Aubserver Mailbag 145: What's the biggest key for Auburn at Arkansas?
This week: Jarquez Hunter, the defense's future, the program's direction, recruiting, basketball offense, Sioux Falls and Hibachi Express
QB Payton Thorne (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
A HOTEL NEAR THE ATLANTA AIRPORT — The last time Auburn football played Arkansas, the vibes were completely off.
Auburn lost to Arkansas in a home game in which it never truly threatened. Most of the interest on that Saturday had nothing to do with the action on the field. Instead, it was the news that John Cohen was about to become the next athletic director on the Plains.
You probably remember what happens next. Auburn fired Bryan Harsin two days later, before officially announcing Cohen. The house had been cleaned out. It was time for a full-fledged reset.
This time around, Auburn football isn’t drastically better than it was last season. But the vibes are a lot better, considering how much improvement the Tigers have made in recruiting. Back-to-back wins have given Auburn a chance for real-deal momentum heading into the Iron Bowl in a couple of weeks. The next win would seal a bowl game. Another win could give the Tigers their most regular-season victories since 2019.
Pair that with an Auburn men’s basketball program that looked improved — even in defeat — in its Tuesday night season opener in South Dakota, and you can say things are looking up for the two programs we cover here at The Observer.
And we’re covering them all around the country: Nashville last weekend, South Dakota this week, Arkansas this weekend and Brooklyn next week.
In this week’s mailbag, we preview Auburn at Arkansas on the gridiron, tackle some more big-picture football questions and share a bunch of thoughts about what could be a fun basketball season.
Thank you so much for supporting The Auburn Observer and making these cross-country treks possible. I hope you’re enjoying the stuff we get to put out from them.
What would you say the keys to Auburn winning their final road game of the regular season are? Besides the usual turnover and penalty issues road teams may have, what tendencies of the Hawg football team can Auburn's offense and defense take advantage of?
And what is Hugh Freeze's record at Arkansas all-time?
I’m not going to try to make things overly simplistic here, but it’s hard not to for a matchup like this: I think the key to this game is going to be who has the better game from its quarterback.
Shocking, I know.
But, let’s look at Auburn and Arkansas this season. Auburn went on a four-game losing streak, and all four of those games featured the opponent clearly having an edge over the Tigers at the most important position on the field. Then, over the last two weeks, Payton Thorne has played his two best games of the season — and Auburn has won comfortably twice. Sometimes, it’s just that easy.
How about K.J. Jefferson and Arkansas? A lot was expected of Jefferson and the Hogs this season, but they have struggled. He had three bad games against Texas A&M, Alabama and Mississippi State (all losses), an average performance against Ole Miss (loss) and two good showings against a pair of bad defenses in LSU (loss) and Florida (overtime victory).
Is Jefferson more like the quarterback from the first set of games or the latter two? The answer hasn’t been consistent, but getting rid of a weird fit of an offensive coordinator in Dan Enos before the Florida game seemed to help Jefferson and Rocket Sanders get back to their old ways. Then, again, it could just be the fact that Florida’s defense has been the worst in the SEC in conference games.
The path to success for Auburn against Travis Williams’ Arkansas defense seems to be more through the air than on the ground. The Hogs are statistically solid against the run but have the conference’s second-worst pass defense in yards allowed per pass attempt (7.9). LSU, Texas A&M, Alabama and Florida all had very efficient days through the air against Arkansas.
This is a good time for Thorne to be playing his best ball of the season. His adjusted completion percentages in each of the last two games are among the best we’ve seen for Auburn against SEC defenses in a long time. The receivers and tight ends, drops excluded, have been making more plays. Now he just has to finally do it in a true road test against an opponent that has a talented quarterback.
I’m not saying Thorne has to thoroughly out-duel Jefferson like he did with Mike Wright and Ken Seals. But Auburn can’t afford to have a disadvantage through the air away from home — not with the way the rushing attack has been boom-or-bust.
I like Auburn’s defense to get more stops on Arkansas than, say, LSU or Florida. The Hogs might get their yards, but I would expect the Tigers to still keep the score down against an offense that has struggled mightily against quality defenses this season.
A lot is going to have to come down to Thorne and the passing attack. Another good performance and a win here can build even more momentum for the rest of the season and the 2024 campaign. Taking a step back to the level of the losing streak would be a pretty frustrating turn for this team, even as a slight road underdog.
And, to answer your second question, Hugh Freeze is 3-3 all-time as a head coach against Arkansas. That includes a 21-19 upset win with Liberty in Fayetteville last season and a 30-27 win in Little Rock during his first season at Ole Miss in 2012.
Hunter needs 364 more yards to hit 1,000 on the season. Odds you think he hits it? What do you think breakdown of yards per remaining game would be for this to happen?
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