Hogs, Tigers struggling to avoid SEC West cellar

Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen is helped up after being hit by Dee Ford of the Auburn Tigers at Razorback Stadium on Nov. 2, 2013 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The Tigers defeated the Razorbacks 35-17.

The outcome of Saturday’s 11 a.m. contest between the Arkansas Razorbacks (2-4, 1-2 SEC) and Auburn Tigers (4-2, 1-2 SEC) may be unimportant to the rest of the nation, but the game couldn’t be more meaningful to the two programs.

Since Bret Bielema took over at Arkansas and Gus Malzahn at Auburn three seasons ago, the programs have been at odds philosophically. Malzahn is the maestro of up-tempo, no-huddle football, while Bielema is the trench master of what he has called “normal American football.”

Malzahn wrote the book on his offense while still coaching at Shiloh Christian School, and Bielema subscribes to a tried-and-true style of football passed down from his college football mentors Hayden Fry of Iowa and Bill Snyder of Kansas State.

Their contrasting styles will be on in full display Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium and for SEC Network viewers in a game both squads need to win in order to crawl out of the SEC Western Division cellar find a bit of traction as the second half of the season begins to unfold.

Neither team has played like the college football intelligentsia predicted during the summer. Auburn’s not in the hunt for a College Football Playoff berth, and the Toledo Rockets defused the Razorbacks’ reputation as a dark horse contender for the SEC Western Division title on the second weekend of the season.

Auburn seemingly sits in better position with a 4-2 overall record, but the meat of the Tigers’ schedule begins this week with the Hogs. Auburn then hosts Ole Miss next week followed by a trip to Texas A&M before closing out the regular season by hosting Georgia, Idaho and Alabama. As it stands today, Auburn would only be favored in the Idaho game. The Tigers have struggled on both sides of the ball. The unexpected benching of preseason All-SEC quarterback Jeremy Johnson and dismissal of All-American candidate wide receiver Duke Williams seem inexplicable but are characteristic of the type of season the Tigers are weathering.

The Razorbacks are 2-4 overall, bearing the scars of self-inflicted wounds, stemming from injuries, penalties, missed opportunities and undisciplined play through the first three games of the season. Arguably the Razorbacks seem to be playing better football, particularly on defense. The Hogs 24-20 victory over Tennessee appeared to be a light at the end of a tunnel, but another fourth-quarter meltdown made it seem that the light was just Alabama barreling at them like a Crimson and Cream juggernaut in the Hogs’ 26-14 loss.

The ever-stoic Malzahn keeps his feelings about Arkansas tight under his sweater vest, wary not to say anything controversial. Though he’s toned down his bluster since that 16-12 loss to Toledo, Bielema spoke as freely as any head coach in America about his dislike for Auburn at a Razorback Club meeting in the summer.

It’s no secret Malzahn coveted the Arkansas job. While it may have been pure circumstance, Malzahn did not accept the Auburn head coaching position until it was publicly announced that Bielema had accepted the same position at Arkansas.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn argues a call during the Nov. 2, 2013 game against Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Was Malzahn holding off the Tigers in hopes of getting an interview for the Razorbacks job? Probably not. It’s hard to believe he and his agent were that far outside the loop, but then again, Jeff Long’s hire of Bielema was a clandestine affair. The first time Bielema’s name was connected with the job in the media was in the press release that announced him as head coach.

Whether the coaching rivalry between Bielema and Malzahn is fact or fabrication, it’s fun talk for fans and media, but in reality, their feeling for each other won’t matter much on Saturday.

It will all be shoved to the side when the players take the field. Though most onlookers deemed Auburn’s talent superior on paper in the preseason, today it could be argued that the Razorbacks are playing better and have faced better competition. The game itself appears to be a fairly even affair even though Las Vegas has installed the Razorbacks as a 5.5-point favorite. That’s not necessarily good for the Hogs. They are 1-2 as a favorite at home.

Invariably, the squad that prepared the best and that executes the best will take the day. Should the game come down to the fourth quarter, history favors the Tigers. Auburn has pulled out two close games this season, last week against Kentucky and the second game of the season against Jacksonville State in overtime. Their clutch play and refusal to lose in those games are the main reason Auburn is 4-2 instead of 2-4.

The Hogs, on the other hand, have explored every way possible to lose close, dating back to last season. Whether it be play-calling, poor defensive execution, breakdowns in the kicking game, communication and discipline, poor quarterback play at crunch time, inopportune turnovers, you name it, and the Razorbacks have found a way to do it. If you throw out the Alabama game as a case where the more talented team won, Arkansas’ victory at Tennessee looked promising, but then again winning is an attitude and in the Hogs’ hooves winning has been a slippery proposition.

For Auburn, the key to the game is shutting down or at least neutralizing the Razorbacks’ running game. Despite the Razorbacks’ improved passing numbers, the Hogs are uncomfortable playing behind the chains. Third down and more than five is a nightmare for the Razorbacks. Will Muschamp’s defense has had a difficult time halting the run in his first year back as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, yielding 197.7 yards per game this season. If Auburn gives up that much ground to the Hogs, the Tigers will have a difficult time winning.

Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema argues a call during the Nov. 2, 2013 game against Auburn in Fayetteville.

For Arkansas, it’s critical for the Razorbacks to tackle securely. Auburn quarterback Sean White showed progress against Kentucky, and as a result the Tigers had more rhythm on offense, particularly late when tailback Peyton Barber pounded the Wildcats. Auburn will complete passes against the Razorbacks, but the Hogs have to tackle effectively in open space to give up as few yards after the catch as possible. Malzahn and his offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee are masterful at sleight-of-hand football. The Razorbacks must read their keys, stay focused and go for the tackle, not the big hit. Hang on and wait for help. Razorback linebacker Dre Greenlaw and safeties Josh Lidell and Santos Ramirez must batten down the hatches and disciplined team football. The Tigers will target them in hopes they make similar mistakes as the ones made in previous games.

This will be a game where Malzahn throws out anything and everything to pull off a victory. The Tigers will take chances. The Razorbacks must play disciplined enough to take advantage of any Auburn miscues and make them pay by putting points on

Bielema is a very conventional coach in most instances. He generally plays the percentages, unless he feels desparate like with the fake punt against Alabama. This might be a game to throw convention to the wind. Muschamp will likely have an aggressive defensive game plan to attempt to stop the Razorbacks’ running game. The Razorbacks need to make them pay if they leave an opening.

A loss Saturday would critically wound Arkansas’ chances of making a bowl game. The Razorbacks would have to win four of their last five games, which includes trips to No. 5 LSU and No. 24 Ole Miss. As clichéd as it may be, this game is a must-win contest for the Hogs.

Auburn needs just two wins to become bowl eligible, but if the Tigers take another “L” on Saturday, it is difficult to pinpoint a clear path to two more victories.

Neither team planned to be in this position, but it is where they are and they have to deal with it. Both are desperate, and as difficult as it is to predict the outcome of any college football game, that fact makes it even harder. I’ll go with Arkansas 24, Auburn 21, but I certainly wouldn’t wager on that guess.

UA Makes Traffic Flow Changes

UA Sports Information

In a continuing effort to help expedite post-game vehicular traffic while protecting the safety of pedestrians, Razorback Athletics has partnered with the Fayetteville Police Department and the University of Arkansas Police Department (UAPD) to implement several new changes for football game post-game traffic.

The changes are designed to help clear traffic from around the stadium in a more efficient manner while providing a more efficient direct route to I-49. The changes will be in effect for this weekend’s game against Auburn.

The primary adjustments in post-game traffic flow will impact fans traveling southbound on Razorback Road as it intersects with Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 15th Street.

Beginning on Saturday, all post-game traffic on Razorback Road (South of Markham) will be routed south to the AR-112/265 Cato Springs/Razorback Rd. (Exit #60) to access I-49. The Cato Springs Exit is located 2.5 miles from Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, past Baum Stadium.

Entries to both I-49 North and I-49 South are available on the east side of Razorback Road at the Cato Springs Exit. The entry for I-49 North is prior to the I-49 overpass while the I-49 South entry is on the west side of the I-49 overpass. In addition, there is also an exit via Razorback Road that provides access to US-71 South.

Fans should note vehicles will no longer be permitted to access Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. or 15th Street traveling south on Razorback Road. All traffic traveling south on Razorback Road will be directed to the Cato Springs Exit and the north or southbound entries to I-49.

In addition, fans parked in Baum Stadium west parking will be required to exit those lots via DeBriyn Drive to 15th street or to the west on Beechwood Drive. Vehicles from Baum West parking lots will routed to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and will not be permitted to merge onto Razorback Road.
Pre-game and post-game traffic flows will continue to be monitored and adjustments will be made for future games if needed. Fans should consult the traffic flow maps to become familiar with the pre-game and post-game routes to their designated parking or public parking lots.