A Long Trip to Fayetteville. (Previewing Auburn at Arkansas.)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Long Trip to Fayetteville. (Previewing Auburn at Arkansas.)

Arky Grades

Tigers ran wild in this one, last season.

     War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn football preview! On October 22nd Auburn will travel to the state of Arkansas to take on the Razorbacks. My initial reaction is that this is very much a “trap game” on the schedule, and it will be a difficult gig. It will be Auburn’s 8th game in a row without a break, and it comes on the heels of a tough road trip to LSU.

     The perception is that Auburn always struggles on the road at Arkansas, but that’s not really true, up examining the results from the past. Auburn actually has a winning record in Fayetteville, at 6-5, since the Hogs joined the SEC. Arkansas was very fortunate to hold on in overtime the last time Auburn visited, with a very mediocre Tiger unit in 2015.

     This year, The Auburn Tigers will have opened the season with Georgia Southern, then traveled to Clemson. Auburn will then enjoy an early homecoming game against Mercer, before traveling to Missouri, prior to a home clash with Mississippi State. The Rebels follow at Jordan-Hare Stadium, the following week, before a road trip to LSU. Auburn then travels to Fayetteville to fight Arkansas. Arkansas opens in Little Rock against Florida A&M, then hosts TCU in week 2. Then, Arkansas has a bye week, to get ready for Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas. Arkansas then closes out September with New Mexico State. October is not kind. Arkansas plays at South Carolina, and at Alabama, before hosting Auburn. Both teams may be pretty beat up, for this game.

     Last season, Arkansas had streaks where they were pretty good on offense, but the offensive line had real problems protecting quarterback Austin Allen, who was sacked more than any other SEC quarterback, and threw the most interceptions. Arkansas returns 4 offensive line starters, but loses star left tackle Dan Skipper. Arkansas also loses nearly every pass catcher with experience, as well as star tailback Rawleigh Williams, who hung it up a couple of months ago after his second scary injury at the Arkansas spring game.

     Arkansas was pourous on defense last season, and sent defensive coordinator Robb Smith packing. The Razorbacks then hired former Auburn defensive coordinator Paul Rhodes (2008), and he is tasked with installing a 3-4 defense. That’s a tough deal usually, in the first year. Adding to the woes is that Arkansas had trouble fielding 3 capable linebackers last season, much less the 4 that this defense needs. Arkansas lost 6 starters on defense, including 5 in the front 7, to graduation.

     Arkansas was respectable on special teams last season, and should be again this year, although the Razorbacks will have to find some kick returners. Kicker Cole Hedlund should be solid, punter Blake Johnson should have a strong leg, and punt returner Jared Cornelius has experience.

Auburn defensive line vs. Arkansas offensive line: Auburn brings a big, athletic defensive line back this season. Likely starters at tackle are junior Dontavius Russell and sophomore Derrick Brown. Sophomore strong-side end Marlon Davidson was a beast on A-Day. The buck side will likely be manned by a combination of junior Jeffery Holland and senior transfer Paul James III. Auburn has a good bit of depth behind the starters, as well. From left to right, the starting offensive line for Arkansas should be sophomore Colton Jackson, junior Hjalte Froholdt, senior Frank Ragnow, junior Johnny Gibson, and junior Brian Wallace. These guys had their hands full last season, even against the Auburn backups. They’ll figure to have difficulty again this year. Advantage: Auburn.

Auburn linebackers vs. Arkansas backs: The Auburn Tigers have a good cross-trained quartet of upper echelon SEC-caliber linebackers. Junior Deshaun Davis, senior Tre’ Williams, junior Darrell Williams and junior Montravious Atkinson can play all three positions, and we might see any combination of these players out on the field at a given time. With the retirement of Rawleigh Williams, Arkansas turns to sophomore Devwah Whaley, and freshman Maleek Williams to tote the rock. Whaley did have 602 rushing yards off the bench, last season. Arkansas runners averaged just 0.8 yards per carry against Auburn, last year. Advantage: Auburn.

Auburn corners vs. Arkansas receivers: Auburn has a fairly good combination of starting corners, in junior Carlton Davis and sophomore Javaris Davis. The Tigers are hoping that Jamel Dean will be healthy this fall, as he is one of the fastest players on the team. Sophomore Jeremiah Dinson could move over from nickelback, if needed. Senior Jared Cornelius headlines a young Razorback receiving corps. He’ll likely be joined by junior Brandon Martin in the starting lineup. Cornelius caught 32 balls last season. Advantage: Auburn.

Auburn safeties vs. Arkansas secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s starting unit features seniors Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts at safety, and sophomore Jeremiah Dinson at nickel back. There’s not much depth here, beyond senior Nick Ruffin, who’ll probably see as much playing time as the starters. The Tigers are solid here, as long as no one gets hurt. Sophomore Austin Cantrell moves into the starting tight end spot, after catching 13 balls as a freshman last season. Arkansas only completed 3 passes to fullbacks last season, and 21 to tailbacks. Quarterback Austin Allen had a big year last year with 25 TD passes, but also was sacked quite a bit, and threw 15 interceptions. He’ll likely be better, but the cast around him looks young. Advantage: Even.

Punting: Sophomore Ian Shannon will likely get the nod as Auburn’s starting punter, after a couple of years of waiting in the wings. Shannon has looked good on A-Day a year ago, in warmups. The Tigers gave up only 19 punt return yards last season, on 6 punts, for a stifling 3.2 yards per return. The Tigers are still auditioning for the punt returner job. It’s thought that senior Stephen Roberts has the inside track, after returning 6 punts last season for 100 yards. For Arkansas, sophomore punter Blake Johnson steps into the starting lineup, after booting 2 punts for a 47 yard average last season. We didn’t get to see him punt this spring, as the Arkansas spring scrimmage was basically just an indoor practice session. Arkansas gave up 5.6 yards per return last season, and return man Jared Cornelius had 12 returns for 85 yards. Advantage: Auburn.

Kickoffs: Daniel Carlson was very good kicking off last season, notching 57 touchbacks on 72 kickoffs. When Auburn did allow returns, opponents averaged only 18.0 yards per return. Junior Kerryon Johnson is Auburn’s most experienced return man returning, and he averaged 22.2 yards per return last season. Sophomore Conner Limpert will reprise his role kicking off for the Razorbacks again this season, after hitting 9 touchbacks on 43 kickoffs last season. Arkansas allowed 20.6 yards per return last season, while averaging just 18.6 yards per return, and they’ll have to find some new return guys, this season. Advantage: Auburn.

Place kicking: Auburn sophomore Daniel Carlson is the man for Auburn. Carlson was 28 of 32 on field goals, and perfect on extra points. One of Carlson’s misses was a block by Vanderbilt. For Arkansas, junior Cole Hedlund hit on 5 of 7 field goals, and all 25 of his extra point tries. Advantage: Auburn.

Auburn offensive line vs. Arkansas defensive line: It’s still not settled who’ll start for Auburn on the line, although the starters looked pretty good on A-Day. It seems the tackle spots are set, with seniors Darius James and Braden Smith. Senior Austin Golson will likely start at center, although Auburn is bringing in senior transfer center Casey Dunn from Jax State. If Dunn starts, Golson could move to guard. Also transferring in this fall is former Florida State starting guard Wilson Bell. Bell is expected to start at one of the guard spots. If Dunn does not beat Golson out, the other likely starting guard would be sophomore Mike Horton. Arkansas expects to go with a rotation at nose tackle, between senior Bijhon Jackson and sophomore Austin Capps. Ends should be sophomores McTelvin Agim and T. J. Smith, with junior Armand Watts getting significant playing time as well. I just don’t see these guys matching up with what Auburn has, up front. Advantage: Auburn.

Auburn backs vs. Arkansas linebackers: Auburn features junior H-back Chandler Cox blowing open holes. Running behind the big H-back will be massive junior Kamryn Pettway, and the shifty junior Kerryon Johnson in reserve. Arkansas was still trying to put together a starting lineup at the end of spring drills. Our best guess is junior Dre Greenlaw and sophomore De’Jon Harris inside, and junior Randy Ramsey and senior Karl Roesler outside. Advantage: Auburn.

Auburn receivers vs. Arkansas corners: At the end of spring, it looked like Auburn’s two starting outside guys were sophomore Nate Craig-Myers and sophomore Darius Slayton. Both guys can fly, have good height, and great hands. Redshirt freshman Marquis McClain had a great A-Day, and is someone to watch out for on the outside, as well. Arkansas will counter with a veteran pair of corners who were pretty good, last season. Senior Henre’ Tolliver and junior Ryan Pulley will start. Advantage: Even.

Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Arkansas safeties: Auburn has potential threats here, starting with wickedly fast junior slot receiver Will Hastings. Sophomore Eli Stove can also fly. Tight ends Jalen Harris and Sal Cannella are expected to be a big part of the passing game as well. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham is likely the starter in the opener. In 6 games as a freshman at Baylor, Stidham was electric. That trend continued during A-Day this spring, as Stidham was deadly accurate, and showed great mobility. Arkansas moves guys with experience up to start, this season. We’ll likely see senior De’Andre Coley and junior Santos Ramirez at safeties, and Kevin Richardson II at the nickel spot. Advantage: Auburn.

     I was quite worried about this matchup earlier this spring, as Arkansas has typically been pretty tough later in the season. I figured that the 56-3 beatdown Auburn put on this team last season was an outlier. However, my research this week was surprising. Arkansas will be a young team this season, and I didn’t see many answers during their spring practice. I do expect that defensive coordinator Paul Rhodes will eventually have a good product on the field, but the 3-4 isn’t the easiest thing to operate in year one, typically.

     Auburn decisively whipped this team up front on both sides of the ball last season, and Auburn wasn’t the only one. My biggest takeaway after watching a big chunk of the Arkansas spring practice is that I’d be really worried, if I was a Razorback fan. Those guys have a really tough road ahead, playing in the SEC West.

Prediction: I was thinking upset special here, earlier, but there is no way Arkansas wins this game unless Auburn has horrible injury luck next season. Tigers don’t play their best in this one, but it doesn’t matter. Auburn 37, Arkansas 24.

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