Saturday will go a long way in determining Bret Bielema's future in Fayetteville.
I don't want to overstate it and suggest Bret Bielema will be on the hot seat with a loss, but a portion of the fanbase will turn on him, possibly for good, if a limping Auburn team comes into Fayetteville and knocks off the Hogs after a bye week.
For a bowl game, this is a must-win. The Hogs need victories over all remaining home opponents: Auburn, UT-Martin, MIssissippi State, and Missouri unless they pull off a road upset over Ole Miss or LSU. That's actually not that difficult of a task, given that all of these teams have disappointed to some degree (or are UT-Martin).
The other good news is that Arkansas doesn't face any more Air Raid offenses. The remaining matchups will allow Arkansas' improving defense to assert itself even more. The hope is that Arkansas can reach late 2014 levels in defensive performance, but even that won't be necessary to get to a bowl.
The gloves have come off this week for S&P+ rankings, as all preseason weights have been removed. No team has fallen farther from preseason expectations than Auburn, which has fallen more than 40 spots over the last two weeks, despite a bye week and a road win, as the last preseason weights were removed. Arkansas has fallen 22 spots (from 12th) overall, with most of that coming in the last two weeks also.
So what's wrong with the Tigers? Quite a bit, actually. We'll get to specifics in a moment, but the basic problems are these: their quarterback didn't pan out, and they are incredibly weak at the point of attack, especially on defense. The assumption was that Will Muschamp would fix the second problem, but that hasn't materialized, and statistically Auburn has the worst front seven Arkansas has faced this season.... worse than UTEP, even.
Arkansas' Offense vs. Auburn's Defense
I've added some color-coding to the advantages column. Light coloring indicates a slight advantage (25-74 spots), and dark coloring indicates a major advantage (75+ spots).
With Auburn, we see the weakness at the point of attack. A fast back seven keeps Auburn from giving up too many big plays (their only saving grace defensively), but wow, they cannot stop teams from methodically driving. That success rate is the worst Arkansas has faced this season, and Auburn's overall defensive S&P+ is roughly equal to UTEP's. Obviously, I don't expect Arkansas to move with the same kind of ease, but it gives you an idea of how underwhelming Auburn is.
We'll get back to Auburn's defense in a second. These stats also show why Arkansas' offense is so good at moving the football, but so bad at scoring. First is field position. The Hog defense has come along slowly, and a bend-don't-break approach usually means the defense is ceding field position on each drive, even if it gets the stop.
The big stat is finishing drives. The actual stat used for that is points per scoring opportunity, where a "scoring opportunity" is defined as any drive that includes a first down inside the opponent's 40-yard-line. Arkansas is especially bad in the red zone, where the offense tends to break down and field goals are no sure thing. What ends up happening is that the Hogs start deep in their own territory, drive the length of the field impressively, and then bog down in the red zone and end up attempting (and missing, or faking) too many field goals.
Even worse for this is the fact that Auburn seems equipped to force Arkansas into that kind of game. The Tigers usually move the ball a little bit on offense and tend to stiffen up defensively with their backs against the goal line. There's a chance we could see a frustrating game in which Arkansas rolls up 500 yards but has trouble bringing the scoreboard to match.
For a counter-argument, check out these numbers:
This is the nexus of Arkansas' offensive success, and Auburn's defensive struggles. The first stat, line yards, is opponent-adjusted, and the bottom three are raw.
Let's run through what these stats are. They all measure how well a team's offensive and defensive lines perform:
- Line Yards, or Adjusted Line Yards per Carry, measures how well the line opens up holes in the running game (or defensively, how well they don't allow holes to open). Line yards are measured by simply looking at running plays and capping all runs at six yards. The assumption is that the line is only responsible for the first six yards or so, and that yards gained afterwards (for example, the final 26 yards of a 32-yard run) are more due to the running back's open-field ability and downfield blocking than to the offensive line. This keeps massive 80-yard runs from skewing stats about how often the back actually had running room. Again, this stat is adjusted for opponent strength, which is why it's decent for Auburn.
- Opportunity Rate is the percentage of rushing attempts that gain at least five yards. This stat complements line yards in that in order for an explosive back who is good in the open field to break a big run, he has to first have the "opportunity." This stat is important for teams like Oregon or Ohio State that rely on using hurry-up to break off big runs. A low opportunity rate indicates a lower chance of breaking a big run. As you can see, this is Arkansas' main weakness in the run game.
- Stuff Rate is the percentage of rushing attempts in which the back is hit (but not necessarily tackled) in the backfield. Alabama hit Alex Collins on about 50 percent of attempts. As you can see, don't expect Auburn to replicate that performance.
- Sack Rate is the percentage of quarterback dropbacks that end in a sack. Brandon Allen was sacked three times against Alabama. Again, don't expect Auburn to pull that off.
Overall, these numbers show how weak Auburn is up front. They get gashed in the running game and struggle to force negative plays. This causes their back seven to play on their heels at all times, which plays right into what Arkansas wants to do.
As long as Arkansas sticks with the running game, there is absolutely no reason to the believe the Hogs won't roll over the Tigers with ease. This is the kind of game in which Arkansas should post nearly 300 rushing yards.
I can't figure this one out. Arkansas headed into the Alabama game ranked #1 in the nation in Passing S&P+, and after a dismal performance fell all the way to.... #2. Alabama was then so impressive against Texas A&M (three pick-sixes will do that) that the Tide's defense got such a boost that it caused Arkansas to go right back up. Again, the fact that Arkansas doesn't give up many sacks is helping, since sacks and scrambles are counted as passing plays.
We see in these numbers a big key here: as tempting as it is to try and get Dominique Reed involved by throwing deep, don't do it. Stopping big plays in the passing game is pretty much the only thing Auburn does well.
Look at Auburn's season so far. Against Louisville, the Cardinals rushed for 238 yards at 5.0 yards per carry, but Bobby Petrino's signature downfield passing attack fizzled, and Louisville's quarterbacks combined to go 17 of 33 for 167 yards (under 10 yards per completion). Jacksonville State threw for 277 yards on mostly short passes. LSU rushed for 411 yards at 8.6 yards per carry, and Mississippi State's Dak Prescott averaged less than 10 yards per completion, but threw for 270 yards.
The keys are pretty simple. Establish the run, keep running the ball, and keep the defense honest with safe, short passes off play-action. Get the tight ends involved. Find Drew Morgan on crossing routes. These are things Arkansas already does well, but if they get greedy, the offense could play right into Auburn's hands.
Auburn's Offense vs. Arkansas' Defense
Arkansas' defense has had similar problems to Auburn's, except less pronounced (and without the talent in the secondary). The Hogs allow opponents to move the ball with ease, but generally do other things well.
Auburn's offense is horribly un-explosive (126th out of 128 teams in isoPPP) and is totally reliant on long drives. Penalties and negatives plays kill Tiger drives. After searching for a quarterback following Jeremy Johnson's rapid fall from grace, they've settled on Sean White. White is a better pure passer than Johnson, but isn't a runner, so Auburn's offense isn't really dynamic. It's not fast, either: the Tigers are 101st in adjusted pace, although that is skewed by the high volume of running plays (77 percent on standard downs, much higher than Arkansas) that milk the clock. They still do go hurry-up some, but this offense is not very exciting to watch.
Arkansas' defensive line has improved after a rough start to the year. The Hogs put the clamp on Alabama's running game, earning a nice boost in their adjusted line yards ranking. Auburn's line is very mediocre, but the way their running plays are designed makes it hard to hit their backs in the backfield.
These numbers don't line up well for Auburn, whose offense is dependent on the run. The Hogs are getting better, but I don't expect Auburn's rushing attack led by Peyton Barber to be shut down entirely.
Arkansas' awful pass defense has held back solid performances against the run (namely Alabama). Auburn's Sean White is improving, so this could be a concern if Auburn is able to stay in manageable down-and-distance situations. Gus Malzahn will likely give his quarterback easy throws in a hostile road environment, but that's the problem: Arkansas hasn't stopped the easy throws all year.
Keys to the Game
- Play Hog football. Arkansas football is establish the run, hit 'em in the mouth, and use safe play-action passes to keep them from overstacking the box. Don't get greedy. Alex Collins, Rawleigh Williams, Drew Morgan, or Hunter Henry need to have the ball on about 90 percent of plays. I'd love to work on the deep passing game with Dominique Reed... next week against UT-Martin. This isn't the matchup for that.
- Disrupt the quarterback. The dormant Arkansas defensive front asserted itself in the second half of the Tennessee game and carried that over to the Alabama game. The stronger the defense gets, the less risks the offense has to take, which would really help in this game. For Auburn, their offense is dead in the water if the passing game can't complement the run. Arkansas will probably slow but not totally stop the run, so keeping the passing game inconsistent will kill alot of Auburn drives. Also worth considering: with Duke Williams off the Auburn team, the Tiger receivers aren't great down the field, and White isn't a good downfield passer. Playing tighter coverage on the receivers could be a risk worth taking.
- Avoid penalties and special teams disasters. After two good games on the penalty front, it would not at all surprise me if Arkansas came out and false-started 10 times. That's not the recipe for success. Also, please don't fake any kicks.