The last we saw of Auburn, things were rolling for Gus Malzahn. He had two fine quarterbacks, it seemed. Jeremy Johnson flashed brilliant for the first half and Nick Marshall in the second on the way to a 45-21 victory over Arkansas in the 2014 season opener.
The No. 6 Tigers piled up 595 yards in total offense as the Razorbacks were struggling to find an identity under first-year defensive coordinator Robb Smith.
Auburn rolled early last year. After beating LSU in the fifth week of the season, the Tigers made it as high as No. 2 in the polls. But things unraveled with losses to Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama and Wisconsin down the stretch. The only victory over the last five games was over Samford.
Still, it was that impressive first half by Johnson with Marshall suspended that gave reason for the Tigers to earn the favorite role in the balanced SEC West this summer. Johnson's 12 of 16 passing show against Arkansas was cited over and over.
So much for that thought. Johnson threw into coverage over and over to start this season, throwing six interceptions, ultimately leading to a demotion after three weeks.
Sean White is now the quarterback. The redshirt freshman has steadied the ship, but it's probably been a move more to the hurry-up offense that has been the real story of late for the Tigers. Malzahn picked up the pace even more last week against Kentucky, a 30-27 victory.
That's what the Hogs expect this week, a heavy dose of tempo with the ball snapped at a frenetic pace. It's a big key for the 11 a.m. Kickoff at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. TV coverage is on the SEC Network.
“You have 40 seconds between plays usually,” said Clay Jennings, the Arkansas secondary coach. “What we see of them the last few weeks (after the change in quarterbacks), they are snapping it with 28 left.”
That's 12 seconds between plays. It doesn't give the defense long to line up correctly. It's the big reason the Hogs have gone back to Josh Liddell at free safety, sliding the sophomore ahead of redshirt freshman Santos Ramirez this week.
Liddell is better at making quick adjustments in the secondary, the very thing that might be the most critical against the Tigers this week. And, it may be as important in producing the right angles and leverage point against the run than the pass.
That's where we'll start as far as our weekly keys to victory. The Hogs have to line up correctly against the changing Auburn formations and motions. That's what Malzahn does best. He moves your secondary around, changing the leverage points as corners, ends and outside linebackers are asked to change assignments and anchor points for outside running lanes.
“It's about getting the edge set,” Smith said. “That's where they get you in trouble. They probably use more formations and motions than anyone.”
Jennings called it “window dressing.” He's seen all the fancy spreads in his days of coaching in the Big 12 at TCU and against Auburn and Texas A&M in the SEC.
“They just do more as far as changing formations to run the same plays. They are very good with that and it forcing you to be good in alignment and do it quickly.”
Liddell said, “You have to be mentally tough. You have to recognize the formation, the splits of the receivers and get your defense set and know your keys. Then, you have to have your eyes in the correct spot.”
It's that very thing that caused problems for the Hogs both against Texas A&M and Alabama. Not coincidentally, Ramirez was the safety on the side of the field for both the big plays that caused problems for the Hogs in those two losses, two big pass plays.
Top 10 Keys to Victory
1, Alignment – Both teams change their offensive formations to draw matchup advantages. Arkansas will move tight ends Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle almost every play. Auburn resets its backfield angles on almost every play to run its option series at different angles. So the key for the defenders, make sure they are in the right spot and play with discipline. It will be a constantly changing game with blocking schemes changing. Rohan Gaines has been the steadying force for the Arkansas secondary, playing solid at safety. He'll join Liddell and Ramirez chasing Auburn running backs Peyton Barber (135-650, 8 Tds) and Roc Thomas (33-151).
2, The Tackles – Auburn has redirected its offense recently behind offensive tackles Shon Coleman (6-6, 313) and Avery Young (6-6, 305). They are beasts on the perimeter and that's where Malzahn has shifted his offense since the open date before the Kentucky game. Line coach J.B. Grimes, a former Arkansas coach, has done well at finding the mesh up front with those two fast giants. They are athletic, especially Coleman. The Hogs have not done as well with their tackles. Denver Kirkland, converted from guard, has not had the dominating season and that may date back to what appeared to be a shoulder injury against Toledo. Can Kirkland find his mojo after an open date?
3, The Inside Scoop – Well, that's a twist on the goal of every reporter, but it's really pointing to the interior matchup between Frank Ragnow, the sophomore right guard for the Hogs, against beast-like Montravius Adams, the Auburn defensive tackle. Adams is one of the nation's best. The 6-4, 296-pound junior must be good. He wears jersey No. 1. I don't recall a defensive tackle wearing that number, ever. I wouldn't anything other than a stud would even dream of donning a number generally reserved for wide receivers. Ragnow has been inconsistent. He's going to draw Adams much of the day. Can he get a stalemate and reduce backfield penetration? Ragnow said this week, “I know he's very good. I have my good goods on certain days. I want to just try to be more consistent. I'm trying to do that each week.” Ragnow will probably need some help from Mitch Smothers at times on Adams. If you want to train your field glasses on a key battle, start with No. 72 against No. 1.
4, Tight Ends – It's really all about the Arkansas tight ends. Arkansas plays with two and three at times. Auburn lists true freshman Jalen Harris as its tight end. He does not have a catch. Mostly, Auburn is going to line up with wide receivers. The Hogs would like to target Hunter Henry more and this may be the week to do it. Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp likes exotic blitzes and that might leave Henry open over the middle.
5, Brandon Allen – Simply, this is Allen's chance to change the image on the senior quarterback as far as clutch plays. This looks to be a close game. Arkansas is favored by less than one touchdown. It's likely going to come down to a play or two in the fourth quarter. Can Allen make them? He's had a solid year as far as the stats. He's completing 62.4 percent of his throws and has 10 touchdowns against four interceptions. The Hogs average 256 through the air. But now it's about winning some games as the Hogs try to close fast with four home games left on the schedule. It may come down to what the fifth-year quarterback does in those home games that establishes his legacy. Can Allen change the narrative of missing a receiver in a key spot late in the game?
6, Clean Machine – Auburn was a turnover machine early. The Tigers have cleaned up their act since White has taken over at quarterback. Can the Hogs force the freshman into some mistakes? Can Brooks Ellis knock the ball loose? Or, maybe Jeremiah Ledbetter and Tevin Beanum can beat those Auburn tackles to cause some pressure? The Hogs have been cleaner of late, too. They were antiseptic at Tennessee and that's what's needed this week.
7, The Rain – The forecast is for rain Friday through Sunday morning. The kickoff is 11 a.m. And it looks to be a wet day. The Hogs played well in wet conditions at Tennessee. Always looking for a mental advantage, Arkansas line coach Sam Pittman pointed to that this week as an advantage. Bring on the rain, Pittman said. Auburn's ball handling in the backfield with an option game can make for issues on a wet field. Is that an advantage for the Hogs? Maybe. Certainly, the rain will cause issues for both teams, but the Hogs are claiming it as a home-field advantage. Hogs like the slop.
8, Surprises – Auburn coach Gus Malzahn always has some trickery. He has double passes in a variety of looks with a variety of players. Bret Bielema said the Hogs have to be cautious of that with safety pay throughout the game. You just don't know when it's coming, but it's coming. The Hogs have had a week off to work on gadget plays, too. Asked if there was some trickery, Bielema was almost giddy when he said, “Yes.” Then, after a brief pause, he added for emphasis, “Yes!” That could have just been a ploy to divert practice time for Will Muschamp into Bielema's past history. I don't think we'll see a pass from Sebastian Tretola, but there did seem to be some mischief in Bielema's eyes when the question was asked. Will there be a stuck elevator like last year when Arkansas coaches got stuck in an Auburn elevator at haltime? Will there be a swinging gate play since both coaches have that in their arsenel?
9, Noise – It's been a constant theme from the Arkansas interviews this week, the players and coaches want some noise when Auburn has the ball. The Auburn offense relies on communication to get plays off in rapid fashion. Much of it is signals from the sideline, so maybe noise doesn't cause harm to the Auburn system. But it was clear from every interview, the Arkansas coaches think crowd noise will bother the Tigers, especially with a young quarterback. It's the first true home game in one month and the Hogs seem excited to be in a place where the noise will be directed at the opposition.
10, The Matchup – This is just simply a feel thing, an overall look at the two matchups. It looks like a good situation overall for Arkansas. I have the same feeling on this as ahead of the Tennessee game. Robb Smith has built his defense over the last month with Brooks Ellis back to middle linebacker and Dre Greenlaw to weakside. That's a boost as far as speed at will with Greenlaw sitting pretty to make plays in space. I also like the idea of Santos Ramirez playing more in space perhaps as a nickel back as a crushing tackler. He's a better space tackler than Henre' Toliver, the nickel the past few weeks. This week it will be more about space tacklers than cover guys as far as corners and nickels. And, offensively, I like the Arkansas matchup this week against an Auburn defense that has been vulnerable to the run. Will Muschamp likes run blitzes and pressures. I think Arkansas can exploit these with Alex Collins. He's going to get a chance to make the last gas miss multiple times Saturday. I think he'll be successful.