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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. Auburn

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The Hogs have a good chance to make it two SEC wins in a row

NCAA Football: Auburn at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Razorback football is fun again! After a huge win against Mississippi State, the Hogs are looking to keep the momentum rolling with a road game against Auburn.

I was curious to see how Vegas was going to set the line for this game, given how each team’s last game went. Arkansas opened as 16.5-point underdogs and +600 on the moneyline, meaning a $100 bet on the Hogs gets you a $600 profit if the Hogs pull through. That’s about the same as it was last week (+625).

The line’s already down to 14 points and the O/U has fallen all the way to 47. My EV+ model, using just two weeks of data, predicts Auburn 17, Arkansas 13. My model was 55% against the spread last year, but I didn’t start using it until teams had completed three FBS games, so I’m not sure how accurate it is at this point.

Meet the Tigers

Auburn is 1-1, beating Kentucky 29-13 in the opener but getting flattened by Georgia 27-6 in Athens last week. The Tigers were a preseason top 10 team thanks to a strong finish in 2019, a veteran defense, and the return of quarterback Bo Nix and his top two targets in the passing game. To jumpstart a mediocre offense, Malzahn hired former Hog coach Chad Morris to install a more pass-friendly version of Malzahn’s own scheme. As with many new offenses that didn’t get a spring practice, it’s off to a rough start.

All stats seen here and elsewhere are based on 2020 results alone, so expect them change significantly from week to week until we get deeper into the year. A total of 74 teams have played an FBS game now, so the rankings are out of 74 teams.

As you can see, the Hogs and Tigers offenses are inverses of each other, but equally bad. Auburn has some decent efficiency but can’t buy an explosive play. The Hogs are dreadfully inefficient but have survived with big plays in the pass game.

While Auburn’s offensive struggles are well-documented, the defense got flattened against Georgia. The Bulldogs rolled up more than 200 rushing yards and quarterback Stetson Bennett shredded an Auburn defense that lost star safety Smoke Monday to a targeting call early on. Georgia led 24-0 late in the second quarter and cruised in the second half.

But just like Mississippi State’s Week 1 offensive explosion proved to be a bit of a mirage, it’s too early in the season to call Auburn a bust. The Tigers still have a lot of talent and can prove more than the Razorbacks can handle if they can put it all together on both sides of the ball.

Scouting report

Strengths

  • Strong pass rush
  • Offense rarely turns the ball over or puts its defense in a bad position
  • Great team speed on both sides of the ball

Weaknesses

  • New offense looks out of sync
  • Offensive line got manhandled against Georgia
  • Defense has been merely decent so far

When Auburn has the ball

The Tigers have to get back on track after Nix was 21 of 40 for 177 yards and a pick and the run game did basically nothing (19 carries for 56 yards).

Meet the Malzahn offense

Last week it was the Air Raid, and this week it’s the homespun scheme of Gus Malzahn.

The Malzahn offense begins in Phillips County, Arkansas, where Malzahn was a defensive assistant at the now-closed Hughes High School in the 1990s. Malzahn read a book about the Wing-T, a misdirection-based option offense common at lower levels of high school football. Realizing that stopping the Wing-T required proper alignment, gap integrity, and lots of defensive communication, Malzahn reasoned that the defense would be at a massive disadvantage if the offense simply ran Wing-T plays really fast. He eventually drew up the Wing-T concepts from shotgun and the “hurry-up, no-huddle” offense was born.

A typical edge constraint play run by the 2005 Springdale Bulldogs

At Shiloh Christian and eventually Springdale High School, Malzahn discovered that the Wing-T’s simple passing concepts run at a rapid tempo were very difficult for high school defenses to stop. The 2005 Springdale team with Mitch Mustain, Damian Williams, and Ben Cleveland is often considered the best in Arkansas high school football history.

After a bizarre stint as Arkansas offensive coordinator in 2006, Malzahn took the next step forward in his offense as Tulsa offensive coordinator (2007-2008), where he learned more about Rich Rodriguez’s spread running concepts from former West Virginia assistant Herb Hand. By the time Malzahn got to Auburn in 2009, his offense was more run-heavy, finding that college defenses had trouble adjusting to a high-tempo run game.

The basic Wing-T idea of “backs go outside” paired nicely with making the quarterback an inside running threat, allowing Cam Newton to take the offense to a whole new level in 2010 as Auburn won the national title.

But Cam Newtons proved to be few and far between, and since Malzahn’s return to Auburn in 2013 as head coach, he’s had to learn to deal with defenses adjusting to his tempo. After three years of quarterback struggles (2014-2016), Malzahn landed Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham and began moving away from the run-heavy offense he originally brought to Auburn. The 2018 Auburn rushing attack collapsed to 93rd in PAN and 124th in marginal explosiveness. Auburn has survived for a few years now thanks to a ferocious defense coordinated by Kevin Steele.

To rethink his offense, Malzahn is going back to his roots with the hiring of Chad Morris as OC. Morris was influenced by Malzahn’s high school offense and added his own wrinkles, so it’s always been similar, but more pass-heavy. Malzahn is hoping Morris can do with Bo Nix what he did with Ben Hicks at SMU (no comment).

So far, it’s not working, although we’re just two games in and Georgia’s defense is crazy good. Auburn is only moderately efficient but is dealing with a total inability to generate explosive plays. As we saw at Arkansas, Morris’s offense de-emphasizes the run game and puts a lot on the quarterback’s shoulders. The Tigers have been awful on standard downs and, given the competition, decent on passing downs. A lack of big plays, primarily in the run game, as been their biggest issue.

The Tigers don’t run it much, but you can expect them to be fairly efficient on the ground. They are 5th in marginal efficiency because they did better against Georgia’s elite run defense than Arkansas did; in raw stats, they are 23rd in rushing success rate. Explosiveness on the ground has been almost nonexistent through two games.

Shaun Shivers is the track star who runs the outside misdirection concepts, but he was banged up against Georgia, so freshman five-star recruit Tank Bigsby has carried the load so far. As you can see, backs aren’t getting many carries. “Tank” is an appropriate name for Bigsby, as he has a 50% success rate but no explosiveness whatsoever.

Based on the latest reports, Shivers remains questionable for Saturday, so expect more Bigsby.

Nix isn’t much a scrambler but will carry the ball on designed runs. And it’s good to see that Morris brought the most useless play in his playbook with him to Auburn:

I still have no idea why he does this. Has it ever worked?

Most of Auburn’s run plays against Georgia were pretty familiar, like this classic Malzahn inside run with misdirection:

The motion here is just window-dressing for a basic inside run play. If the linebacker flows with the motion, this can be a big run.

Nix is… decent. He was the 2019 SEC Freshman of the Year, and while his stats are pedestrian, there’s a lot he does well. First, he doesn’t turn it over. He threw just six picks last year, including zero in the last five games. Georgia finally picked him off for the first time this year in the second half.

He also doesn’t take many sacks. Auburn’s marginal sack rate is mediocre (38th) but to anyone watching, the Tiger offensive line looks really bad at pass protection. The discrepancy is due to Nix’s deceptive mobility. He doesn’t scramble often, but he can move around to escape rushers.

However, his escapability sometimes makes him too willing to run. Kirk Herbstreit pointed out that Nix had no reason to abandon the pocket on this play:

In theory, Nix can be rattled by a defense that gets a sustained rush on him. That’s what Georgia did.

Nix has good accuracy on short and medium throws. He is not accurate on deep shots. According to ProFootballFocus, on attempts that traveled 10+ yards against Georgia, he completed just 3 of 18 passes with an interception.

And I mentioned Auburn’s pass blocking woes. Georgia got pressure on Nix on 22 of his 43 dropbacks. On most of them, the Bulldogs rushed only four. Nix was 6 of 19 passing with two sacks and an interception when pressured. So the “pressure straight up the middle” strategy that the Hogs employed against Mississippi State is still in play. The coverage will obviously look a little different. Georgia played almost exclusively press man against Auburn, and I’m not sure the Hogs are ready to do that with the secondary. I’m interested to see how the Hogs scheme this up.

Auburn’s receivers have pretty strict roles. Seth Williams is the possession split end – comparable to George Pickens of Georgia in terms of play style – and he’s the biggest threat to stretch the field vertically. Anthony Schwartz is the flanker with world-class speed. Auburn will use him to stretch the field horizontally, but attempts to use him to take the top off the defense have failed so far. And… that’s about it. Auburn hasn’t found anyone else to help in the pass game. Eli Stove is a fast slot receiver who has been inconsistent over his career, and the Tigers also have a 300-pound tight end who has one career catch.

There’s more bad news for Auburn, as both Williams and Stove are questionable for Saturday. Stove has been injured and Williams was hurt in the second half. Without Williams, Auburn’s offense loses most of its downfield threat.

Watching film, it appears that Morris’ favorite passing concept — seam-curl — has made it to the Plains. Auburn ran it several times in both games. The slot receiver (Schwartz or Stove) runs a seam route to take out the safety, while the outside receiver (Williams) runs a deep curl (Morris loved this with Trey Knox last year). A running back is usually releasing to the flat to hold the underneath coverage. If the defense is in man or quarters (which the Hogs ran a lot of against Georgia), then the curl may look more like a comeback route, as Georgia shows here on this touchdown to George Pickens:

The seam-comeback is sometimes known as a “pole concept”

This is tough for the cornerback to defend, and Williams is a threat to do exactly what Pickens did here. The big question will be whether Nix can do what Bennett did and move to his left and then set his feet before making the throw, as that’s been an issue.

As with Mississippi State, the key on the short stuff is to keep everything in front and not miss tackles. Auburn presents a different challenge because they will run the ball... but not much. As shown above, they are 69th of 74 teams in standard downs run rate, running on just 45% of standard downs (Mississippi State is at 27%, ranking 74th of 74). I don’t think they’ll make much effort to test the interior of the Razorback run defense, as their line is not great and the Hogs’ defensive tackles have played too well so far. I do think they’ll test the edge, which will be a new challenge for Barry Odom’s unit. It will be interesting to see what the Hogs come up with.

When Arkansas has the ball

The expectation was that Auburn would have an elite defense that would carry them as Nix continued to develop. So far, the results aren’t amazing. They held Kentucky to just 13 points, but gave up nearly 400 yards of offense in the process. Then Georgia body-slammed them last week, rolling up 442 total yards despite going conservative in the second half.

So the numbers aren’t great, though I’ll guarantee you the Tiger defense is better than this. Like Arkansas’ defense, Auburn is quite good on standard downs, forcing a lot of sequences to reach third down. They’ve forced 34 third downs in two games. That’s great! Here’s the bad news for Auburn: Kentucky and Georgia converted a combined 21 of 34 third downs against the Tigers. That leaves Auburn 70th of 74 in marginal third down conversion percentage, with opponents converting 16.5% more third downs that they should given the average distance.

That puts a lot of pressure on Feleipe Franks to keep the chains moving for the Hogs.

Auburn’s solid pass rush is the only thing keeping the pass defense afloat at this point. The Tigers have been shockingly victimized by big plays in the passing game. As I mentioned earlier, they lost defensive captain Smoke Monday to targeting after one possession against Georgia, so that almost certainly played a role in Stetson Bennett’s big game through the air.

Meanwhile, the Hogs simply have to run the ball better. Right now, Arkansas is the fifth-worst running team in the nation and ranks third-to-last in marginal opportunity rate. Auburn’s defense is quite good at limiting big runs although it’s merely mediocre at disrupting the run game. Rakeem Boyd usually feasts on big runs but the Hogs will settle for efficiency. Anything to help out Franks and the passing game.

Linebacker K.J. Britt, Auburn’s leading tackler, is unlikely to play after being injured against Georgia. Britt is fifth in the SEC in tackles (Bumper Pool and Grant Morgan are 1st and 2nd). Monday in the secondary and defensive tackle DaQuan Newkirk are other defenders to watch. Newkirk is a 320-pound defensive tackle who already has 11 tackles and a sack this year.

Keys to the Game

  1. Set the edge. Against a Malzahn offense — even one coordinated by Chad Morris — setting the edge against the run (and edge constraint plays like swing passes) is the top defensive priority. If Auburn can’t get the edge, then Bo Nix will be forced to attack downfield, which is not his strength.
  2. No blown assignments. There were fewer “not knowing the playbook” issues on offense against MSU than there were against Georgia, but the Hogs are still wasting too many offensive snaps on plays where somebody does something wrong. The De’Vion Warren fumble was a clear miscommunication and almost cost the Hogs, while a failed shovel pass in the second quarter ended a drive. Arkansas’ offense isn’t good enough to waste plays on individual mistakes.
  3. Attack downfield. The Hogs gashed Mississippi State with several big passing plays, and that’s clearly going to be a feature of the offense. The return of Treylon Burks should help open up some of the apparent weaknesses in the Auburn secondary.