There's no messing around as far as cupcakes to start the season now that the SEC Network is on the scene. It's not sugar on tap when Arkansas travels to Auburn. It's porterhouse steak and lots of it.
Bigger and better is the right phrase for what both Arkansas and Auburn have done to with their teams, no doubt starting with one of the key matchups, a massive Arkansas offensive line that might feature a rotation of nine men -- and these are big men -- against an Auburn defensive front that is much bigger than last year when the featured man was an undersized linemen, the graduated Dee Ford.
Arkansas will start the same offensive line that was first out for the spring game. From left to right, it will be Dan Skipper, Luke Charpentier, Mitch Smothers, Denver Kirkland and Brey Cook. They are big men, although most of them have lost weight since the spring.
But the real beef is in what is waiting on the sideline for coach Bret Bielema to give the thumbs up for the earth to shake. Transfers Cam Jefferson and Sebastian Tretola (355) along with true freshmen Frank Ragnow and Brian Wallace are all expected to play. In the case of Jefferson and Tretola, it could be quite a bit.
With humidity and warm conditions -- with a good chance of thunderstorm forecast -- at Jordan-Hare Stadium where it's a deep bowl and there doesn't get a lot of relief from a breeze down low, it could be a situation that coaches do roll linemen more than usual.
Auburn has a deep defensive line, although Ford and the injured Carl Lawson will be missed. What the Tigers do have is more size than last year, with more 300-pounders in the front than what they brought to Fayetteville when they gave up 222 rushing yards and 25 rushing first downs. And, they have a pass rusher to replace Ford in 300-pounder Martravious Adams.
The key is what Arkansas does with its tight ends, possibly playing two a lot and possibly three at times. Hunter Henry and A.J. Derby give offensive coordinator Jim Chaney the flexibility to change formations to try to gain an advantage on the edge. Both are better blockers than what the Hogs had at that position last year. Jeremy Sprinkle is the wild card in that group, improved as a blocker, but sleek like a wide receiver and capable of playing in a wide set.
The offensive line -- when the tight ends are included -- is the position Arkansas has to gain an edge if it hopes to upset the No. 6 Tigers. But the defending SEC champs are good in the offensive line, too, just maybe not as strong at tight end.
J.B. Grimes, a former Arkansas assistant, coaches the Auburn offensive line. It's a good one. It was the strength of the team last year when the Tigers averaged 287 yards on the ground in league games. It was a unit that was wonderful on the traps and reads in the option game. Grimes did possibly his best work from the mid point of the season when left tackle Greg Robinson dominated on those weakside double teams helping Nick Marshall and Tre Mason go wild.
Robinson is gone, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. He's replaced by an older player, Shon Coleman. The massive Coleman sat two years while undergoing cancer treatment and is now full go. How well he plays in replace of Robinson may determine what kind of running game the Tigers can muster this season. Some think he's at least in Robinson's league as far as talent. If true, Auburn may not miss a beat.
Center Reese Dismukes has 36 starts. Left guard Chad Slade has 35. Those two will be assigned to contain the wild card in the Arkansas defensive line, redshirt sophomore Taiwan Johnson. The cat-quick Johnson is only 255, but has shown the ability to play position in a tilt or off center alignment in the gap that puts extreme pressure on the "A" gap between center and guard. It's a position to watch early.
The rest of the Arkansas defensive line isn't much bigger. Darius Philon and Trey Flowers, the two lead Alabama products for the Hogs, will likely play side by side in a quick front. They are both in the 285 range, but quickness is their edge. Deatrich Wise and JaMichael Winston (another Alabama native) will rotate at the other end. Tevin Beanum provides more depth at end. The backups at tackle are DeMarcus Hodge and true freshman Bijohn Jackson and both will play a lot.
I like the quickness of this defensive line better than what they played with last year and think an attacking, up-the-field scheme will lead to improved pass rush and more disruptive play up front. I also think the day-to-day battles with a big, physical offensive line in practice has helped this defensive front.
With that, we'll launch in the top 10 key things to watch for the Arkansas-Auburn matchup, set for 3:05 p.m. on the SEC Network.
Top 10 Keys
1. Leverage -- It's what Sam Pittman, the Hogs' line coach, preaches the most. My favorite quote in the preseason came at the start of an open night practice. Pittman stopped the first drill of the night. He said, "Look at what we have here, it's everything. We are big enough. We are fast enough. We have it all. What we don't have in these first three snaps tonight is leverage. Get that and we do have it all." So can the Hogs step into the national spotlight with this beautiful offensive line and play with leverage? It is the key inside the keys to the game. Big men who can gain leverage dominate. It goes for Auburn's front, too.
2. Setting the edge -- The cornerstone of the Robb Smith Arkansas defense is setting the edge, applying leverage and having one man free to chase down mistakes. The pursuit is something he calls "smart swarm." The option eliminates some aspects of pursuit because discipline must be maintained to hole a position. But, Smith said he's gone against lots of option attacks and they all can be run down. But, he said Auburn is different because of the speed and athletic ability. "Really, what they do under Coach (Gus) Malzahn is exactly what they do at the academy option attacks, but they have much, much better speed and athletic ability. Against the academy offenses, you make a mistake and you are one step wrong, you can run them down. You can't do that with Auburn." Setting the edge against the speed game outside and the quarterback powers will be the key. Can the Arkansas linebackers, ends and corners mix their scheme and be in the right place?
3. Stopping the run -- Both teams have improved their passing attacks, maybe in a big way. But it's still going to come down to stopping the run. If you don't stop the Auburn running game, Malzahn won't pass. He'll run the same plays over and over. Yes, there are going to be some attempts to go over the top by both teams -- and I'd look for wideouts Sammie Coates and Duke Williams for Auburn and conversely tight ends (Henry, Derby and Sprinkle) for Arkansas. But Arkansas must stop tailback Cameron Artis-Payne, the heir apparent for Mason. And, they are going to see plenty of runs from quarterback Nick Marshall, too. Running backs Corey Grant, Peyton Barber and Roc Thomas give Auburn depth. And, for Arkansas, it's clear that there are three good ones in Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall.
4. Space -- The Arkansas linebackers were often no where to be found last year. They are said to be improved. Can they tackle in space against the Auburn running game and can they provide any depth to their drops in pass coverage to help the Arkansas safeties in pass coverage. That didn't happen last year. Alan Turner has moved from strong to free safety with Rohan Gaines moving from nickel to strong. But, this is a nickel game so to speak and the Hogs may have to cover space with extra corners, moving Carroll Washington inside and maybe one of the safeties up adding Sleepy McKinney or Tequention Coleman in a set that might look like more linebackers than linemen. It's all in an effort to defend space better than last year when the UA outside linebackers could not be found. Martrell Spaight might have a big day in the nickel.
5. Brandon Allen -- Some might want to put Allen first in this list. But really, there's not really much separation in the top five. All are equally important. It's never wrong to say quarterback play is the key to the game. Allen played hurt last year. He's healthy now and much more accurate after working to improve footwork over the last eight months, the challenge from Chaney when the spring semester began in January. He's done that. But will it hold up and accuracy continues when game time arrives. It's a question until Allen answers it. If he's accurate and his decision making is solid, Arkansas will be in the game. You can put Nick Marshall, the AU QB, in this segment, too. He's serving a suspension for off-the-field problems that won't last long if Allen plays well out of the gates. Marshall is a great weapon and is said to have improved his passing, too.
6. Wide Receivers -- This is an area that both teams have improved. Coates and Williams are fast, but the fastest Auburn receiver might be converted quarterback Ricardo Louis, a 210-pound flyer who probably will get the ball on handoffs out of the slot. Coates averaged almost 20 yards a catch last year. He's a deep threat, but the others might be, too. There is plenty of speed to dazzle the Arkansas corners of Carroll Washington, Jared Collins, D.J. Dean, Henre' Tolliver and Cornelius Floyd. The Arkansas receivers are improved and deeper. Keon Hatcher, Drew Morgan and Demetrius Wilson were the headliners in camp, but Jared Cornelius and Eric Hawkins are in the picture, too, along with 6-6 freshman Kendrick Edwards, the man teammates call "Mossy," because he reminds of Randy Moss.
7. Swagger -- Auburn has it. They won the league and almost the national championship. They have lots of lettermen back. They think they are lucky as well as good after winning via miracle late in the season twice. Arkansas has tried to find the swagger over the last few months. Can the Hogs respond to adversity? They've lost nine straight SEC games and have won only seven of their last 24 overall. Bret Bielema said that's his biggest worry, getting the swagger or confidence back on his sideline. Will it be there for four quarters Saturday.
8. Physicality versus mentality -- It goes along with number seven, but it's a little different. Arkansas did not have a physical maturity to it last year. Bielema thinks he has changed that with two years in Ben Herbert's strength program. But now he wants to see if his team can play strong and still avoid mental mistakes that cost games. They failed against Auburn on both counts last year, ruining a wonderful first-half drive by coming up empty on two plunges from inches a way, running behind Travis Swanson and Denver Kirkland. And, there were two turnovers by Derby when Allen went out to get staples in his leg. Arkansas could not respond after those three issues and Auburn won, 35-17. Turnovers have been the nightmare for Arkansas. They haven't forced them and have committed too many the last two years. Bad teams lose the turnover battle, good teams invariably look good there. Mental mistakes will decide this one.
9. Kicking game -- Both teams are replacing solid kickers. Arkansas lost Zach Hocker and is going with fifth-year senior John Henson, given a scholarship this month. Sam Irwin-Hill, impressive last year, remains the punter. Irwin-Hill will add kickoffs. He's less of a rugby style man under new specialists coach Rory Segrest, another Alabama native. Auburn will go with redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson as punter and kicker. Quan Bray is the return man, something Auburn does well. Mason handled that last year and was a threat on every kickoff. Arkansas will go with Korliss Marshall as the top kickoff returner and D.J. Dean as the likely man on punts. With new kickers, new return men come the mistakes. Upsets in season openers always feature a big kicking game blunder. Who avoids them Saturday?
10. The Weather -- It's likely to rain. Both teams practiced with wet footballs most of the week. Auburn has a grass surface, tightly cropped. It's a fast track, suiting the speed of the Tigers. Will it be perfect footing for the Auburn option game with lots of ball handling and reads? Maybe not. Marshall's lone bad game last year came in the rain against LSU when he wore gloves for the first half, then shed them. Will it affect him now? It's said that bad weather favors the underdog. That's Arkansas. The line has mainly stayed in the three touchdown range all summer. Auburn should win. It has the better talent, but this is one that remains a mystery to most because of the improvement Arkansas made in the last eight months. Is it enough? Maybe a wet day pushes the Hogs over the edge? It's a porterhouse steak of an opener.
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