In preparation for Saturday’s season-opener between Arkansas and Auburn, Saturday Down South is taking a look at the key matchups that may decide the showdown between the Razorbacks and Tigers.

Arkansas defense vs. Auburn running game

For Arkansas, having to play its first-ever season-opening SEC game is no easy task, but facing the defending SEC Championship on the road to open your season…that’s just not fair. Whether they like it or not, head coach Bret Bielema needs to have his team – who went 3-9 last season – ready to compete in the raucous environment of Jordan-Hare.

Based off of last year’s stats, the greatest discrepancy between Arkansas and Auburn – besides wins – is Arkansas’ run defense and Auburn’s running attack. The Razorbacks ranked 11th in the SEC, allowing 178.4 rushing yards per game. For Auburn, running the football out of Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense was the biggest key to their success. The Tigers led the nation in running last season with 328.3 rushing yards per game.

Their offense isn’t overly complicated, though it may seem like it with all of the options they run. Malzahn’s offense is predicated out of a power run game, more so than in your typical spread. Here’s what current Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who has faced Malzahn three times in the past, had to say about his offense.

“The first couple of times I ever coached against him, I thought it was going to be one of these fast-paced, dink-and-dunk offenses,” said Johnson in an interview with ESPN.

Johnson said once Cam Newton left after 2010, you had an idea of what Malzahn was really all about.

“But even the next year when the talent dropped off some and they couldn’t run the quarterback, you started to figure out what he is,” Johnson added. “He’s a hard-nosed, physical running-game guy and then throws play-action. “He’s not what most people look at and say, ‘Spread.’”

The Arkansas’ front seven will primarily see power and counter power from the Auburn running attack. It will be essential for Arkansas to win the line of scrimmage, which is easier said than done. Auburn’s offensive linemen will have a combined 98 starts heading into the season.

Players like Darius Philon, Bijhon Jackson, Trey Flowers and others on the line will need to get penetration at the line of scrimmage. If Auburn gets too much time to run through their options, it’ll force the Arkansas defense to wait and see where the football goes. By that point, you’re too far behind to keep Auburn contained.

Last year’s matchup against Auburn was a bit of a mixed bag for Arkansas. The defense held Malzahn’s offense to 233 rushing yards, the fourth-lowest amount for the Tigers last season. And when you think about the fact that Arkansas kept Auburn roughly 100 yards below their game average, that’s pretty encouraging. Tre’ Mason scored four times on the ground, but two of the touchdowns came off of Arkansas’ turnovers, putting Auburn on the Hogs’ side of the field to start those drives. However, Auburn reeled off three runs of 20 yards or more and won the game 35-17.

The key to Auburn’s offense is their unpredictability. Yes, it’s simple at its core, but the jet sweep and other options make it tough. Another way to take away that unpredictability in the run game will be for the corners to execute their coverage assignments.

The run game becomes exponentially more effective when the play action pass is working for Malzahn. Take away the play action pass and Arkansas will make it’s job of stopping Auburn’s running game that much easier and the matchup of Jared Collins and Carroll Washington against Sammie Coates and Duke Williams even more important.

Thankfully for Arkansas, they’ve theoretically had an entire offseason to prepare for Auburn’s attack and there’s no doubt defensive coordinator Robb Smith has analyzed anything and everything about how to stop their run game. Time will be on their side.

It is still no easy task, however. Auburn is full of speed, deception and experience on offense, so you can bet they’ll be ready to put up big rushing numbers against the Hogs come Saturday afternoon.