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Friday Preview: Arkansas

The Auburn secondary is in for the fight of their lives.

The Good Guys: I said in last week’s South Carolina preview that if Auburn would be able to come away with a victory in Columbia, then it would reset Auburn’s entire season, effectively making up for the loss at Clemson and bringing everyone’s expectations and the outlook of the season moving forward back to square one.

The Tigers earned that much last Saturday. We’re six weeks into the 2011 season, and we’re right back to where we started. It doesn’t appear that the train is falling off the tracks any longer. But it doesn’t look like this train is headed anywhere fast, either.

Last week’s game changed everything we thought about the 2011 Tigers in more ways than one. Suddenly, Auburn fans don’t know what to expect out of the quarterback position, where Barrett Trotter started the season hot but played poorly, to put it mildly, a week ago. Meanwhile, the coaching staff, which started the season seemingly timid to put Mike Dyer in the game and give him the ball, rode their sophomore running back to the tune of 41 carries against the Gamecocks. And Auburn’s defense, which gave up 333 rushing yards against Mississippi State in the second week of the season, held a much more daunting South Carolina rushing attack to just 129 yards, and held Marcus Lattimore to just 66 of those rushing yards.

Auburn fans don’t know what to expect from their team this week, so the best advice one could give to them would be simple: Don’t expect anything.

Tomorrow should give everyone a better idea of who Auburn is and how they’ll finish out the month. That’s a good thing, because most people don’t know what to think of these Tigers.

The Bad Guys: On a similar note, Arkansas fans at least know what potential their team has, but they’re not sure exactly which Hogs are going to show up each Saturday.

Last week, Arkansas showed fire and played with passion in a stirring comeback win against Texas A&M. But a week before that, the Razorbacks phoned it in in Tuscaloosa, with passive play and even more listless play calling.

It seems that at this critical midseason point, Arkansas, too, is re-evaluating themselves, still trying to find out what kind of team they’ll be in the second half of the season.

In the long term for Arkansas, they avoid Florida and Georgia from the East in SEC play, and it would seem, would just have to top Auburn and South Carolina to get to the final week of the season against LSU with just one conference loss, with a bid at the upset and a chance at getting back in the race for who gets to head to Atlanta when the dust settles.

In the short term, the Razorbacks need this game to get themselves back to .500 in SEC play and to get their season headed back in the right direction. And after Auburn, they’ve got a bye week.

Luckily for them, tomorrow’s game is in their own back yard.

When Arkansas has the ball: We all know about the hype that has been placed on Tyler Wilson this season, mostly because of his performance in relief duty against Auburn’s secondary a season ago.

When Wilson is hot, he is as advertised, and you can tell why so many have hopped on his bandwagon. The only way the Auburn defense can really slow him down is if they can pressure him, and get in his head. Wilson started the game against Alabama 13-of-16 before throwing a pick-six, and afterward finished just 9-of-19.

But it isn’t going to be easy to get to him. Arkansas’s offensive line, which consists of two seniors and three sophomores, hasn’t played especially well this season, but Wilson has made up for it with fast decision-making and a quick release. It doesn’t take long for him to make a decision, and he isn’t going to just stand back in the pocket waiting to get sacked.

No matter what decision he makes with the ball, the odds are that it’s going to be a good one, because Arkansas’s receiving corps is loaded.

It starts with three seniors, beginning with Jarius Wright. Wright already has five touchdowns on the season, which is good for second-best in the SEC, and he leads the league in receptions and receiving yards. Wright has been Wilson’s go-to man this season. There’s a reason why Wilson looks his way so often.

But I might be most impressed with senior Joe Adams, who was Ryan Mallett’s favorite target a year ago. Adams is the Razorbacks’ most versatile receiver, called upon to make catches at nearly all levels of the field, and he also returns punts. Adams is like a running back with the ball in his hands after a catch — which is bad, bad news for an Auburn defense with such tackling woes so far this season.

And as good as both of those guys are, senior Greg Childs might just have more potential at the next level than all of them. Childs embarrassed the Auburn secondary last season with 9 receptions for 164 yards and two touchdowns. Childs’ career up to this point has been plagued with injury and lost potential, and he and Wilson have yet to find a rhythm this year, but Childs is there, and he’s due to show up in a big way with a huge play for the Razorbacks any snap now.

Meanwhile, junior Cobi Hamilton is playing just as well as the seniors.

So yes, Arkansas is stacked at receiver. Whether these players would all be stars on other teams, or if Bobby Petrino is simply finding ways to accentuate their strengths, one thing is certain: This unit is the best in the country at what they do.

And just when Wilson and those receivers have your defense spread out, speedster junior running back Ronnie Wingo Jr will gash you with a run up the middle. Wingo will catch it out of the backfield, as well, and Petrino will find ways to get tight ends and fullbacks into the passing game.

Auburn’s defense is in a bad position in this matchup, and it doesn’t help matters that they’ll probably be shorthanded with corner Chris Davis doubtful to play.

If Auburn is going to win this game, they’re going to have to do it by forcing this potent Arkansas offense off the field, and keeping them there. The Tigers will have a chance to do that, as Arkansas is last in the SEC in turnover margin, but the Auburn defense is going to have to capitalize on the opportunities that the Razorbacks give them, and the offense is going to have to avoid giving them any free turnovers that they wouldn’t otherwise create.

Auburn will be at a severe disadvantage on this side of the ball throughout the contest, but in a seemingly offense-heavy game such as this one, key big plays could be what decides it. Defensively, Auburn is going to have to make those plays if they’re going to have a chance to win this game.

When Auburn has the ball: Arkansas’s defense under defensive coordinator Willy Robinson lines up a bit more conventional here in 2011, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less aggressive.

Their defense looks more like a standard 4-3, as opposed to last season’s 4-2-5, after senior Jerico Nelson* made the switch from a safety/linebacker hybrid to more of a linebacker role this season.

Robinson is almost a perfect counterpart to Petrino on their staff, dialing up blitzes and going for the big play just as Petrino does on offense.

Arkansas’s defensive line will mix things up, with ends playing some downs standing up at times, either to rush the passer or drop back into coverage. It will seem as if the Razorbacks will have five or more guys on the line of scrimmage before every single play, attempting to cause deception. It’lll be up to Barrett Trotter to make those reads and figure out where those defenders are going once the ball is actually snapped.

Arkansas’s small-ish defense hasn’t played very well against the run so far this year, so while Dyer won’t be ridden for 41 carries for a second consecutive week, he could be in for a big performance if the coaches give him the opportunity.

The Razorbacks’ pass defense has also been susceptible this year, especially to the big play. Unfortunately, Auburn’s offense hasn’t shown much big-play-ability in the past few weeks, especially with Trotter in his current slump. While Auburn might have an advantage in this matchup, with receivers Trovon Reed and Emory Blake likely out for the game, it could be tough for them to actually capitalize on it.

Against a defense designed to be as fast Arkansas’s, Auburn’s quick screens and a lot of their misdirection won’t be as effective as it could be. To move the ball on Arkansas, they’re going to have to attack them right into the teeth of their defense, just as they did against South Carolina. Dyer will have to have a big day running inside, and McCallebb will have to capitalize on the chances he gets on the outside off of that. Meanwhile, Kiehl Frazier, whose role in last week’s win in Columbia has been a bit understated, could prove to be effective running the ball and changing the pace against this Razorback defense.

Senior linebacker Jerry Franklin leads the Razorbacks in tackles this year. Sophomore safety Eric Bennett and freshman defensive back Tevin Mitchel are a pair of young players in the Arkansas defensive backfield that have been making some noise.

Special Teams: Joe Adams has returned two punts for a touchdown in just five games this season.

He won’t be alone back there to return on Auburn punts, as freshman wide receiver Marquel Wade lines up beside him in punt formation. Wade is also their primary returner on kickoffs, and returned one kickoff for a touchdown earlier in the year.

Sophomore kicker Zach Hocker, in his second season as the Hogs’ starting placekicker, is 5-of-6 on the year.

It seems that in each of Auburn’s victories this season, they’ve had at least one big play on special teams that helped them win. Tre Mason, Quan Bray, and company will have to make some plays and earn some momentum.

Reason for Worry: Auburn is going to have to score points to win this game, and so far this this season they haven’t done that very effectively away from Jordan-Hare. Auburn’s offense won shootouts at home against Mississippi State and Utah State, but couldn’t keep up with the Clemson offense on the road and only scored 16 points in the victory at South Carolina. Saturday’s game is in the unfriendly confines of Razorback Stadium, and that might slow the offense down a bit — and that’s not good, because this one is going to be another shootout.

Reason for Confidence: Auburn has played well when it’s winning under Gene Chizik. Auburn played its best football of 2009 during their 5-game winning streak that started the season, and they improved throughout the year as last season’s streak grew. When the Tigers have confidence in themselves, it seems that they can go to blows with just about anyone. Last week’s victory over South Carolina definitely gave Auburn some confidence once again. And, if nothing else, last week Auburn proved to themselves that they can win on the road.

Three Wishes

1. Put points on the board. This game isn’t like the South Carolina game, in that the offense doesn’t need to possess the ball for 80% of the game to earn a victory. Unlike South Carolina’s bruising rushing offense, Arkansas’s passing attack is either going to score fast, or punt the ball fast. Offensively, Auburn doesn’t have to worry about anything other than finding the end zone and scoring points. They’ll have to do a lot of that in order to win this game.

2. Spread the ball to different targets. With Emory Blake likely out for the game, Auburn is going to need others to fill in for that production, and they can’t put all of that on one guy. Trotter needs to spread the ball around to his different receivers, and find guys like Lutzenkirchen and McCallebb underneath to keep the passing attack clicking.

3. Play physical defense. Auburn isn’t going to outcoach Bobby Petrino when Arkansas has the ball. Petrino will find a way to beat 99 of the 100 schemes you put in front of him, and that will include any surprises the Auburn coaching staff has for him. Instead, the Auburn defense is going to have to slow down the Razorback offense on the field, as opposed to the chalk board. The Tigers are just going to have to play strong, and beat the men in front of them. If Auburn can play physically, and lay some hits and be unforgiving as a defense, then they’ll have a chance to wear down Wilson and those skill position players.

The Prediction

This matchup has the pundits scratching their heads, simply because no one knows which Arkansas team or which Auburn team is going to show up.

Auburn’s secondary is on the wrong side of a huge mismatch against the Arkansas receiving corps. But at the end of the day, one matchup rarely decides a game, just as we saw last week when Auburn won despite its offensive line going up against one of the best defensive line units in the country, and just as we saw in the second week of the season when Auburn ended the game with a win despite being run all over on by Mississippi State.

When it comes down to it, each team has their advantages in this matchup, and the fact that the game is in Fayetteville will be a huge boost for Arkansas, but at this point of the season, it would appear that Auburn is in a better position to win a game like this.

It will be tough to pull it off, but the Tigers are playing with confidence and they’ve changed everything about themselves these past couple of weeks as opposed to the beginning of the season.

The game is going to be a shootout, and no matter how much Auburn has the ball, they’re still going to have to score more points than Arkansas. But with Dyer coming into the game hot against a susceptible rush defense, and with the passing game in a favorable matchup against the Arkansas secondary (despite the possible absence of Blake), and with Frazier stepping into a bigger role to put defenses on their toes and help Trotter out, the Tigers should be able to find the end zone a few times.

On defense, when Wilson makes his completions — and he will make those completions — Auburn is going to have to make tackles, force third downs, and give themselves opportunities. Fortunately, Auburn’s defense is coming on at the right time, and while their tackling in the open field still leaves much to be desired, they’re flying to the ball and bringing players down.

If Auburn can take advantage of the opportunities they’re given, I think they have a chance at winning. And afterwards, we’ll all be scratching our heads as to how they did it once again.

The Final Score

Auburn 34, Arkansas 30

* We don’t care much for Jerico Nelson. In 2009 he made a dirty play on Mario Fannin, unnecessarily raking his helmet off after a play when their facemasks were interlocked, and before the game in 2010 bragged about the whole thing saying there were pictures of it in the athletic department, and that he had a picture of it in his house. But Cam Newton took the poor boy’s masculinity from him at the north goal line in Jordan-Hare last year, so we’ll leave him alone.

Photo via.

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