Pregame analysis of Auburn vs. Florida on Saturday:
What: Auburn Tigers (5-1, 2-1 SEC) at Arkansas Razorbacks (2-4, 0-3)
When: Saturday, 11 a.m. Central
Rankings: Auburn is No. 11 in both the Associated Press and coaches polls. The Razorbacks are unranked.
Where: Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville, Ark.
Line: Auburn by 19
TV/Radio: TV: SEC Network; Radio: WTDR-FM, 92.7 (Oxford), WMSP-AM 740 (Montgomery), SiriusXM 190 (Streaming 961)
Three things Auburn must do
1. Get Bo Nix comfortable playing on the road.
This is a big reason this game shouldn’t be overlooked. Auburn may not need a huge performance from its true freshman quarterback to win at Arkansas, but it will the next week if it has any hope of keeping up with LSU.
Nix has not been particularly good away from Jordan-Hare Stadium. He led the game-winning drive in a neutral-site win over Oregon, but he completed only 13 of 31 passes for 177 yards in that game. The Tigers won 28-20 at Texas A&M, but Nix finished that game just 11-of-20 for 100 yards. He’s coming off the worst game of his career at Florida, when he completed 11 of 27 passes for 147 yards, threw three interceptions and took a 22-yard loss on a sack.
And that was coming off the best game of his career, a 16-of-21, 335-yard, two-touchdown outburst in a rout of Mississippi State. But that game was at home, and for Nix, that has made a significant difference through the first six games of his career.
—Home (Tulane, Kent State, Mississippi State): 47-74 (63.5%), 703 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT
—Road/neutral (Oregon, Texas A&M, Florida): 36-78 (46.2%), 422 yards, 4 TD, 5 INT
The game in Gainesville was a wake-up call for Gus Malzahn, who said he wants to put Nix in “better situations” moving forward — a simplified game plan consisting of the plays he’s most comfortable running, and more “snap plays” so that the freshman doesn’t have to try to relay checks over crowd noise. Getting a run game that will be without injured leader JaTarvious Whitlow going would help, too.
The Razorbacks won’t provide anywhere near the same test Florida or even Texas A&M did — they’re allowing 224.5 passing yards and nearly two passing touchdowns per game, and they average only 57,565 fans a home game — but they could provide some momentum if Nix is able to have a good game against them.
2. Let Will Hastings have a happy homecoming.
Speaking of Hastings, did you know he’s from Arkansas? He came to Auburn from Pulaski Academy in Little Rock a little more than four years ago as a walk-on trick kicker. Now, he’s a senior wide receiver with 21 career receptions for 260 yards and a pair of touchdowns getting ready to play in his home state for the last time.
“It's always special when I get to go back home,” Hastings said. “I got a lot of friends back home that were up in the stands, so it was cool being able to go out there and doing what you love and being able to play.”
Auburn would do well to try to get the ball to Hastings on Saturday. He’s averaging 16.2 yards per reception this season, but he caught only one pass for 13 yards at Florida. Same goes for fellow wide receiver Anthony Schwartz, who is averaging 18.8 yards per touch but carried only once for minus-4 yards in his own homecoming two weeks ago.
The Tigers rank 49th nationally with 31 plays of 20 or more yards and 78th with five plays of 40 or more yards through six games this season. They had only two — completions of 32 and 46 yards from Nix to Seth Williams — during the loss at Florida.
They’re looking for a few more explosive plays against the Razorbacks, who rank 89th nationally having given up 31 plays of 20 or more yards this season. Hastings is one of the players who could help with that in his home state.
“When we do that, we’re a good offense. When we don’t, we’re average,” Malzahn said. “That’s been an emphasis, not just run game but the passing game. However you get them. Hopefully that’ll continue. We did a solid job of that up until our last game, and we need to get back to explosive plays.”
3. End the interception drought.
Creating takeaways is largely a function of luck. A defensive player can do everything right on a play, but for that play to result in a turnover, the offense must do something wrong — not hold onto the ball or throw the ball to a spot where it can be intercepted.
And Auburn hasn’t had much luck in the latter area. It hasn’t intercepted a pass since Jeremiah Dinson picked off Tulane quarterback Justin McMillan in Week 2. The Tigers are one of only four FBS teams tied for last nationally in that category. They’ve had more chances; they just haven’t come up with the ball.
A game against Arkansas might help. Quarterbacks Nick Starkel and Ben Hicks are completing just 56.1 percent of their passes this season. Only one team in the SEC (Tennessee) has thrown more than their seven interceptions this season.”
And, like Nix, the secondary could use a good game before going to Baton Rouge. Auburn ranks 13th out of 14 SEC teams allowing 279.3 passing yards per game against conference opponents and has allowed 799 yards and six touchdowns over its last three games. LSU’s Joe Burrow ranks second nationally averaging 359.5 passing yards and more than four touchdowns per game.
This is a game that Auburn should win. Arkansas’ only two victories this season have come against Portland State and Colorado State. It lost to San Jose State four weeks ago and blew a 13-0 lead in a 24-20 loss at Kentucky last week. There’s a reason the Razorbacks are a nearly 20-point underdog.
Auburn 41, Arkansas 13