There's so many things to watch that CBS has again thought it was worthy of its national TV crew. We feel the same way. This one is so good everyone should watch.
Auburn is 6-0 and cruising. Arkansas is 4-1 with only a bad fourth quarter against Alabama to keep this from being for a top five spot.
Two of the nation's top quarterbacks -- perhaps the SEC's two finest -- will do battle in something akin to a heavyweight fight. Bobby Petrino wasn't talking about the quarterbacks when he trotted out that comparison Thursday, just the overall battle between the two teams. He mentioned Ali versus Frazier, a heavyweight matchup from his youth.
It's all there. Great quarterbacks, fine complementary elements on offense and respectable defenses. There's even some fine kickers ready to hook it up.
We'll get started and don't act like you are surprised that I open with the two quarterbacks, per the usual in this space.
1) Ryan Mallett
For some, it starts and ends here. Mallett didn't sparkle last week, but he was still the difference in the game. He went 27 of 38 for 310 yards. Jerrod Johnson, the A&M signal caller, was 15 of 40. You'd have to see it to understand how much better Mallett was than Johnson in orchestrating his protections and the total package, but those numbers speak for themselves. Still, it was not vintage Mallett. He'll probably have to do better against Auburn. But he should. This is not a talented Auburn secondary. Experienced, yes. Talented, no. There will be some big plays available. Even Petrino admitted the Hogs will take some shots down the field. It starts with the way Mallett handles the checks and reads. It's likely to require some silent cadence because of the Auburn crowd. He'll be the center of attention for most of the day. He's so much fun to watch. This may be the week we see that big arm wreak some havoc.
2) Cam Newton
If you start with Mallett at No. 1, then you have to put Auburn quarterback Cam Newton at No. 2. He's the SEC's leader in rushing yards. He was close to 200 when he engineered a last-minute drive for the winning field goal at Kentucky. He's 6-6, 250 and likes to lay all of that frame on defenders in the open field. He doesn't run out of bounds and he thinks of himself as a fullback when he sees a defensive back. There are times that he drops back to pass just with the idea of spreading the defense for a run. And make no mistake about it, it's not a scramble, it's a run. Arkansas defensive coordinator calls him a tailback with the mind of a quarterback. If it's third-and-short, the Hogs have to figure he's going to end up with the ball. The Tigers have a lot of third-and-shorts. They don't sputter on first and second down and that makes conversions much easier. Newton has the respect of the Arkansas defenders entering the game. Jerico Nelson calls Newton "a baller," a term reserved for players who like to play the game. Jerry Franklin said, "He'll try you," meaning Newton doesn't turn down hits in the open field. Petrino likes to make references to the battles within the game as hammer and nail time. Sometimes you are the hammer and sometimes you are the nail. The battle between Newton and the Arkansas defenders is going to be an ebb and flow deal. Sometimes Newton will be the hammer. Watch to see if the Hogs can put the hammer on Newton a few times in the open field.
3) Middle linebackers
Both teams have been getting solid play in the middle of the defense. Jerry Franklin has stepped up to fill the key void in the Arkansas defense in preseason. Josh Bynes is the outstanding middle backer for Auburn. Both have good tackles in front of them to keep blockers away from their feet. They must make plays this week, probably in the open field. Arkansas has to run right at Bynes to keep the Auburn defense honest. If not, Nick Fairley, the outstanding pass rusher in the middle, will be in a tee-off mode on Mallett all day. That won't work. The Hogs will probably double Fairley in the run game and see if Bynes can stop their backs in isolation sets. There will be some of that going on with Auburn has the ball. It's a good bet that Newton will option against Franklin and the other Arkansas run stopper at linebacker, Anthony Leon. Franklin and Leon will be tested for discipline. The Auburn attack features a lot of misdirection counters. The Tigers will fake their power one way, then come back with the counters. Those are tough plays for the ends. The linebackers have to stay at home. The Hogs have some misdirection to test Bynes, mainly draws and screens. Mallett has to make sure he gets the ball over Fairley, a long and active rusher. And he must move Bynes around with his eyes.
The recipe for winning on the road in the SEC is to limit turnovers. It's huge for the Hogs this week. Auburn is too good to help. The Hogs can't gift wrap anything this week. There were times last year that the Hogs were very good at limiting turnovers. It hasn't happened this year. This would be a good week to get that straight. The Hogs have to wrestle away some turnovers from Auburn. Newton is still a young quarterback. He's in his first SEC season. He'll turn it over, just like all quarterbacks, if he's hit enough. The Hogs have to hit him with player after player until he coughs it up. The Arkansas secondary has gotten more touches on passes the last few weeks. This needs to be the week the touches turn into interceptions. Newton will throw it up for his receivers to make plays. There will be chances for interceptions. He will throw it deep. Watch to see if this blows up in the face of the Auburn quarterback.
You could put this one right with turnovers. They both fit in that category of shooting yourself in the foot. The Hogs have had too much of both this year, highlighted by 13 penalties last week against Texas A&M. That was an indication to me that the Hogs weren't as fired up to play the Aggies as they were to see Cowboys Stadium. They were not sharp mentally. They must be sharp this week. The Tigers lead the league in fewest penalties. The Hogs are the SEC's most penalized team. Those two numbers have to be close this week for the Hogs to win on the road. Noise will probably be a factor when the Hogs are on the field. They will probably have to go on visual signals instead of voice. That's just as well. The last two weeks the opposing defense has been yelling the Arkansas cadence in an attempt to throw off the offensive line. It's worked to a degree. Going to the silent cadence will help in that regard. More importantly, the Hogs have to eliminate the personal fouls and roughness penalties that have shown up in the fourth quarter of the last three games.
6) Toughness in the fourth quarter
You can say it needs to be there for all four quarters and you'd be correct. But the Hogs have been pretty good early in most game. It's that fourth quarter that needs to get some attention. That's been what the coaches have talked about all season, dating back to the winter conditioning. This needs to be the week that they get it right. It's about holding onto the rope all the way to the end. The Hogs made some plays in the fourth quarter against Georgia. Mallett hooked up with his receivers in the fourth quarter for the winning drive -- after Jake Bequette got the sack to stop the Bulldogs. They'll have to make some plays in the fourth quarter at Auburn. That's when the Tigers will have their 12th man, an outstanding home crowd. It won't be easy, but if the Hogs are to be champions this year, they'll need some mental toughness in the fourth quarter.
7) Malzahn vs. Robinson
It's a fun matchup to watch. It's Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn versus Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson. There was an interesting comment from Robinson after last year's game. Robinson said, "I give him credit, he stays true to his tendencies." Will he again? One thing Malzahn has done the last two years against Arkansas is turn to a trick play at critical points. Most have gone the wrong way. Will a reverse pass or trick play work this year. Malzahn loves them. Robinson is sure to have some pressures saved for the second half against Newton. That's one of his tricks. You don't use them in the first half so there can't be any halftime adjustments. Watch for those. Malzahn does have one weapon to neutralize those tricks, Newton. A running quarterback is the best way to defuse a blitz. You don't want to put your secondary in man coverage with pressure up front when the quarterback can slip out the back door with all of your defensive backs running the other way in coverage. So Robinson has to be careful how often and when he sends the pressures and fires. There's another good matchup, between the two head coaches. Bobby Petrino calls the Arkansas offense. Gene Chizik, the Auburn head coach, is a defensive coach first and is in charge there. So the head coaches are going head to head when the Hogs have the ball. It starts and stops there as far as matchups.
8) Pass rush
Who gets it, who doesn't? You could head this one protection, too. Auburn tries to deter blitzes with the option game. It's hard to blitz into option calls, but the Hogs did it last year against Florida's Tim Tebow and against Auburn. Newton might be a tougher assignment, but he is Tebow like in his running choices. The Hogs want to rush Newton, but not flush him. They want to collapse the pocket on him and hit him in twos instead of pushing him out of the pocket into the open field. In most cases, a blitzer gets to the quarterback. With Newton, a blitzer might be creating open field. So the pass rush has to get there and have great vision and balance. The middle of the pass rush with Dede Jones and Byran Jones has to be balance and ready to grab Newton if Jake Bequette, Tenarius Wright and Damario Ambrose force Newton to step up. There will be some games and stunts up front to get Bequette and the other ends to the middle where they can be contain rushers. If you can take your eyes off of Newton, watch the Arkansas ends.
9) Wes Bynum and Zack Hocker and special teams
These are two good kickers. Bynum has won plenty of games during his Auburn career including one last week. Hocker has yet to toe a game winning kick. He's a true freshman. What will he do with the game on the line. It may come down to that. He was great at Georgia last month. Can he repeat that performance. He wasn't as good last week in Cowboys Stadium. It's doubtful the Hogs try a trick play with Hocker again. He'll have to boot it this time. Dylan Breeding has been money as the Arkansas punter. He's been an All-SEC type in the clutch. This doesn't look like a game that the punters will duel, but the Hogs have a good one. He grew up an Alabama fan. He doesn't like Auburn. This might be a fun day for Breeding, if he can help the Hogs win a field position battle or two.
10) Fast start
The best way to combat the noise level on the road is to get off to a fast start. The Hogs have been good at that so far. They've looked good in opening drives, putting up points. Auburn has a good home field advantage. Watch to see if the Hogs negate that with a fast start. They did that two years ago at Auburn, but the Tigers were in disarray, having fired their offensive coordinator in midweek. That's not the case this time. In fact, everything has gone right for Auburn this year. The Hogs are going to get the best shot from the Tigers.
Not Top 10, but still important
There are plenty of leftovers, or not quite good enough to make our top 10, but still important. One of the early things to watch might be on defense where the Hogs could get Zach Stadther back in the middle of the defensive line. He's a run stopper. The Tigers will run it early and often. Stadther has been out with an unspecified suspension and he'll play this week. He was a part-time starter the last two weeks and provides valuable depth. Another thing to watch will be the total operation from both sides. Do the Hogs adjust to the hurry-up, no-huddle style of Gus Malzahn? Mostly, they have the last two years. But he's got a better group of athletes and a big, big-time quarterback.
On the other side of the ball, this might be the day D. J. Williams gets going. He is coming off a rare off day against A&M. He had a couple of drops and some penalties. I'd wager that he'll improve dramatically in all areas. Maybe this is the game he springs some big plays, both in the passing game and with his blocking on the perimeter. Another thing to watch is the physical presence of both teams. Which team can impose its will in the running game. Arkansas doesn't have to get a big day with the run, but just something similar to last week when they made over 170 before lost yardage plays were subtracted. Petrino insists his backs have made strides in practice the last three weeks. This would be the perfect time to see the fruits of that labor.
Watch for the Joe Adams factor. He might be the Hogs' most dangerous player. Can the Hogs get him the ball in the open field? That could be in the passing game, a direct handoff or on a punt or kick return. If Adams gets double digit touches, the Hogs should triumph. He is the most dynamic player in the game. The flip side to that is it could be that the Tigers put so much emphasis on Adams that they get punished by someone else. That's the nature of this Arkansas offense.
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