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Arkansas faces tall task as it seeks second straight Top-25 win

Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire

When the press unveiled its annual preseason predictions at SEC Media Days this summer, the Arkansas Razorbacks and Auburn Tigers were not exactly held in high regard.

Arkansas was slated to finish fifth in the SEC West, followed immediately by Auburn at sixth. Mississippi State, who had just lost its sole reason for semi-relevance (quarterback Dak Prescott), was the only team picked to finish worse in the division. Of 331 media members polled, nobody predicted the Tigers to finish first in the West — and one homerific, or trolling, individual tabbed the Razorbacks as preseason division champs.

As week eight of the college football season arrives, these teams have made fools of preseason prognosticators. No, they are not making Alabama head coach Nick Saban sweat as he gears up for a run at his fifth national title in eight years, but they are far from the afterthoughts they were presumed to be.

When Arkansas and Auburn meet this Saturday, they will enter the contest sitting at No. 17 and No. 22, respectively, in the AP Top 25.

The Razorbacks are seeking their second consecutive victory over a ranked opponent after coming back to defeat Ole Miss in a 34-30 thriller last week. They face a difficult task, as they head on the road for a showdown with an Auburn team that is riding a three-game winning streak since dropping its conference opener to Texas A&M on Sept. 17.

Arkansas, despite displaying pass-heavy tendencies this season, will lean on sophomore running back Rawleigh Williams III to carry the team offensively. Williams leads the SEC and ranks eighth nationally with 785 rushing yards, setting the table for the Razorbacks to feature a 1,000-yard rusher for the fourth consecutive year. Finding a groove in the running game will be crucial against the Tigers; defensive end Carl Lawson gives Auburn a constant pass rushing threat.

Quarterback Austin Allen has proved he can put up points, having passed for three touchdowns in each of the past three games, but he will need to improve his accuracy after completing just 55 percent of his passes during his last two outings.

Defensively, Arkansas will have its hands full with an offense that has been remarkably efficient as of late. The rise of sophomore quarterback Sean White, who is completing 73.9 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and one interception since a forgettable season opener against Clemson, is the primary reason why.

Matchup to watch: Arkansas pass rush vs. Auburn offensive line

Carl Lawson is the only household name among pass rushers in this game, but it would be unwise to overlook the Arkansas defensive front. Led by senior defensive linemen Deatrich Wise Jr. and Jeremiah Ledbetter, the Razorbacks have racked up 15 sacks on the season. Against a suspect Auburn offensive line, they could be in position to feast this weekend.

The Tigers allow an average of 2.5 sacks per game, good for 88th out of 128 FBS schools. While one could argue that allowing three sacks in the past two games is a sign of improvement, it is more likely an indictment of the Louisiana-Monroe and Mississippi State defenses.

Saturday will be the first time that Sean White has faced a formidable pass rush since Sept. 24. If he gets rattled, which has not happened often this year, it will be a game-changer for Arkansas.

Prediction

Arkansas enters Saturday as a significant underdog, and it makes sense. Auburn has one of the most notable home-field advantages in college football, and the team currently has an abundance of momentum at its back. The Razorbacks have matchups they can exploit, but it will take a near-flawless effort in all phases to escape Jordan-Hare Stadium victorious.

Final score: Auburn 28, Arkansas 24

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