War Eagle, everybody. It's time now for another Auburn opponent preview. After a tough opening 4 games, Auburn gets a rare and much needed September break. The Tigers have their bye Saturday on the 29th, then on October 6th, The Arkansas Razorbacks come to town. Led by interim coach John L. Smith, most folks expect Arkansas to continue to display a high flying aerial attack, and to finish the season in the top ten once again. Like Auburn, Arkansas will be battle-tested by the time this game rolls around. Arkansas opens with four straight home games, against Jacksonville State, Louisiana Monroe, Alabama, and Rutgers, before traveling to College Station for a matchup with the Texas A&M Aggies.
I'm not going to delve into great detail on scandal, but suffice it to say that the Razorback coaching staff will look a bit different this fall. In addition to interim coach John L. Smith running the show, there are changes on both the offensive and defensive staff. On defense, the swarming, sell-out style is gone, as Arkansas dismissed defensive coordinator Wily Robinson, and brought in Paul Haynes to install a more multiple system. Haynes was the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State the past season, and coached defensive backs with the Buckeyes before that. On offense, Paul Petrino takes over the controls, and he'll try to keep the high-octane offense going. Petrino has a good track record as a coordinator, but it's usually been in his brother Bobby's shadow at Louisville, and Arkansas. Paul Petrino did put up some good offensive numbers working under Ron Zook at Illinois the past two years.
It's a star studded backfield for the Razorbacks, including returning senior Tyler Wilson, who threw for 3638 yards in 2011. Arkansas also has a 3-deep (at least) tailback corps, including star junior Knile Davis, who's coming off a serious ankle injury. They'll play behind a good-sized line that returns 4 guys who have multiple starts. Where there are questions are at receiver. Senior Cobi Hamilton is a proven performer, and he had a great spring this year. Beyond that, potential contributors Marquel Wade and Maudrecus Humphrey have been suspended indefinitely for burglarizing dorm rooms. Wade had 136 yards receiving in the spring game, and is a major factor in the return game. I think it's unlikely for the pair to return. The Razorbacks will be looking for talented young receivers to step up and catch the ball.
It's no secret that there was dissatisfaction with the Razorback defense last season, particularly in the secondary. Graduation hit the Razorbacks hard on defense, as they lost all-star defensive end Jake Bequette and leading tacklers Jerry Franklin and Tramain Thomas. Two starters in the secondary must be replaced. At linebacker, Arkansas returns only senior middle linebacker Alonzo Highsmith, who sat out spring drills with a torn muscle. The situation at linebacker is so precarious that the Razorbacks moved senior end Tenarious Wright to linebacker for the spring. Where he'll end up this fall is still a bit up in the air. In the Razorback spring game, the White team beat the Red 65-0. It's easy to look at that score and think, "woeful defense." However, the scrimmage was mostly starters against the rest of the team. Arkansas would shred just about all second team SEC defenses.
Arkansas special teams will likely once again feature reliable legs, dangerous return men, and spotty coverage. Senior Dylan Breeding is a superb punter, and junior Zach Hocker is a time-tested reliable kicker, and has a pretty good kickoff leg as well. Senior Dennis Johnson is a dangerous kick returner, but Arkansas will have to look at relatively unproven guys to return punts. Marquel Wade was the only punt returner on the roster with experience, and he's been suspended as noted above.
Unit Matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Arkansas offensive line: A front four of junior Dee Ford, junior Jeffery Whitaker, sophomore Gabe Wright, and junior Corey Lemonier should be pretty special, and Auburn is at least two deep behind the starters. Auburn actually matched up OK against Arkansas in the trenches last season, but gave up big plays in the back seven. With a year of development, Auburn should be far stronger in 2012. Arkansas has been shuffling players around on the line, but that's kind of a Bobby Petrino cross-training staple. The post-spring depth chart has veteran senior Travis Swanson at center, senior Tyler Deacon and sophomore Luke Charpentier at guards, and junior David Hurd and sophomore Brey Cook at tackles. With a more aggressive vanGorder defensive approach, Auburn should be able to cause problems in the backfield for the Razorbacks. One complaint that kept surfacing when discussing last year's Arkansas offense was the number of hits the quarterback was taking. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. Arkansas backs: Auburn should have some combination of Darren Bates, Jake Holland, Kris Frost and Jonathan Evans starting for this one. It's going to be a tall order to chase down the elusive Arkansas backs. Gone is the bulldozing Broderick Green, but Knile Davis returns after an ankle injury cost him the entirety of last season. Davis was limited to non-contact work in the spring. Behind Davis are junior Ronnie Wingo, and senior Dennis Johnson. All three runners catch the ball well out of the backfield, so it's imperative that the linebacker coverage skills we saw on A-Day continue. Auburn actually controlled Arkansas runners for the most part last year, giving up 47 yards to Green and 42 to Johnson. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Arkansas receivers: This season, Auburn has the depth to keep corners fresh. Sophomore Robensen Therezie and junior Chris Davis have the speed to match up with anyone, and there's fast, talented guys two deep behind them. Arkansas has senior Cobi Hamilton and a lot of question marks. As the 4th receiver last season, Hamilton caught 34 balls for a 15.9 yard average and 4 touchdowns. With the suspensions of Wade and Humphrey, other receivers likely to play a role are junior Javontee Herndon, sophomore Keante Minor, and early enrollee Quinta Funderburk. Hamilton looks quicker and stronger this spring, and will be difficult for any corner to contain. The other guys will be just be getting started as SEC playing rotation receivers. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Arkansas secondary receivers and quarterback: Right now, sophomore Erique Florence and junior Demetruce McNeil are penciled in as Auburn starters, but expect sophomore Ryan Smith to play a lot, and also walk-on Trent Fisher. Arkansas utilizes its backs quite a bit as receivers. The top three guys last season combined for 45 catches and 5 receiving touchdowns. Senior tight end Chris Gragg snared 41 balls last season as a part-time starter. Senior quarterback Tyler Wilson is the top returning passer in the SEC, leading the league last year in yardage. He's a cool customer, and is not hesitant to zing that ball in there. Despite fitting it into tight windows, Wilson threw only 6 interceptions in 438 attempts last season. Advantage: Arkansas.
Punting: Auburn returns Ray Guy finalist punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can't be returned. Auburn punted 72 times last season, and only allowed 10 returns for 62 yards. Clark pinned 33 of those punts, nearly half, inside the opponent's 20. Senior Arkansas punter Dylan Breeding hammered the ball for a blistering 45.3 average, pinning 16 of his 53 punts inside the 20. Auburn's Quan Bray averaged just 7.4 yards per return, but with the suspension of Marquel Wade, Arkansas has no one on the roster who fielded a punt last season. Auburn gave up only 6.2 yards per punt return, while Arkansas was gashed for 14.0 and gave up 2 touchdowns. Breeding has the stronger leg, but there are a lot of Arkansas questions on this unit. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn junior kicker Cody Parkey was a weapon last season on kickoffs, hammering 38 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs. With the tee spot moved from the 30 to the 35 yard line this season, Parkey could improve that ratio, unless the coaches decide more sky-kicks are in order. Auburn's spring game didn't provide any clues, there. Junior Arkansas kicker Zach Hocker showed a pretty strong leg himself, averaging 67.8 yards per kickoff, with 40 touchbacks on 93 kickoffs. Dennis Johnson and Marquel Wade handled the bulk of the returns for the Razorbacks in 2011, on a unit that averaged 23.2 yards per return. Auburn utilized several return guys over the course of the season. Trey Mason averaged 26.4, Onterio McCalebb averaged 30.7, and Quan Bray averaged 24.2. On coverage, Arkansas gave up 22.3 yards per return, and Auburn gave up 22.1. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn junior Cody Parkey was 13 of 18 on field goal kicks last season, with a few key misses. Zach Hocker was 21 of 27, including 16 of 19 inside 40 yards. Advantage: Arkansas.
Auburn offensive line vs. Arkansas defensive line: Auburn's starting offensive line for A-Day from left to right was redshirt freshman Greg Robinson, senior John Sullen, sophomore Reese Dismukes, sophomore Chad Slade, and true freshman Patrick Miller. I'll be shocked if Miller is still starting this fall, but stranger things have happened. The most likely result is for Slade to move to right tackle, and either sophomore Eric Mack or redshirt freshman Christian Westerman to start at right guard. In any event, Auburn is very young, if talented on the o-line. The good news is that most of these guys were bloodied early and often last season. Arkansas has several beefy, experienced tackles returning, led by juniors Robert Thomas and Bryan Jones. Like Auburn's defensive tackles, these guys started young, and have gotten bigger and stronger. Defensive end may have some new faces, as veteran senior Tenarius Wright moved to linebacker. Tenative starters are junior Chris Smith and sophomore Trey Flowers. The Razorbacks feel ok about their depth here, with juniors Colton Miles-Nash and Austin Flynn coming off the bench. Auburn ran for 291 yards against the Razorbacks last season with a shaky, young offensive line, and it's quite possible that success could happen again. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Arkansas linebackers: Speed back Onterio McCalebb has been a factor for 3 years in the Auburn offense, and should be again. There was a battle in the spring for the "between the tackles" back, between sophomores Tre Mason and Corey Grant. Sophomore Mike Blakely provided elusiveness in the A-Day game. Junior All-American transfer from Illinois Jay Prosch has been a one-man wrecking crew at fullback. With senior Alonzo Highsmith as the lone return starter, and converted end Tenarius Wright, plus junior Matt Marshall, Arkansas will have its hands full with the fleet Auburn backfield. Arkansas will be looking for depth help here from their incoming fall class, most notably JUCO linebacker Robert Atiga. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Arkansas corners: Auburn senior Emory Blake is a proven weapon, but he spent much of last season banged up. A second outside receiver has yet to step up, although Auburn has talented candidates. The speedy sophomore Trovon Reed has the most explosiveness, if he can manage to stay healthy. Senior Travante Stallworth looked good in the A-Day game, and has a good bit of game experience. Blake was unable to go against Arkansas last year, and it hurt the passing game a lot. Senior corner Darius Winston will anchor one spot, and sophomore Tevin Mitchell the other. The pair combined for 74 tackles in 2011, but no interceptions and only 1 pass breakup. Those witnessing the Arkansas spring game indicated that the starters had improved dramatically, but the depth isn't there at all. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Arkansas safeties: All eyes will be on the Auburn quarterback, at this point likely to be sophomore Khiel Frazier. Frazier looked good this spring, and is an athletic guy. The chief Auburn secondary receiver is senior tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who has had a great Auburn career thus far. Lutz will likely be a high NFL draft pick in 2013. Junior Razorback safety Eric Bennett has been around the block a few times, tallying 74 tackles, 3 interceptions and 3 pass breakups as a young starter in 2011. He's solid. Junior Jerry Mitchell is penciled in on the other side. He played in all 13 games last season, but tallied only 11 tackles and 2 pass breakups. Advantage: Even.
With Tyler Wilson leading the Razorback offense, and youth issues in the Razorback front seven, look for both teams to move the ball. Arkansas played the 2010 Auburn team to a virtual deadlock in Jordan Hare last time, but fell victim to turnovers and bad bounces. This Arkansas team is similarly talented, but has had quite the offseason turnover and off the field issues. Auburn's 2012 team is arguably deeper and more talented than the bunch that won the national title two years ago. Whether all the pieces can be put together again is entirely a different question.
The off-week gives Auburn an advantage, to rest after a physical LSU game, and to scheme a bit more against the Razorbacks. Meanwhile, Arkansas will have hosted a brutal Alabama team, then traveled and faced a wide-open Kevlin Sumlin attack in Texas. The timing definitely favors the Tigers. Whether receiver/return man Marquel Wade can return will be huge. He was a big-play man this spring, looking to take the place of the NFL-bound Joe Adams. You'd think that with a burglary situation, he's gone for good, but things happen. Charges get dropped. Coaches "give the young man another chance." We'll see how this develops.
Many college football pundits are of the opinion that John L. Smith will be a disaster as an interim coach, citing his 3 straight losing seasons as the Michigan State head coach in the mid-2000s. I think it's a mistake to figure on that. Smith was a winner at Louisville, with no losing seasons, 5 winning seasons, and 2 conference titles. And he had Paul Petrino on the staff then, too. Bottom line is that Arkansas can score, until proven otherwise. Any team that can score a lot of points in the SEC is dangerous.
Prediction: With a mobile quarterback and a big emphasis on the running game in practice, Auburn will likely try to pound the ball against a rebuilt Razorback defensive front. Auburn will control the time of possession, and limit the opportunities for Arkansas play makers to score. Auburn holds on, 31-27.