Arkansas (0-0) at (6) Auburn (0-0) (ET)
GAME NOTES: The Arkansas Razorbacks and the sixth-ranked Auburn Tigers will be put to the test right out of the gate with a season-opening SEC bout at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Arkansas was able to drum up hope in Fayetteville early on in the 2013 campaign. The team opened the schedule with three straight victories at home, but it would not win another game, finishing up a mere 3-9, including 0-8 in the SEC.
The nine losses for the Razorbacks, six of which came against ranked teams, were the most in school history, and they failed to make a bowl game for the second straight year after qualifying for the postseason in 11 of the previous 14 seasons.
Meanwhile, Auburn (12-2, 7-1 SEC) experienced one of the most improbable worst-to-first turnarounds in college football history.
After a Sept. 21 loss to LSU (35-21), the squad responded to rip off nine straight victories, a few of them coming in miraculous fashion. Its 43-38 triumph over Georgia on Nov. 16 came thanks to a fourth-down Hail-Mary heave from Nick Marshall to Ricardo Louis with under a minute to play. The Tigers kept up with the theatrics in the Iron Bowl the following week, upending Alabama, 34-28, after the Crimson Tide's last-second field goal attempt was fielded by Chris Davis and returned the other way for the game-winning 100- yard touchdown.
Auburn's momentum carried right over into the SEC Championship Game, where it steamrolled Missouri, 59-42, but its magic ran out in the BCS National Championship Game with a 34-31 loss at the hands of Florida State.
Auburn leads the all-time series with Arkansas by a 12-10-1 count, which includes a 35-17 triumph in Fayetteville last November.
Unsurprisingly, the Razorbacks' offense failed to generate much success against its tough SEC competition, finishing the 2013 season averaging only 20.7 ppg and 357.2 ypg. There's some hope for improvement this season, however, as the squad returns seven starters on that side of the ball.
Brandon Allen's sophomore season under center was a struggle from start to finish. In 11 games, he completed less than 50 percent of his passes for 1,552 yards, throwing just 13 touchdowns paired with 10 interceptions. Despite Allen's uninspiring play, with three freshmen behind him on the depth chart, his status as QB1 is safe for the time being.
Undoubtedly Arkansas' biggest strength comes in the backfield. Alex Collins (1,026 yards, four TDs) and Jonathan Williams (900 yards, four TDs) split the load last season to outstanding results, especially considering the poor quarterback play.
There's not much to rely on in terms of receiving options, with Keon Hatcher (27 receptions, 346 yards, two TDs) the most experienced of the bunch. Demetrius Wilson (6-3, 186), a senior, is expected to step into the starting lineup after using a medical redshirt last season, and sophomores Cody Hollister, Drew Morgan, Chris Saunders and Scotty Thurman will also get their chances to break out.
The stagnant offense clearly didn't do many favors for the defense a season ago, but the unit still failed to hold up its end of the bargain after allowing 30.8 ppg and 413.4 ypg.
One of the few bright spots for the unit was defensive end Trey Flowers, who racked up 13.5 TFL, 5.0 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception. As one of the best defensive lineman in the SEC, Flowers could have headed for greener pastures in the NFL last spring but opted to return for his senior season.
"I knew under Coach Bielema and the guys he put around him as far as the staff, we're taking this program to a winning season," Flowers said. "I understand what we've been through the last two years. From my freshman year having an 11-win season, I understand what it takes to win. (I wanted to) come back to be a leader and help my team win."
The Razorbacks also return their top two tacklers in safety Alan Turner (97 tackles, two INTs) and linebacker Braylon Mitchell (77 tackles). Add cornerback Tevin Mitchel (47 tackles, INT) and defensive tackle Darius Philon (9.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks) to the mix and the veteran unit should see a marked improvement in 2014.
The majority of Auburn's rousing offensive success last season (39.5 ppg, 501.3 ypg) came thanks to its top-ranked rushing offense, which racked up 328.3 ypg. In the absence of the NFL-bound Tre Mason, a Heisman finalist who rushed for a school-record 1,816 yards and an SEC-record 23 touchdowns a season ago, that number is sure to take a hit, but there's still plenty of talent in place moving forward.
In limited reps playing behind Mason, both Corey Grant (647 yards, 9.8 ypc, six TDs) and Cameron Artis-Payne (610 yards, 6.7 ypc, six TDs) displayed excellent explosion. It remains to be seen if either can be the bell cow that Mason was, but a split workload between the two could just as easily match what was lost.
At quarterback, Marshall returns looking to expound upon an outstanding 2013 season (59.4 completion percentage, 1,976 passing yards, 14 TDs, six INTs, 1,068 rushing yards, 12 TDs), but after being cited for marijuana possession in July, he will not start the opener. When, or if, he sees the field against Arkansas remains to be seen.
"I've decided that (he) will not start game one," Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn said of his signal callers's punishment. "Jeremy Johnson was going to have a bigger role regardless this year. We've talked about him and his ability and how we feel about him, (but) I will say this: Nick Marshall is still our quarterback."
Auburn doesn't rely too heavily on production out wide, but it still has the good fortune of welcoming back big-play receiver Sammie Coates (902 yards, seven TDs), who's 21.5 yards-per-catch last season was tops in the nation among players with at least 40 receptions.
Clearly overshadowed by the offense's production, Auburn's defense ranked in the middle of the pack in the SEC in terms of points allowed (24.7 ppg), and its total defense (420.7 ypg) was the conference's third worst. Still, the unit was good enough when it needed to be and returns seven starters this season.
Cassanova McKinzy returns as the leading tackler after tallying 75 stops and 8.0 TFL, while starting all 14 games. Also returning to the linebacking corps is Kris Frost (59 tackles, 6.0 TFL, two FF).
The secondary remains largely intact as well, led by playmaking safety Robenson Therezie (57 tackles, four INTs). Jonathan Mincy (56 tackles, INT) broke up 14 passes a year ago, and Jermaine Whitehead (65 tackles, two INTs) gives the team three senior leaders to rely on in the defensive backfield.
The pass rush could take a hit without Dee Ford (14.5 TFL, 10.5 sacks), as Gabe Wright (8.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) and LaDarius Owens (5.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks) are the only experienced defensive linemen remaining.
After such a disastrous campaign in 2013, Arkansas must see considerable improvement this year if Brett Bielema hopes to keep his job, but the team still appears to be well behind the curve in the potent SEC Western Division. Auburn's quest as repeat conference championship should get off to an easy start in this one, even with Marshall starting the game on the bench.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Auburn 41, Arkansas 21