Arkansas and Auburn bring struggles to SEC West contest.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ mostly struggling 2016 defense and Auburn’s mostly struggling 2016 offense each have improved just in time to test each other’s improvement this evening.
Coach Bret Bielema’s 17th-ranked visiting Razorbacks, 5-2 overall, 1-2 in the SEC West, Coach Gus Malzahn’s 21st-ranked Auburn Tigers, 4-2, 2-1 in the SEC West, clash at 5 p.m. today at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala.
Arkansas sports the better ranking but Las Vegas oddsmakers mostly have rated Auburn a 10-point favorite.
Their Auburn favoritism seems based both on the home field advantage of 87,500-plus capacity Jordan-Hare and an defense that has held five opponents between 7 and 19 points. They compares an Auburn 29-16 SEC West loss to the undefeated now nationally No. 6 Texas A&M Aggies on Sept 17 with Arkansas’ 45-24 loss to the Aggies on Sept. 24. Even the unbeaten, nationally No. 4 Clemson Tigers couldn’t score 20 on Auburn. Clemson lost, 19-13.
So Arkansas’ optimism with the Razorbacks impressively balancing 429 yards (200 running and 229 passing) on the then 12th-ranked , offensively explosive but defensively so-so Ole Miss Rebels last Saturday, is tempered with meeting an Auburn defense alleged to be up to the caliber of A&M and even nationally No. Alabama.
“I compare them to Alabama,” Arkansas receivers coach Michael Smith said. “Very physical. Very handsy.”
Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, a former linebacker at Tennessee and then a former Tennessee assistant and Baylor head coach, has coordinated defenses at Clemson and Alabama (pre Nick Saban) returned to Alabama in 2014 to be Saban’s linebackers coach and coordinated LSU’s defense in 2015 and moved to Auburn this season.
“Kevin Steele and that defense are really performing at a high level,” Bielema said. “They have really good players performing extremely well and extremely smart.”
Steele has coordinated a much better Auburn defense so far than the heralded Will Muschamp, the current South Carolina head coach and past Florida head coach and a former national champion defensive coordinator at LSU and Texas, coordinated last year at Auburn.
Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos called Alabama a defense without a weakness two games ago.
This week he also couldn’t conjure a defensive weakness for Auburn.
Bielema and Enos did note Arkansas’ offensive confidence soars from beating Ole Miss with Arkansas’ running game measuring up to the outstanding passing that junior Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen has exhibited all season.
Arkansas sophomore running back Rawleigh Williams was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Week netting 180 rushing yards on 27 carries against Ole Miss.
Entering what could have been called “The Losing Tiger Gets Fired Bowl” when the struggling Auburn Tigers and struggling LSU Tigers met on Sept. 24 at Auburn, Auburn won 18-13.
Indeed longtime LSU Coach Les Miles did get fired by the following week while Malzahn started a 3-game winning streak.
No coincidence the Auburn winning streak didn’t start until Malzahn, the Fort Smith native and 2006 Arkansas defensive coordinator for Houston Nutt after winning Arkansas high school state championships at Shiloh Christian and Springdale, quit playing Auburn quarterbacks roulette.
John Franklin and Jeremy Johnson, his two fastest quarterbacks, were benched and junior Sean White installed to start.
White’s 92 of 132 for 1,187 yards and a SEC leading 69.7 percent completion percentage, should capture attention.
“It all starts with him,” Bielema said.
Malzahn was known for his uptempo passing offenses at Springdale and Shiloh Christian but usually has Auburn among the SEC rushing leaders while still emphasizing the pace of his no-huddle offense “as fast as humanly possible,” Bielema said.
Bielema and Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith said the Hogs must adjust and reassemble faster between plays Saturday at Auburn than they sometimes did against Ole Miss in Fayetteville.