There are times that I fall into that old football mantra when I think about trying to pick a football game. I don't bet, so there is nothing at stake. I have never really enjoyed any kind of betting. Not in golf, not in washers.
I have bought lunch when I've won at golf, not the other way around. I felt pity on the loser, since sometimes he had no chance standing on the first tee.
But should you pick Auburn because it will bring a better running game to the Ozarks? Arkansas might run the ball better this week, but the goal won't be to outrush the Tigers. It will be to outscore them, anyway possible.
So when I start this week's edition of the Top 10 List for the Auburn-Arkansas game Saturday night at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, keep that in perspective. It won't be about rushing yards, but about points. Except don't think stopping the run is not the key to the game. It is and always will be in the SEC.
1. Stop the Run ... Enough
This is a relative term, especially this week. Auburn is without its best receiver. Arkansas is getting Jake Bequette, one of its ends back. Both of these will be factors in the game inside the game, for Arkansas to stop the Auburn running game, along with Michael Dyer, an Arkansas native. But the Hogs can't sell out with too many in the box to the point that the pass becomes too easy. The Hogs have to do it with their regular personnel because Auburn quarterback Barrett Trotter can be effective in the passing game if that happens.
This is a two-way street. Arkansas will have to tackle like it did in the second half against Texas A&M, not the way it did in the previous six quarters (throwing in four at Alabama). Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said it's about tackling high, face mask to face mask. He thinks that's the only way to get a great back down. Dyer might qualify as that. The Hogs did not tackle Cam Newton last year at Auburn while giving up 65 points. They have to beat that effort this time around against Dyer. Conversely, Arkansas has to make Auburn's young defense miss. That goes for the wideouts on yards after the catch and the backs. Dennis Johnson was the one that made people miss last week. Can he do it again against an SEC defense?
Arkansas got a plus two last week against Texas A&M in turnovers. The Hogs had been among the nation's worst in this category before last week. Tyler Wilson didn't have an interception and the Hogs recovered their only fumble for a touchdown. Jarius Wright had a career day in the passing game, but that dash to Cobi Hamilton's fumble into the end zone was the play of the game. It was as big of a play as Ohio State's recovery of a Buckeye fumble for a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. Fumble recoveries in the end zone are worth six points. Petrino said he had been surprised the Hogs had not forced more turnovers until last week. He said he expects them to start coming in bunches as the season progresses. If the Hogs win the turnover battle again this week, that's a good sign for stability the rest of the way.
The Hogs had 14 last week. As Petrino stated on Thursday, that's too many. The coach said that was addressed in practice this week. I'm sure the translation for "addressed" is running. The Hogs must be more disciplined and avoid the false starts and personal fouls. Petrino said the false starts were caused somewhat because of late movement in the A&M defensive front, something called "stems." Auburn will surely try that this week and the Hogs have to stay in their stance.
5. Tyler Wilson
It might come down to turnovers, as it did last year in the fourth quarter. Broderick Green's fumble (even if you didn't think it was a fumble) and Tyler Wilson's two interceptions might have kept Arkansas from getting well into the 50s at Auburn. The Tigers really didn't stop the Hogs. They stopped themselves. Wilson has confidence that he can execute against Auburn's defense. And this is a more inexperienced defense than Auburn had last year. Wilson should be the trump card in this game.
6. Special teams
The Hogs were good there last week. But Auburn has made plays in kickoff returns. The Hogs have to cover kickoffs and punts like that again. They won the field position battle in both areas against A&M, but gaffes in special teams were a huge problem against Alabama. That can't happen again.
7. Trick plays
Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has a bag full of surprises. The Hogs have seen several in the three years they have played against his offenses at Tulsa and Auburn. For the most part, those have not worked in Malzahn's favor. But there will be one or two again. He likes them and probably has something saved for this game. Perhaps there will be something with Kiehl Frazier, the Shiloh Christian quarterback getting a few snaps a game with the Tigers as a true freshman. Watch out when Frazier's in the game. There's one other trick that can't happen, from that dreaded man in the press box, the SEC replay official. We don't need any trickery from him like last year at Auburn. Obviously, that's a loose way to use trickery. But you get the picture.
8. Protect the middle
Again, that goes for both sides. A&M was gracious last week. They came at the Hogs with so many blitzes that it opened up the middle of the field for the passing game to Jarius Wright. Can the Tigers protect the middle of the field this week? Auburn exposed the middle of the South Carolina defensive line with repeated runs through the A gap. Can the Hogs protect the middle this week? Now that would go against what looked to be the weak area of the Arkansas defense, the defensive ends. Cam Newton gashed the Hogs up the gut last year, making Jerry Franklin miss on play after play. The Tigers might go after Franklin in the middle again.
If you want to simplify the game, pick the team you think will outhit the other side. The Aggies did that in the first half last week. The Hogs were the big hitters in the second half. With complex strategic thoughts sometimes we forget that it's a brutal, physical game and it is nothing like punching buttons on a video game of football. The team that wins the hitting battle and tackles the best generally waltzes to the end zone. Oh, there is strategy involved that provides better angles and leverage for the hitting, but it's still the hitting that wins.
This goes for both sides. The Hogs have to continue to protect Tyler Wilson. Auburn's young defensive line hasn't recorded a lot of sacks. For that matter, Arkansas hasn't produced many, either. But it's still going to come down to protection when it's third and long and the blitzes are unleashed. The Hogs punished the Aggies on third and long last week to the point that A&M coaches finally got in a three-man rush and invited the run. Does it get to that this week? It could if the Hogs protect the way they did in the second half. Then, it's back to point No. 1 in this list.
State of the Hogs: Top 10 List (Auburn)
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