Back in the dog days of summer, Auburn was circling Oct. 6 on its calendar. Arkansas was supposed to be a good-to-great team, and the date in Jordan-Hare Stadium would likely be the Tigers' best opportunity spring a big win as an underdog. The Arkansas game was going to be an opportunity for Gene Chizik's team to prove that it was beginning to take off again and that bigger success was approaching on the horizon.
Now, Auburn enters the game at 1-3, battered and bruised. What's stunning is that Arkansas actually has a worse record than the Tigers -- 1-4 -- and looks to be in the argument for worst team in the SEC. But don't be fooled; this game is still a big opportunity for Chizik and Auburn. It's an opportunity to prove that the program isn't crashing into the mountain. This Arkansas team is truly awful. That can be blamed on the lack of Bobby Petrino, a bad hire at defensive coordinator, a bad hire at interim coach or just overrated talent, but no matter the reason, the Razorbacks are a putrid football team. If Auburn loses on Saturday and slips to 1-4, it's hard to imagine the Tigers ending the year with a record better than 5-7, and, God forbid, something worse would certainly be possible. Even in a rebuilding year in which we knew Auburn would experience some tough times, would 5-7 or 4-8 be acceptable? We wouldn't bet on it.
But there's good news! Auburn hasn't lost to Arkansas yet, and the Tigers haven't slipped to 1-4. Even better news is that the Tigers made significant progress, especially on defense, two weeks ago against LSU. And if you believe the reports, the offense may have made some improvements during the bye week. If nothing else, quarterback Kiehl Frazier is aware of his issues and is consciously trying to correct them:
"My footwork was a little slow, made the timing off," Frazier said. "It made me look a little timid in the pocket because my read wouldn't be open when I got to the top of my drop because I wasn't doing my footwork right. So that's just something we got to fix from last week to next week."
For the most part, Auburn's offense has been miserable this season, but it's felt as if even modestly better quarterback play could make a huge difference. The Tigers are a couple of plays from being 3-1 instead of 1-3, and to say that Frazier's numbers have been bad would be and understatement:
If Frazier knows what he has been doing wrong and spent the bye week actively trying to correct it, maybe modestly better quarterback play is right around the corner. Really, even the slightest improvement could open up Auburn's offense enough to give the Tigers a better shot at victory.
Obviously, something has to give in this game. Auburn's offense and Arkansas' defense are bad, but we're about to find out that one of these units is wretched beyond belief. In order to make sure that unit isn't the Tiger offense, Frazier must show that his self-reflection during the bye week is actually leading to tangible improvement.
Of course, something that would go a long way toward helping Frazier improve would be better play from Auburn's wide receivers. Yes, Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen have been open, and yes, Frazier has often overthrown them. But if other Auburn receivers would step up and get open, Frazier may get away from focusing solely on Blake and Lutzie and making poor, pressure-packed throws. With 11 catches, Quan Bray was beginning to step up and make his presence known, and then he decided to go and get arrested for some stupid, preventable reason. And with arrests come suspensions. Bray will miss the Arkansas game, leaving Auburn with Blake, Lutzenkirchen and a bunch of players with plenty to prove.
Coates is the man most likely to take advantage of the extra playing time, and if he excels, he could parlay Saturday's game into a much bigger role in the offense. Against Louisiana-Monroe and LSU, the redshirt freshman showed that he can get behind the secondary. Against the Bayou Bengals, he allowed a potential big play slip through his fingers early in the game. Streaking past the defense is great, but if he consistently can't catch the ball, Coates won't bring much value to the offense. Only time will tell whether or not the drop against LSU was a fluke. Either way, Coates appears to be Auburn's biggest threat for a home run in the passing game.
Reed is only a sophomore, and because he received a medical redshirt for the 2010 season, it's easy to forget that at times. He came to Auburn with so much hype, his lack of production over the last 17 games has been a major disappointment. In 2011, he caught 21 passes for 164 yards. Through four games this year, he has just one 17-yard reception. Reed is still looking for his first-career touchdown reception, a fact that baffles the mind. With a chance at increased snaps against a weak secondary, Reed's future at Auburn may hinge on the Arkansas game. If he can't make an impact Saturday, it's unlikely that he ever will.
Louis is the wild card in all of this. He was one of the higher-profile additions in the 2012 class, as he decommitted from Auburn, committed to Florida State, decommited from the Noles and re-pledged to Auburn on Signing Day. A four-star prospect out of Miami, Louis has brought energy to his special teams role and earned a shot at seeing more time with the offense. Auburn lists Louis at 6'2, 210, and if that's accurate, he has the raw mesurables and the physical talent to be great. Louis is a true freshman, so it may be a little early to expect a breakout performance, but he's certainly one to watch.
Perhaps the biggest question mark about the offense this week is how much freshman quarterback Jonathan Wallace will play. Wallace received a few snaps in the wildcat formation against LSU, and Auburn's offense was fairly successful with No. 12 under center. He'll likely play against Arkansas, and while Chizik has said Wallace could see an expanded role, he hasn't been specific with details. But if Frazier struggles against the soft Razorback defense, it wouldn't be a shock to see Wallace handed a bigger opportunity
While Arkansas' run defense has not been good, it hasn't been the nuclear meltdown that its pass defense has turned out to be, but that could be because opponents are too busy throwing the ball to gain as many yards on the ground. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler may be tempted to air it out early and often, and while Auburn should run plenty of pass plays, the Tigers should not use the pass to set up the run. Should Frazier struggle early, Auburn's offense could get out of sync. Loeffler can't allow that to happen. A healthy dose of the power running game should be the offense's base. Then, Auburn can mix in sweeps to Onterio McCalebb, and eventually, the Tigers may have the Hogs' defense completely off balance. But it all starts with proper balance from Loeffler. Stick to what Auburn does fairly well, running, and the pass game should be wide open.
So, as long as Loeffler doesn't muck it up on his end, success for Auburn's offense will come down to one thing: execution. The offensive lineman must take care of their blocking assignments, and the backs must follow full back Jay Prosch and find their lanes. Auburn receivers need to run crisp routs and hold onto catchable balls, and Kiehl Frazier absolutely has to make quick decisions and accurate throws. If those things happen, Auburn will be able to tear through Arkansas like a couple of forks through a 15-hour pork shoulder.
Auburn's defense looked much better against LSU than it had in the first three weeks, and part of that success was the Tiger secondary keeping Zach Mettenberger and the LSU passing attack in check. Against Arkansas, the primary task charged to Auburn's defenders will be shutting down Arkansas' potent passing game, led by senior Tyler Wilson. Having thrown for an average of 310 yards through five games, Wilson has been one of the few bright spots on the 2012 edition of the Razorbacks. His favorite target has been Cobi Hamilton, the lone holdover from the fantastic Arkansas receiving corps of years past. Hamilton has 31 catches for 591 yards and four touchdowns this year, and the Razorbacks' second-most productive receiver, Chris Gragg, has 19 catches for 234 yards and two scores. Obviously, keeping Hamilton from going nuts will be paramount for Auburn's defense. He already has one 300-yard game this season, and if the Tigers aren't careful, he could do it again.
And that is where a conundrum arises for the Auburn secondary. VanGorder has repeatedly expressed that he would prefer his defensive backs to play press-man coverage, but they just aren't ready. With a dangerous receiver like Hamilton, the Tigers can't afford to be burned with the deep ball. But if Auburn backs off into soft zone coverage, Wilson will punish the Tigers with underneath passes.
So,with a shaky secondary, the greatest weapon Auburn has to employ against Wilson is its pass rush. The Arkansas quarterback hasn't been sacked all that often this season, but opposing defenses have been able to put plenty of pressure against Wilson. For the Tigers, defensive ends Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford could make the difference in the game. As our own Dusty Miller pointed out earlier this week, the two have combined for seven sacks and 10 quarterback hurries this season. Arkansas' offensive line hasn't been impressive, and Lemonier and Ford should be able to take advantage. Rattling Wilson with constant pressure will be the best way to knock him off his game.
Against the run, Auburn just has to focus on fundamentals, something that has been a problem at times this season. Even with a talented rusher like Knile Davis, the Razorbacks have the worst run game in the SEC. The primary reasons for the Hogs' ineptitude involve the poor play from the offensive line and the fact that Davis just hasn't been himself since injuring his ankle before last season. He appeared to be getting back on track against Texas A&M, but three fumbles derailed his afternoon. Davis' fumble problem is precisely why Auburn defenders will need to focus on proper fundamentals when making tackles. If they simply wrap up correctly, Davis won't be able to get into gear. But if Auburn thinks about causing fumbles and starts going for the strip, Davis is liable to get out of tackles and break off some big games. Remaining focused will be the key to success for Auburn's run defense.
Focus is what this entire game comes down to for Auburn. As much as the Tigers have struggled this season, they are clearly better than this Arkansas team. Auburn has plenty of talent, and if that talent executes properly, Chizik's team should win comfortably. Should Auburn lose this game, it will say a lot about this administration's ability to prepare this football team. If Auburn falls to 1-4, the calls for Chizik's job will get louder and louder, and it wouldn't be a surprise if his days were all of a sudden numbered.
Despite what some may say, Chizik still is the right coach for this team, and he'll have his players ready on Saturday morning. It won't be pretty at times, but Auburn isn't losing to such a poor Arkansas team. Wallace will likely see increased snaps, and Coates could have a breakout performance. It won't be too comfortable, but Auburn will find a way to win. Auburn 30, Arkansas 21.