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.