The matchup between Auburn and Arkansas was already interesting because of both Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s and offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ history with the University of Arkansas. Both men coached for the Razorbacks, with Chad Morris being in Fayetteville as Arkansas’ head coach as recently as December. To say that Razorback fans want to beat Auburn (and specifically those coaches) would be an understatement if much of the internet vitriol is true.
This game is widely considered much more interesting now, though, because of both teams’ performance last week. The Tigers are about a two-touchdown favorite, according to the oddsmakers, but after a disappointing loss to Georgia in conjunction with Arkansas’ victory over Mississippi State, many believe this could be a close contest.
Arkansas had not won an SEC game in more than two seasons prior to last week. So, new Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman’s 21-14 upset victory over Mississippi State has given a spark to a program that severely needed it.
Today, we look at three things that will play big roles in determining if Auburn can get back on the right track, or if Arkansas can come away victorious two weeks in a row.
Turnovers always factor heavily into football games, but the Arkansas Razorbacks have been a turnover machine in the first two weeks. On the positive side, Arkansas is tied for first place in the conference with six takeaways this season. So, Auburn must take great care on offense to be smart with the football because Arkansas has proven capable of making game-changing plays on defense.
On the flip side of that equation, Arkansas’ offense is 13th out of 14 SEC teams with five turnovers from the Razorbacks’ offense. Auburn must take advantage of an Arkansas offense that has been sloppy with ball security early in the year. The Tigers forced three turnovers against Kentucky, but were unable to take the ball away from Georgia at all.
Both offenses in this game have struggled to generate consistent drives and big plays, so the team that is able to hold onto the ball (especially in potentially bad weather) may be the deciding factor in the game.
The two leading tacklers in the SEC will take the field in Jordan Hare Stadium today. They both play linebacker for the Arkansas Razorbacks. Junior linebacker Bumper Pool currently leads the conference with 31 tackles, and his senior teammate Grant Morgan follows right behind with 28 stops. Both of these athletes are experienced players with a nose for the football, so expect to hear their name called early and often when Auburn has the football.
On the other hand, Auburn will be without its leading tackler and team captain, linebacker KJ Britt. Britt had surgery on his hand Friday and will not be available to play for weeks. The Tigers’ talented linebacker crew has found life to be much more difficult this season without Derick Brown and Marlon Davidson to eat up blocks and wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines.
Auburn linebackers Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain will be called upon to fill the production and leadership void left by Britt’s absence. Auburn must be better against the run this week, and the Tiger linebackers will be critical to making that happen even without their captain.
Felipe Franks vs. Bo Nix
Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks and Auburn quarterback Bo Nix have both faced the Georgia Bulldogs’ defense already this season, and both probably would like to forget those games. However, the two quarterbacks had good performances in their other outings this season, leading their respective teams to victory. It has already been discussed that protecting the football will be paramount for both players, but it is likely that the quarterbacks will need to connect on big plays with backs and receivers to put up points.
Feleipe Franks transferred to Arkansas from the University of Florida, providing the Razorbacks with an upgrade in talent and SEC experience over their previous signal callers. Against Mississippi State, Franks completed over 70% of his passes, threw two touchdowns and avoided any interceptions en route to victory. That is not a stat line that is legendary by any means, but it likely gives confidence to Franks and his teammates that they can deliver against SEC competition.
Auburn and Arkansas both rank in the bottom half of the SEC in points per game and yards per play, so it is expected that long drives might be hard to come by for both squads. If that is the case, then whichever quarterback can create explosive plays with his arm or legs will put his team in position to win the game.
Zack Shaw is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and former walk-on for the Auburn Tigers. You can contact him by email: email@example.com or on Twitter @z_m_shaw