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The Friday preview: Arkansas

BOOM. MALLETTED.
BOOM. MALLETTED.

What’s at stake: If the two athletic departments had any sense of the metaphorical, this game wouldn’t be played at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium — the two teams would be meeting at a crossroads somewhere.

Because this game will very likely establish both teams’ goals-and/or-expectations for the rest of the year to come. For Arkansas, a win puts them on the right side of .500 and offers some hope that they can still play with the rest of the SEC’s upper crust–the rest of the schedule is brutal, but entering this Saturday there’s not that much difference between beating Auburn and beating an Ole Miss or LSU. The season the Hogs imagined preseason–8 or 9 wins, a big victory here or there, a nice bowl game, momentum heading into the offseason–will still be very much on the table. Lose, however, to slide to 0-3 in the SEC with two winnable home games already filed on the wrong side of the ledger? With road trips to Oxford, Gainesville, and Baton Rouge all still to come? The Hogs would be one slip-up to South Carolina or Mullen’s Bulldogs away from potentially missing the postseason entirely.

For Auburn, the picture’s much brighter–if they lose, well, the schedule’s probably too rugged from this point on to continue dreaming of SEC West contention. (I said “probably.” Not ruling it out. But still.) It’d be time to simply pull off as many “surprises” as possible, see where the rest of the SEC West chips land, and earn the most lucrative bowl bid they can. Given where the program started this season, that sure ain’t so bad.

But a win Saturday? With only Kentucky standing between the Tigers and heading to Baton Rouge undefeated and tied atop the division? Yes, I’m afraid that it will then be time to at least consider Auburn’s chances of shocking their way to Atlanta. (Not saying anything about the conclusions at the end of that consideration. But those would be the stakes in Red Stick. There’s no doubt about that.) It won’t be about bowls and number of wins anymore–it’ll be about taking the Tiger’s best shot at a championship.

Because of the stark differences in the consequences of a loss, I do think Arkansas should be the more desperate team. They have more to lose. But there’s a ton to gain on both sidelines, two paths for each of them to walk or not walk at the final buzzer.

When Auburn has the ball

Attention, Chris Todd, Darvin Adams, and Terrell Zachery: this is your time.

The Hogs’ pass defense has been every bit as bad as you’ve heard. They rank 113th overall, 111th in opposing QB rating, 111th in opponent’s yards-per-pass-attempt … and that’s including the game against I-AA Missouri St. The last quarterback to visit Fayetteville, Joe Cox, hit nearly 70 percent of his passes for an 5 TDs, 14.4 yards (!) per attempt, and an ungodly 246.15 rating. There was some fairly dramatic improvement last week against Texas A&M, but the Aggies–desperately behind for the bulk of the second half– still nearly hit 6 yards a completion and threw for 345 yards. The pass rush has been negligible–just four sacks in their last three games. (Auburn leads the nation in sacks allowed, if you haven’t heard.)

So: on paper, this should be the most profitable Saturday of the season for Todd and the receivers. Unless the Hogs have taken some giant leaps forward over the past couple of weeks or Todd and crew have an ill-timed attack of Suck Disease, Auburn’s going to shred them.

They’d better, because despite their 98th-place ranking in total defense, the Hogs have actually been solid against the run: only Georgia’s broken 4 yards a carry, and neither Alabama (!) nor high-flying Texas A&M even got as high as the 3.3 mark. Auburn may have a little more success than that–the Tide haven’t actually been a consistent rushing outfit so far this year, A&M prettied up their pre-Hog numbers against some truly terrible defenses, and it’s not like the Hogs will be any better than Tennessee–but don’t expect Miss. St.-style gashings, either.

Also worth noting: the Hogs have been really good inside the red zone this year, allowing just 4 TDs in 12 possessions.  They’ve given up so many long touchdowns it hasn’t mattered all that much, but Auburn would still be well-advised to try and hit a few long ones rather than march it play-by-play across the goal line.

Fortunately, in Dr. Gustav Auburn has a mad genius perfectly capable of finding a way get those long ones in a secondary that’s seemed to give them up without even trying. Expect big plays, and big points.

When Arkansas has the ball

First, the bad news: Arkansas is good. 17th in the nation in total offense good. Equivalent-yards-per-play to West Virginia good. 485 yards, 41 points, and 7.7 yards-a-play against Georgia good.7th in the nation in passing good. Good.

Auburn’s defense, as you have heard me say many times before, is not as bad as it’s sometimes made out to be (now 38th in the more-accurate yards-per-play metric). But it is nowhere near as good as Arkansas’s offense and will be facing–on the road–at least as stiff a test as West Virginia’s unit … and 1. can in no way rely on Ryan Mallett to be as generous as Jarrett Brown was 2. can in no way expect Bobby Petrino to go away from things that are working the way Jeff Mullen did. Both sides of the scoreboard are going to get a workout in this one. Prepare yourself now.

There is good news, however. For starters, the Arkansas running game isn’t as potent as you might expect it to be: the Hogs went nowhere on the ground against Georgia and Alabama, and as our buddy Stephen pointed out this morning, even the 5.3 mark against Texas A&M was seriously skewed by a 61-yard touchdown; all other carries vs. the Aggies went for 3.4 yards, or some 3 yards less per-carry than the Aggies allowed to UAB. Michael Smith deserves respect and Bynes and Stevens will have to be very careful against Petrino’s draws and delays, but it seems unlikely the Hogs will be capable of just lining up and knocking Auburn off the ball.

Now, the second piece of good news: I don’t think Mallett and Co. match up exactly right against Auburn. Ted Roof and the Tigers have made eliminating big downfield pass plays a priority, with the Auburn secondary stumbling a bit against Tennessee but still mostly looking like the strength of the unit. Opponents have made a living from underneath passes, QB scrambles, power runs, screens and swings … but not the bomb over the top. Thorpe and McFadden have been too good and the coverage too focused on preventing the big play for opponents to make that work.

So the question now becomes: will Mallett be patient enough to work the crossing routes and check-downs that Auburn will give him? I called up my Alabama friend Big D this week for a scouting report on the Hogs, and he reported that against the Tide, Mallett had shown signs of “Brodie Croyle Syndrome,” e.g. an overabundance of confidence in the howitzer attached to his shoulder that led him to ignore open receivers underneath in favor of trying to deliver a perfect strike to tighter-covered receivers downfield. This same sentiment was briefly echoed by Stephen when explaining why frightening tight end D.J. Williams has just eight receptions this season:

Perhaps that’s a result of Mallet’s preference to try and throw the ball to Copenhagen.

I’m not going to suggest that Mallett won’t have some success throwing deep–Auburn’s secondary hasn’t seen the kind of combination of quarterbacking and receiving talent the Hogs can boast just yet. There’ll be some breakdowns. But after watching Auburn for five games, I feel confident in saying that the way to break this defense down is not to fire away downfield repeatedly; in fact, I think that’s just what Auburn wants their opponent to do, and if Mallett obliges wholeheartedly, Auburn may have a better day than expected.

When special teams are on the field

Auburn should have the advantage overall: Auburn has the better punter (Dylan Breeding isn’t quite averaging 40 yards a boot), the better kicker (Alex Tejada hasn’t even attempted one beyond 40 yards yet), and–if you can believe this–even the better punt return. The Hogs’ kickoff coverage is better than Auburn’s, but it’s also nothing special.

But the match-up of Auburn’s kickoff coverage vs. Arkansas’s return is where Auburn might be in some serious trouble: the Hogs are sixth in the country, averaging nearly 30 yards a return, and Dennis Johnson already has one TD this season. Try not to get too mad at Morgan Hull if he boots one out-of-bounds this week–that really might be better than a floater that lands square on the 10.

Intangible reason for worry

Just one? Virtually every intangible on the board is in Arkansas’s favor: 1. Auburn kicking off at 11 a.m. after five weeks of night kickoffs 2. the Hogs are at home 3. the Hogs are the more desperate team 4. after five victories and the affirmation of finally breaking into the polls, you can’t expect Auburn to be as hungry, as forcused, as emotional as they have been to this point of the season. If Auburn wins, it will be because they have been the better team by no small margin.

Intangible reason for confidence

Um … well … Auburn had been very good in the red zone until the Tennessee game. Maybe the repeated failues in Knoxville got their red zone bad luck out of their system?

I’ll be honest, I got nothin’.

Three wishes

1. Two sacks and another four QB hurries. Roof didn’t blitz all that often against Tennessee, preferring to force Crompton to make a good throw into a zone. Result: lots of incompletions, but zero sacks. Letting Mallett have that kind of time will be deadly. Fortunately, Roof dialed up some successful blitzes earlier in the year; it’s time to see them again.

2. 5 yards per carry. Arkansas will likely try to sit back and give that beleaguered secondary all the help they can get against Adams and Zachery, hoping the defensive line can contain the run without support. Auburn has to make the Hogs pay the same way they Tennessee did.

3. Daren Bates and Demond Washington keep their heads. They’ve been perfectly solid so far, but you know Petrino will want to go after the true freshman and the undersized JUCO newcomer, and you also know Mallett has the chops to pull that kind of plan off. Bates and Washington have to stand tall and keep their composure even if they give up a big play here orthere.

Success is / failure is: A win / a loss.

Your bottom line

On paper, this game sets up almost exactly like the Tennessee game: between the two teams there’s two elite units, and there’s two lesser units, but Auburn’s elite unit is a little bit more elite and Auburn’s lesser unit is a little bit less, uh, lesser. Against the Vols, the Auburn defense was better than the Vol offense; here, similarly, the Auburn D is better than the hapless Hog D. And so on paper Auburn is the better team, and if both teams play like they’re capable of playing, Auburn wins the game.

But oh, those intangibles, they are foreboding indeed. Picking against the team that’s less satisfied, that needs it more, that’s as well-coached as Arkansas is offensively, that isn’t kicking off six hours before all their other kickoffs, and is playing at home seems like such a bad, bad idea. I am less confident in an Auburn victory tomorrow than I have been yet this season, and will likewise be more accepting of defeat than at any earlier point.

But: I still expect Auburn to win. First, they’re better. Second, the match-ups are too inviting: Auburn’s offensive strength is big plays, and they face a team that gives up big plays. Auburn’s defensive strength is preventing big plays, and they face a quarterback who thrives on them.

So unless Auburn gives up multiple scores via kickoff return, I think our defense gets one more stop than theirs, home field and 5-0 vs. 2-2 and 11 a.m. kickoff and all.

And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong …

Carnac

Auburn 37, Arkansas 35.

“BOOM. MALLETTED.” copyright the Wolverine Liberation Army. You should probably click that.

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