Auburn game hugely important to Razorbacks’ progress

Photo: Walt Beazley /

While the Arkansas Razorbacks enjoyed a break from competition last weekend with its lone open date of the season, the Southeastern Conference race became more focused, and from our current vantage point, it’s a familiar picture.

LSU and Alabama again lead the pack in the West and the rest of the SEC follows behind them. In the East, with or without quarterback Will Grier, Florida appears to be the class of its division. The Gators’ annual Cocktail Party at Jacksonville, Fla. against Georgia on Halloween appears to be the key to the Eastern Division title. Its winner has the inside track on the Eastern Division championship.

The SEC Western Division standings look closer on paper than they do on the field with The Crimson Tide, Texas A&M Aggies and Ole Miss Rebels all sitting at 3-1 behind the 4-0 Tigers of LSU.

With the way LSU’s schedule shakes out, we could be waiting until the final weekend of the regular season to find out exactly who the Western Division will send to the SEC title game in Atlanta on Dec. 5. However, at midseason LSU running back Leonard Fournette appears to be the trump card of all trump cards, and if he is not ,then Alabama’s defense probably is.

The outcome of the LSU-Alabama clash on Nov. 7 at Bryant-Denny will go a long way in deciding just who wins the West, and the West winner appears to have a great shot at earning a bid into the four-team College Football Playoff. As of yet, no team has derailed Fournette and the Tigers, but Alabama’s outstanding front seven has a better shot of keeping college football’s leading man in check as anyone.

The Crimson Tide’s five turnover slip-up at home to Ole Miss gives Alabama no more margin of error, but should Alabama defeat LSU in three weeks, the Tide, who plays host to Tennessee this weekend, has an easier home stretch than LSU, even though Alabama plays at Mississippi State and Auburn in their final two SEC games.

LSU, who plays host to Western Kentucky this weekend, welcomes Arkansas to Death Valley on Nov. 14, plays at Ole Miss and then hosts Texas A&M on its post-Alabama schedule. Any of those three games could be problematic for the Tigers, but if Fournette is healthy, LSU should have a distinct advantage.

What gives A&M and Ole Miss hope is the fact that neither LSU nor Alabama have playmakers at quarterback, and that fact will probably keep the SEC from collecting another national title this year. Alabama’s Jake Coker is improving game by game, but he still looks like an interception-waiting-to-happen. Likewise LSU’s Brandon Harris appears shaky. The effectiveness of the Tigers’ running game gives him easy throws, and his talented receiving corps makes him dangerous, but you get the feeling if the game falls on his back, he might not be able to hold it up.
Over the years, LSU generally plays well at Bryant-Denny Stadium, so playing on Alabama’s home turf won’t be that big of a deal for Tigers. However, with both teams having an open date leading into the showdown, the edge has to go to Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. As athletic as LSU is, the Tide can go toe to toe with them, and they probably have more depth. Fournette will gain yards on Alabama, but the Tide will stop him enough to put the onus on Harris, and I doubt that he will be able to deliver for LSU with the game in his lap.

If Alabama can keep Coker between the lines, I see the Crimson Tide defeating LSU and cleaning their regular-season plate to win the West again.

What does that have to do with Arkansas, who hosts Auburn at 11 a.m. Saturday? Not a great deal other than the Razorbacks travel to Baton Rouge, La. the Saturday after the LSU-Alabama tussle. Over the years, the Tigers have had a difficult time keeping their eyes on the prize after a loss. Maybe the Hogs could ambush LSU while the Tigers are still licking their wounds from the Alabama game?

It’s fun to speculate about stuff like that, but Arkansas has their hands more than full in trying to deal with Auburn this weekend. Neither team has lived up to preseason expectations. Both were overrated going into the season, and both sit at a disappointing 1-2 in SEC play.

The difference, though, is while Auburn struggled against Louisville, Jackson State and Kentucky, Gus Malzahn’s Tigers found a way to win those games, and as a result has a respectable 4-2 mark. On the other hand, the Razorbacks wasted opportunities against Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M, falling to a 2-4 record.

No doubt, Arkansas has faced the tougher schedule, but the Hogs’ greatest fault in the Bret Bielema era has been failing to seize the moment when it has presented itself. The Razorbacks have ended up on the wrong side of close game after close game.

Granted Arkansas’ 24-20 victory over Tennessee at Neyland Stadium may end up being a breakthrough for Bielema’s program. The Hogs held on to win a close game and did it on the road. But for that victory to be more than just a nice moment among the frustration, the Razorbacks must follow it up by executing in the clutch on a consistent basis.

Call them lucky if you want, but the Tigers have found ways to win despite their struggles this season. If the Razorbacks leave the door open for them on Saturday, the Tigers know how to leap through it.

Saturday’s game is meaningful for both programs and both coaches, who are drawing more and more criticism from their respective fan bases. Neither coach is on the “hot seat” yet, but both need to turn their seasons around or things will be unpleasant in the offseason.

That being said it’s bigger for Bielema and Arkansas for a variety of reasons. The most important being Arkansas’ tenuous bowl picture. The Razorbacks must win four of their remaining six games to be in the running for a bowl bid. Actually playing in a lower-tiered bowl game isn’t as important as what comes along with it.

The two ways Bielema and his staff can improve their team for the future is player development and improved recruiting. A bowl trip creates an avenue for both.

The Razorbacks desperately need the two to three weeks of additional practice time a bowl game offers a team to develop its players for next season. The Hogs also need the momentum consecutive bowl appearances create for recruiting. A bowl game helps paint a picture of success and progress as Bielema rebuilds the program. Bielema can sell that to recruits.

A loss to Auburn doesn’t destroy Arkansas’ chances of earning a bowl game, but it does make their margin of error ever so slim. It would mean the Razorbacks would have to upset a top-15 team — either LSU or Ole Miss — on the road to even have a chance of becoming bowl eligible.

There is also the personal rivalry that has developed between Bielema and Malzahn. I would have said it was more hype than substance until Bielema was quoted earlier in the year as saying that he ”hates” those guys in reference to Auburn’s coaching staff. Bielema’s comment could have been flippant, in jest, sarcastic, half-hearted or deadly serious. No matter how it was intended, it’s out there, and it’s a distraction — as slight as it may or may not be — that both programs will have to deal with to some degree or another.

If the Razorbacks win Saturday, it likely won’t be mentioned, but if the Hogs lose, it no doubt will be thrown in Bielema’s face once again, frustrating Arkansas fans even further.

So, while the Alabama-LSU game on Nov. 7 is the biggest SEC game yet to be played, for Arkansas, there is no bigger game than Saturday’s with Auburn.