LITTLE ROCK — Auburn by 35-17 or 28-24 comes with unsolicited advice — don’t read too much into the margin.
Those two scores were lifted from seven predictions about halfway through the latest issue of Hawgs Illustrated. Ignored were Arkansas winning 27-24 and 31-27. If the Razorbacks prevail Saturday at Auburn, there will be reverberations across the country and I will join many others who reassess the Razorbacks’ place in the SEC and apologize for shortchanging Bret Bielema’s athletes.
Submitted to HI magazine more than two weeks ago, the Tigers by 18 was tacked onto a column about much-publicized Razorback openers from years gone by and Arkansas games most likely to be part of CBS’ telecast this year. Such material is now on the back burner and Arkansas-Auburn is the only thing that matters.
Maybe I am reading too much into Bielema’s quiet confidence prior to his recent speech to the Little Rock Touchdown Club, but given a do-over on the prediction, I would pick Auburn by 14 at the most. During his speech, I also consumed a bottled liquid that looked like water but might have been spiked with some clear Razorback Kool-Aid. It was, after all, provided by a radio station that bills itself as “Central Arkansas’ home of the Hogs.”
One question likely to be answered early on is how long Jeremy Johnson will be at quarterback in place of disciplined Nick Marshall. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn says those involved know the plan, but I suspect Marshall will be on the field after two or three possessions.
The Tigers might throw a little more with the sophomore taking the snaps than they will when the senior takes over. Marshall ran for more than 1,000 yards last year, much of that off the zone read and Malzahn might be reluctant to give Johnson carte blanche reading the option. Plus, Johnson is probably a better passer than Marshall, Malzahn will want to see for himself if the Arkansas secondary has improved under Clay Jennings as Bielema has proclaimed, and Auburn does have wide receiver Sammie Coates who averaged 21.5 yards per on 42 catches last year.
Whether Johnson or Marshall is the quarterback, Arkansas must corral Corey Grant, a different type of running back than Tre Mason who was so instrumental in Auburn’s run to the national championship game. If Grant bettered 4.2 in the 40 as reported, he can outrun every defensive back in the country.
The defense’s reaction to the run-first option game that is at the heart of Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense is one of more than a half-dozen items on a personal checklist.
• Stopping the option, which begins with discipline. That includes defensive backs who must help with the run, but can’t lose track of Coates in the process. Free-lancing will lead to a big play by Auburn.
• Whether linebackers Martrell Spaight, Braylon Mitchell and Brooks Ellis can get to the right spot on time and then complete the assignment by making tackles.
• Whether undersized nose tackle Taiwan Johnson (6-foot-3, 255 pounds) can hold his ground and disrupt some plays.
• How often tight ends Hunter Henry and A.J. Derby are in the game at the same time and whether that creates a mismatch against Auburn’s pass defense.
• Whether offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has Korliss Marshall on the field with Alex Collins or Jonathan Williams.
• Whether Demetrius Wilson or Greenwood’s Drew Morgan, neither of whom caught a pass last year, turns out to be a go-to receiver.
• Whether center Mitch Smothers and guard Luke Charpentier can help protect quarterback Brandon Allen.
Keeping tabs on Allen is far down my list because I believe he will make good decisions and avoid turnovers. If so, and the defense is better and the running game is as good as advertised, Arkansas will be competitive for at least three quarters.
With 15 minutes to play, Auburn leading by just 10-14 would not be a surprise.
Harry King is a sports columnist. His email is HLeonK42@gmail.com.