Auburn goes into the second half of its season on a much more optimistic note after closing out the first half on a three-game winning streak.
The 21st-ranked Tigers (4-2, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) are coming off a bye week, and now they face key challenges starting Saturday, when No. 17 Arkansas (5-2, 1-2) visits the Loveliest Village on the Plains. Kickoff at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn is set for 6 p.m. ET (ESPN).
The next week, the Tigers go to No. 23 Ole Miss.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn credits a resurgence in the offense to the bounce-back by his team, which lost two of its first three games to a pair of highly ranked teams, Clemson and Texas A&M.
Quarterback Sean White, an accurate passer, is beginning to play with more confidence, senior receiver Tony Stephens is stepping up his game, and Kamryn Pettway is joining with starter Kerryon Johnson to give the Tigers a one-two punch at running back.
Pettway was particularly key in a 38-14 win over Mississippi State in Auburn's last outing after Johnson went out with an ankle injury. A sophomore, Pettway responded with a career-high 169 yards rushing against the Bulldogs. Johnson is expected back for the game against Arkansas.
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee took over play-calling from Malzahn during the winning streak and went back to a run-first mentality. Lashlee noted that even with an emphasis on the running game behind Johnson and Pettway, the Tigers haven't forgotten how to pass and are capable of throwing it more than the 18 times they did against Mississippi State.
“That time is coming,” he said.
Auburn's defense has been pretty solid all year, giving up only 10 touchdowns in all. Four of those scores came long after the issue was already decided in Auburn's favor.
“The truth of the matter is, I think every player you coach wants to be able to look at something and say, 'You know what, we're doing this pretty well and we're getting better, we're making progress and we got a lot of ways that we can improve,'” first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said. “We've done a really nice job, but how can we make it better?”
Arkansas is coming off its first SEC win of the season after holding on for a 34-30 victory over Ole Miss. The Razorbacks lost two of their previous three outings, sandwiching a rout of Alcorn State in between losses to SEC West leaders Texas A&M and Alabama.
“You have to keep it in perspective,” Hogs coach Bret Bielema said. “I told those guys on Sunday, you lost to two teams that are undefeated, might be the two best teams in college football. Keep in perspective where we are, keep working, keep grinding, and someday we'll be there.”
The win over the Rebels, secured when defensive back Santos Ramirez's hit on Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly forced Kelly to cough up the football on the Rebels' final drive, did help bring restore some confidence to a team that was disappointed it didn't have enough to upset the No. 1 Crimson Tide the previous week.
“I thought our guys really rebounded well,” Bielema said. “I've always said with high expectations comes a high price when you don't reach those things. Our guys responded really well.”
Junior quarterback Austin Allen continued his solid play in his first season as a starter by completing 19 of 32 passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns and sophomore running back Rawleigh Williams III rushed for 180 yards on just 27 carries against the Rebels.
The Auburn-Arkansas series has been closely competitive since the Razorbacks joined the SEC in 1992 with Auburn holding a slight 12-11-1 edge since then. The only other time they met was in the 1984 Liberty Bowl, won by Auburn 21-15.
In the 25 meetings overall, Auburn has outscored Arkansas by just 633-629, though 11 of the past 15 meetings were decided by 17 points or more. Last year it took four overtimes before the Razorbacks escaped with a 54-46 win after the teams finished regulation deadlocked at 24-24.