Auburn – Arkansas Preview
Arkansas at Auburn Game Preview
The Arkansas Razorbacks are coming off a 3-9 season under head coach Bret Bielema. In the off-season Arkansas went through some coaching changes with defensive coordinator Chris Ash leaving the program and a new defensive staff with Robb Smith as defensive coordinator. The Razorbacks will be coming into Auburn looking for an upset and a conference win to start their season. There’s not much doubt they will be a better team than they were last year, but will their improvements be significant enough to pull off the upset at Jordan Hare Stadium on Saturday?
Robb Smith typically bases his defenses out of the 4-3 and likes to run a coverage scheme known as “Cover 6” or “Quarters-Quarters-Half.” Quarters-Quarters-Half refers to the boundary side safety and cornerback covering “half” the field and the field side corner, safety, and middle linebacker dividing the field into “quarters.”
Base Cover 6
Looking at the diagram above, the left side is the “quarters” coverage concept in which that side of the field has been divided into four zones (hence “quarters”) by the safety, cornerback, will linebacker and mike linebacker. The right side of the diagram represents the “Half” in the Cover 6 scheme with the corner back and safety dividing that side of the field into two zones. While it may seem unbalanced in terms of responsibility keep in mind that the “Half” side of the coverage scheme is actually the boundary side of the field (side closest to the sideline), meaning there’s actually less field to cover as opposed to the field side (open or wide side, away from the sideline).
From doing a little research and comparing last year’s defense under Chris Ash I believe that Smith’s defense will be a little less complex and should allow Arkansas to play more and think less. Meaning, the defense won’t be as concerned with each defender making the right “read” on the offense which requires less thought and more time to react. This was a problem that was mentioned several times by both Bielema and Ash last year.
I expect Arkansas’s defense to be more aggressive and with Jeremy Johnson starting for Auburn at QB and would have to think Arkansas will come after Johnson early and often. It wouldn’t be too surprising to see the Arkansas defense load the box early to stop Auburn’s running game and considering that Auburn’s offense last season favored the run quite heavily I can’t say I would do anything different. Pressure will likely come from sophomore defensive tackle, Darius Philon, and senior defensive end, Terry Flowers but depth along the front of Arkansas’s defense is a potential problem.
The only real problem with that strategy though (and it’s actually a big problem) is that Auburn’s three starting wide receivers are bigger, faster and more athletic than the majority of corners and safeties in the country which will provide mismatch opportunities for Auburn’s offense. Considering that Smith’s defense is a modified zone coverage scheme it’s probably not too much of a stretch to expect some zone blitzes but all of that could be negated by Auburn’s up-tempo offense.
Arkansas’s offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has an interesting coaching history and, if given the opportunity, can be quite multiple in his formations and attacks. Chaney’s roots are in the Air Raid offense with significant time spent as an assistant under Joe Tiller. Going in the opposite direction, Chaney also spent time in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams learning the “Pro Style” offense.
It’s also interesting to note that a lot of Chaney’s offensive mentors are part of the same coaching family tree as Bobby Petrino’s mentors. Their offenses share a lot of the same concepts but since coming to Arkansas Chaney’s offense has leaned much more toward the “Pro Style” than Petrino. For the most part, Chaney has done a full scale switch from Bobby Petrino’s system but has run into some issues along the way. Last year’s Arkansas offense was obviously nothing to get excited about by and large they return most of their offense including quarterback Brandon Allen, their starting running back and tight end.
While Chaney can and will be multiple in his formations I expect Arkansas to lean heavily on the running game as they did last year. I do think they will try and be more balanced with running and passing but they have three very talented running backs and they often use two backs in the same formation. One back is more of a power runner and the other is more of a speed back.
At the same time though, Chaney doesn’t have a problem lining the offense up with four wide receivers and passing downfield. Conversely, one of Arkansas’s biggest question marks is probably the wide receiver position which will probably minimize the four wide receiver formations. A true play maker never really emerged last year at that position and one of Brandon Allen’s favorite targets will most certainly be tight end, Hunter Henry. The Razorback passing game will most likely consist of short passes with an occasional shot downfield off play action. Of course, all of that is dependent on their running game which can certainly be successful with a veteran offensive line and three very good running backs.
Obviously, this is a huge game for both Auburn and Arkansas. Auburn has the opportunity to get off to a fast start and Arkansas is looking for a little redemption. Arkansas’s running game is the center of their offense and if Auburn can contain their running backs the Razorback offense will be smothered because I doubt Brandon Allen can keep it moving with just his passing abilities even though Jim Chaney could call the plays to do just that. Even if Arkansas’s running backs have success Allen will still have to be much more efficient than last season and protect the football better than he did (13 interceptions last season).
Regardless of how you cut it, Auburn is currently more talented and has more depth at virtually every position. I have no doubt that Arkansas will be a better team than they were last year…at the very least they should be more consistent…but I also think Auburn will be improved as well. I fully expect Auburn’s running game to be the focus of the offense and Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are fully capable of taking on the burden left by Tre Mason. Auburn’s receivers could also have a big day if Nick Marshall has improved his passing accuracy at all and I have no doubt that Malzahn will take some shots downfield early in the game. Auburn’s fast paced offense could wear down the Razorback defense early and will likely be a big factor in the game.
Season openers against quality opponents are always a little tricky and strange things can happen. The time for speculating, talking and writing about it are over.
Today we find out how the defending SEC Champions respond to higher expectations and to teams that now have Auburn in their sights…
Auburn 35 – Arkansas 10
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