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Auburn vs. Bert & The Hogs

Previewing The Tigers' Season Opener

Wesley Hitt

Game Week has finally arrived. The long journey to another football season is nearing its conclusion. Let’s talk some football!

Besides the inevitable excitement for the opening weekend, the Arkansas matchup is intriguing in many ways.

Auburn begins with an SEC opponent for the first time since 1995. Though Arkansas went winless in the SEC last year, they certainly have the talent and motivation to potentially give Auburn a hard time. Any SEC team does. Also keep in mind that Auburn tends to historically struggle a bit out of the gate, even in seasons that result in championships.

Another storyline is Auburn’s recent roster attrition. Injuries to Alex Kozan and Carl Lawson have forced others to step into the spotlight in the starting lineup. The punishments for Jonathan Mincy and Nick Marshall raise more questions, since we don’t know how much game time they will miss. Now Robenson Therizie has some eligibility issues to work through. A ton of questions will be answered on Saturday in regards to the depth chart and who will fill the gaps that exist on this team.

There’s also the budding rivalry between the two schools. While I think much of the "controversy" and dislike is played up by the media, these are certainly two coaching staffs with contrasting styles. Bielema’s inability to avoid obnoxious and dumb comments has made many Auburn folks want to be the Hogs badly. Gus Malzahn, Rhett Lashlee, and Tim Horton all have strong Arkansas ties.

In a season with high expectations, any SEC opponent has to be taken seriously. A loss, while hard to imagine, would be crippling to Auburn’s hopes of proving their worth against one of the nation’s most difficult schedules. I would imagine both sides have been extremely motivated during fall camp. Arkansas gets a chance to go on the road and shock the defending SEC champs, and Auburn has plenty to prove with their eyes on playing for another championship at season’s end.

If you’re taking the time to read this blog, you most likely know about the dynamics of Auburn’s football team. So with these previews, I’d like to take a look at our opponent each week.

Bret Bielema has been confident if nothing else following a 3-9 campaign. He expects major improvement in all facets of the Arkansas program. Unfortunately for him, he’s stuck in the nation’s most competitive conference and division. There won’t be many easy wins for the Hogs.

Auburn clearly appears to have the more explosive offense in this matchup. Brandon Allen returns to play quarterback after a mediocre first season in the new system. The major strength, as Bielema desires, is the running game. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams provide a pair of backs that each rushed for over 900 yards last season. They will have to dominate the game if Arkansas is to pull the upset this weekend.

Defensively, Arkansas is hard to read. They only return four starters from a defense ranked 76th nationally in total defense in 2013. Of course, Auburn finished 87th last season. Both units expect to improve, and this first game will be a good barometer.

Arkansas’s defense struggled last season to contain the zone read attack, while also giving up big plays in the passing game to Sammie Coates. Marshall only missed one pass and Mason ran for four touchdowns in Fayetteville. Arkansas has admitted to watching Auburn film going all the way back to spring practice, so we will see early what gameplan they intend to use to try to slow down Auburn’s offensive arsenal. I would expect the box to be loaded and for Arkansas to blitz regularly to try to create big plays.

Arkansas returns a talented punter, but is breaking in a new kicker like Auburn. Both teams have dangerous return men – you may remember Arkansas had a big kick return in last year’s contest to jump start the Hogs and get them back in the game.

Unlike many Auburn fans, I don’t think we dominated Arkansas last year. Statistically, the Hogs controlled time of possession and were only outgained by 20 yards. It was three Arkansas turnovers and an Auburn goal line stand that really made the difference in the game.

I don’t make score predictions, but I will give some keys to the game from my viewpoint. Here are three:

  1. Tempo – Last year Arkansas was able to shorten the game by controlling the ball and running with success on first and second down. Auburn would like to play fast, score fast and put Arkansas in catch up mode early, thus controlling the pace of the game.
  2. Passing Success – Don’t be surprised if Auburn comes out throwing more than expected with Jeremy Johnson at quarterback. Early success through the air would completely open up Malzahn’s playbook.
  3. AU Defensive Tackles – Holding up at the line of scrimmage will be key against Arkansas's ground game. Also, with Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams playing some at end, there will be defensive tackles all over the field at times for Auburn. I’m curious how that will look and work.

Overall, I expect the game to be a bit closer than some Auburn fans think. I’m not sure if I’d take Auburn as three touchdown favorite, but I would take the over on 57.5 total points. War Eagle!