! On October 16th Auburn will return to the friendly confines of Jordan Hare Stadium to host the Arkansas Razorbacks. The Tigers may be flying high at 6-0 by that time, but they'll face a dangerous Razorback squad that may be desperately needing a win at Auburn to stay in the Western Division hunt. Arkansas plays five games prior to the Auburn game: Tune-ups hosting Tennessee Tech and Louisiana Monroe, then the Razorbacks travel to Athens, Georgia. A home date against defending national champ Alabama follows, then an open date. The week prior to the Auburn game, Arkansas travels to the Arlington Texas Jerry-Dome to face the Texas A&M Aggies. Depending upon which Arkansas team shows up in Texas, the Razorbacks could be 2-3 heading into Auburn, despite having one of the better teams in the SEC. Against each of those three BCS teams, one has to ask, will we get the Razorback team that puts up 36 points per game, or will we get the bunch that needed overtime to defeat East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl?
With nine starters returning on an offense that really lit it up last season, Arkansas expects to be dangerous this season. Casting a pall on the outlook is a foot injury suffered by all-world quarterback Ryan Mallett. After spurning the NFL draft and announcing that he'd return for his senior season, Mallett broke his foot on February 17th, and missed all of spring drills. He was supposed to have fully recovered by this time, but word leaked out a couple of weeks ago that maybe the foot hasn't healed as well as was hoped. Aside from the quarterback position, the Hogs return 4 line starters, their top 5 receivers including all starters, and 85 percent of their rushing yards. With Mallett's absence in spring drills, several talented backup quarterbacks showed promise. Given coach Bobby Petrino's history, I think it's safe to assume that the Razorback offense will move the ball with or without Mallett.
Defensively the Razorbacks hope to improve on a unit that gave up 401 yards and 25 points per game. Seven starters return on defense, including junior linebacker Jerry Franklin, who's led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson turned up the heat in spring drills, with a defense that appeared to be more aggressive. With the return of junior cornerback Issac Madison from a season-ending knee injury in fall camp of 2009, the Razorbacks should have better depth in the secondary. There's been some shuffling in the secondary to try to get the best defenders on the field on a unit that gave up 248 passing yards per game, and a whopping 8 yards per attempt. The Razorbacks gave up 4.0 yards per carry on the ground, and have the pieces in the front seven to improve on that number, including junior end Jake Bequette and junior tackle Zach Stradther.
Arkansas returns many principle players on a decent special-teams unit, including senior kicker Alex Tejada. Tejada's 16 of 22 season was fairly run-of-the mill in an excellent 2009 for kickers in the SEC, but it should be noted that 4 of those misses were from beyond 40 yards. Sophomore kickoff specialist Cameron Bryan is back, as is sophomore punter Dylan Breeding. Junior kick returner Dennis Johnson set the Arkansas single-season yardage record in 2009. The Razorbacks must find a punt returner to replace the departed Jerrell Norton and Reggie Fish. Arkansas also hopes to improve on an 11.8 yard average on punt coverage.
Unit Matchups after the jump!
uburn defensive line vs. Arkansas offensive line: Last season Arkansas neutralized the Auburn line, holding Antonio Coleman without a single stat. The D line managed only 2 tackles for a loss, and one sack. Arkansas racked up 221 yards on the ground, and 495 yards total offense. Auburn's Michael Goggins, Mike Blanc, Nick Fairley and Antoine Carter must improve upon that performance if Auburn is to have any chance to slow down the Razorbacks. Arkansas returns 4 starters on a pretty good line, including junior center Seth Oxner, 5th year senior tackles Demarcus Love and Ray Dominguez, and senior guard Wade Grayson. Love is a coaches preseason All-SEC second team selection. Advantage: Arkansas.
Auburn linebackers vs. Arkansas backs: Auburn will rely on the senior experience of Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens, with help from sophomore Jonathan Evans. Last year, Auburn had no one playing at an SEC level to put in as a third linebacker. When Auburn used a third linebacker, Arkansas would pass it into that zone for big plays. When Auburn went nickel, Arkansas ran the ball successfully. With the move of Stevens to the pass-coverage side, and the emergence of hybrid safety Darren Bates, Auburn should fare much better here than last season. The Arkansas backfield weapon that tormented Auburn the past two seasons, Michael Smith, is gone. This year looks to be running back by committee for Arkansas. Junior Dennis Johnson is a talent, but coaches seem to think that he lets nagging injuries hold him back too much. The Razorbacks also have junior Broderick Green (a 250 pound battering ram), sophomore Ronny Wingo Jr., and sophomore Knile Davis. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Arkansas receivers: Auburn's top three corners should be pretty good. Senior Demond Washington and junior Neiko Thorpe start, and sophomore T'Sharvan Bell should be the first guy off the bench for nickel situations. Thorpe's made several preseason All-SEC teams, but last year had a nightmare game against Arkansas. Auburn got little pressure on Ryan Mallett last year, and the corners had to stay on their men a long time. Arkansas has a plethora of good receivers they interchange. What's shocking is that none of the Arkansas corps made the coaches All-SEC preseason team. Arkansas will rotate juniors Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Jarious Wright, and sophomore Cobi Hamilton, all of whom had at least one hundred yard game in 2009. Advantage: Arkansas.
Auburn safeties vs. Arkansas secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn got a huge boost to the secondary this past week when senior safety Zach Etheridge announced that he would be able to play in 2010. Reportedly, he's in the best shape of his life after grueling rehab work, and there's no substitute for three years of starting experience in the SEC. Auburn also has capable players in senior Aaron Savage, junior Mike McNeil, as well as depth beyond that. Arkansas rotates wide receivers into the slot, so any of the outside guys could become a third receiver at any time. Also bearing watching is junior tight end D. J. Williams. The big 251 pounder had 32 catches a year ago in a system that tends to spread it around. All eyes are on senior preseason All-SEC quarterback Ryan Mallett. According to Mallett, the hurt foot has actually caused him to shorten his throwing motion and improve his accuracy. We'll believe this when we see it, but even if Mallett can't go, the other Arkansas quarterbacks are premium players. Sophomore Tyler Wilson has some mop-up experience, and Houston prep star Jacoby Walker enrolled early and turned heads in spring drills. Walker hit 6 of 11 for 183 yards and two scores. Advantage: Arkansas, if Mallett is healthy. This matchup is even otherwise.
Punting: The Auburn heir apparent at punter is senior Ryan Shoemaker, who was a freshman All-SEC in 2007. Shoemaker sports a career 41.5 yard average, and by all accounts is kicking the ball well this summer. Arkansas returns punter sophomore Dylan Breeding, who punted for a 38.7 yard average in 2009. Auburn coverage gave up 12.9 yards per return last year, Arkansas gave up 11.8. Both teams need to improve there. Neither team is settled on a return man. Auburn had trouble fielding the ball and finished near the bottom of the FCS with a 4.5 yard per return average. Arkansas lost their two veteran return men, on a unit that averaged 8.5 yards per return. Advantage: Even.
Kickoffs: Auburn senior Wes Byrum will likely manage the kickoff duties in 2010, having posted a career 62.4 yard average on 83 kickoffs. Arkansas uses two kickoff specialists, senior Alex Tejada (61.5 yard average) and sophomore Cameron Bryan (63.4 yard average). Auburn has options for returners, although a starter hasn't been named. Mario Fannin (21.2 yards per return) and Onterrio McCalebb (24.7) had success last season, and Demond Washington (31.1 yards) was a late addition who took one to the house against Georgia. Arkansas will return kicks with junior Dennis Johnson, who had 1031 kick returns and a 25.8 yard average in 2009. The Auburn coverage gave up 23.5 yards per return, Arkansas gave up 21.1. Advantage: Even.
Place kicking: Auburn returns senior Wes Byrum, who's coming off a near-perfect year, hitting 14 of 15 field goals and all of his extra points. Senior Alex Tejada hit 16 of 22 field goals, and missed one extra point. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Arkansas defensive line: Auburn has some fearsome linemen up front, and a lot of starts over the past four years. Seniors Lee Ziemba, Byron Issom, Mike Pugh and Mike Berry will be joined by JUCO transfer Brandon Moseley to form a tough front line. Auburn had the upper hand for much of the Arkansas game last season, paving the way for 242 rushing yards. Arkansas loses two starters on the D-line, but returns Jake Bequette and Zach Stradther. 309 pound senior Patrick Jones is penciled in as a tackle starter along with Stradther. Arkansas has 4 tackles out of the top 6 that weigh over 300 pounds. That's a lot of beef, but questionable pass-rush quickness has necessitated using senior end Demario Ambrose in the middle on passing downs. Joining Bequette at end will be either Ambrose, or sophomore Tenarius Wright, who missed spring drills with a foot injury. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Arkansas linebackers: Auburn should have a talented trio of runners for this game, led by senior Mario Fannin. Junior H-back Eric Smith will open holes. Auburn must do a better job of holding onto the ball against Arkansas this year. In last year's game, fumbles by Ben Tate, Mario Fannin and Chris Todd essentially spotted Arkansas 21 points. Holding down the outside linebacker spots will be junior Jerry Franklin and Freddie Burton, a pair of veteran defenders. At middle linebacker, Arkansas will have to choose between sophomores Terrell Williams and Austin Moss. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Arkansas corners: The deepest position on Auburn's 2010 squad appears to be at receiver, led by star junior Darvin Adams. Last year against the Razorbacks, Adams , Terrell Zachary and Quindarious Carr all had big plays when they got their hands on the ball. Arkansas has been shuffling its corners, trying to find the best combination. Seniors Ramon Broadway and Rudell Crim started last season, but Crim has been moved to his more natural position, safety. Junior Issac Madison will return from a knee injury. Making plays this spring has been sophomore Darius Winston. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Arkansas safeties: Auburn should have a number of talented secondary receivers, including sophomore tight end Phillip Lutzenchirchen. The Tigers often line up outside receivers in the slot, and throw a lot of passes to backs out of the backfield. There are at least a half-dozen such candidates who can break a screen pass the distance. In addition, quarterback Cameron Newton has a strong arm, and is a threat as a runner. Junior Elton Ford is the returning starter at safety, but he may have lost his starting job. The Razorbacks appear to be going with Rudell Crim and junior Tramain Thomas. Thomas won his job with a number of big hits this spring. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn actually matched up favorably in a number of areas against Arkansas last season, and figures to do so again. Critical mistakes hurt the offense, as well as a lack of deep passing. The defense was badly hurt by youth against the dangerous arm of Mallett. Auburn had a walk-on at a linebacker spot, a true freshman at free safety, and a green true sophomore at one corner. Add in anemic line play, and Auburn had their worst defensive outing of the year.
The Tigers should have improved coverage this season, and much better run support. With Arkansas' line, though, expect to see the Razorbacks move the ball again.
Arkansas sold out to rush the passer and swarm the line of scrimmage last year, and all indications are that they are leaning towards that strategy in 2010. This year, Auburn has much better options, including a mobile strong-armed quarterback, and speed at every skill position. A nine man front will be a serious risk against the 2010 Tigers.
If both offenses execute and hold onto the ball, this game could easily have a final score where both teams have scored more than 40 points. Both offensive lines have the advantage in the trenches, and there are talented runners all over the field. Mistakes will decide this game. A holding penalty or dropped ball could not only stop a drive, but allow another seven points for the other team. A turnover could be a 14 point swing. It's going to be a wild game to watch!
Prediction: Ryan Mallett's experience serves him well, and we see far fewer forced throws and bad decisions. Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, the upgraded Auburn running attack, mixed with play-action bombs is pretty much unstoppable in this one. Auburn outlasts the Razorbacks, 52-38.