A path for victory for the Hogs versus Auburn 

If Arkansas wants to convince a state and country full of doubters that it's pecking slowly back from beneath the weight of the rest of the SEC, a rare gift avails itself right at the start: a meaningful opener in late August, on the road, against a fashionable and traditional darling that just happens to have been in the Hogs' position merely a year ago.

Auburn's 3-9 record in 2012 belied the talent on the roster; its 12-2 mark last fall masked some lingering issues on the defensive side of the ball. What Arkansas wants to exploit Saturday on what presumably will be a scorching late summer afternoon is a possible lack of conditioning there. Auburn's near-championship season was filled with games where receivers beat a maligned secondary repeatedly and the run defense, though bolstered by Ellis Johnson's hiring as coordinator, still didn't quite measure up to the standard of a title-winner.

Then there's the Auburn offense, which, for all its Malzahnian greatness, still has numerous holes to fill. Tre Mason's gone, and perhaps more critically, linchpin guard Greg Robinson is, too, both toiling with the St. Louis Rams. Whether Jeremy Johnson can ably fill in for benched quarterback Nick Marshall from the start of this contest is the headline-grabber, but the arguably greater unknown is whether someone like Corey Grant or Cameron Artis-Payne has the chops to be an every-down grinder like Mason was last fall. How Arkansas must address this is by rendering both backs uncertain early — stripping the ball away or administering a couple of vicious hits in the backfield would stem whatever momentum young offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee hopes to build in the hurry-up no-huddle system.

New Razorback defensive coordinator Robb Smith has preached assignment football since his arrival, and this will be a vigorous test of the Hogs' absorption of the Rutgers expatriate's philosophy. What he saw in reviewing the garish tale of the tape from a season ago is that every level of the Razorbacks' defensive unit had skill, but not the discipline that comes with experience. The defensive line lost Chris Smith, Robert Thomas and Byran Jones, but on balance, the unit should be stronger with young linebackers like Brooks Ellis and Martrell Spaight gaining seasoning and the secondary getting late-season boosts from the likes of Jared Collins and Alan Turner. Bottom line? It's not a daunting group on paper, but the feeling is that perceptible improvement here coupled with a much more efficient and mistake-free offense will get the Hogs well on track to resurgence.

That all starts with the degree of maturation to be seen at quarterback. There are Brandon Allen skeptics on the one hand, and on the other there are outright Brandon Allen detractors. It was phenomenally unfair to expect the Fayetteville product to be a gunslinger last year, particularly after the preseason robbed him of some anticipated help at receiver, but he was tormented by inaccuracy and bad timing most of the way after he sustained a shoulder injury in the Southern Mississippi win. He's been quietly composed and relatively sharp this summer, but the doubt as to his long-term efficacy remains.

What Pearls expects here is that Allen benefits from Auburn having an already susceptible secondary being further depleted with Jonathan Mincy's suspension. A few early throws to the boundary and across the middle to two gifted tight ends will do wonders, and frankly the offensive line's overall girth seems to augur better pass protection ahead. The backfield's skill is already well established but Allen needs to utilize the Collins-Williams-Marshall trio in the passing game far more prominently: Those three tallied all of 18 combined catches in 2013, a number that frankly should triple this fall with Jim Chaney clearly wanting to play more to his strengths.

Recall that Auburn was shaky in September last year before getting fully untracked. Those Tigers were trying to throw the yoke of a bad 2012 and had a little difficulty getting solid footing. In what ended up being their lone conference loss against LSU, the Bayou Bengals shot out to a 21-0 first-half lead and deprived Malzahn of that rhythm he so covets. Auburn ended up logging 437 total yards in the loss, and narrowing the final margin to a respectable 35-21, but it was a game that LSU clearly dominated from start to finish with — you guessed it — power on the ground and wise, conservative usage of the passing game.

If Arkansas can reflect that balance and poise, reverse the good fortune that smiled on Auburn constantly a year ago, and withstand what promises to be god-awful heat, it's not going to go the oddsmakers' way at all. Bret Bielema has repeatedly stated that a very different and emboldened team is about to take the field in 2014, and there is no better way to validate that braggadocio than on the Plains Saturday afternoon.

Speaking of...

  • Now to No. 1

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    Three debilitating losses in a four-week span made Arkansas a little sour for homecoming Saturday. UAB paid the iron price for all that misery. /more/
  • Full system breakdown

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    Arkansas did two positive things it had not done all year in an otherwise disgusting loss against Georgia inside Quigley Nouveau Stadium. /more/
  • Close ones hurt more

    October 16, 2014
    As much as anything else, retrospective dissection is the gospel of college football fandom; and in SEC country, if you aren't combining spirits and profanity to motivate your second-guessing in the aftermath of a tight one, by God, buddy, you're doing it wrong. /more/
  • So many chances for Razorbacks

    October 9, 2014
    Here was Arkansas's golden opportunity to convince America how fast and how furious it has worked to launch itself from doormat. /more/
  • Ole Miss gave Arkansas blueprint to beat Alabama

    October 9, 2014
    Even as Arkansas sojourned over the weekend, the free world of SEC football spun almost wildly off its axis and triggered future storylines for the Hogs as they embark on the remainder of a schedule that was already seen as grueling. /more/
  • Old-fashioned Razorbacks in the brave new SEC world

    September 27, 2014
    Here's a little pre-game reading. Over at ESPN's Grantland, Matt Hinton took a look at Bret Bielema's Razorbacks and their old-fashioned grit-and-grind offense, an outlier in the increasingly spread-happy Southeastern Conference. /more/
  • Hogs on a roll after decisive wins against Texas Tech, NIU

    September 25, 2014
    If Bret Bielema was terribly dejected by his Arkansas team's second-half showing against Auburn in the 2014 season opener, the ensuing three weeks of football prowess have likely done much to change his disposition. /more/
  • A turn in the right direction for football Razorbacks

    September 18, 2014
    With a yearlong winning drought now a bygone thing, Arkansas had to take a quick "next step" back toward respectability. /more/
  • Victory at Texas Tech crucial

    September 11, 2014
    For God's sake, Hog Fans, just enjoy it! So much social media grumbling was afoot after Arkansas obliterated Nicholls State, 73-7, on Saturday to finally kill off the damnable 10-game skid the program had been mired in. "Congrats on beating a JV team!" "Who scheduled this?" "If this is how we have to win, it's not worth it." "How did I get this drunk before halftime?" /more/
  • Hogs break down at Auburn

    September 4, 2014
    When Auburn clanked a field goal attempt off the upright going into halftime, Bret Bielema's fist plunged skyward and Arkansas headed to halftime all square at 21. The game plan was working. Gashed early, the defense was settling in to make some stops here and there, and the offensive machine was humming. /more/
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