Fan fantasies clash as a sideline to Arkansas-Auburn tilt

Arkansas running back David Williams / Photo:

There are two fantasies working in opposition within the Arkansas Razorbacks’ fanbase that will clash Saturday when the Hogs play host to the Auburn Tigers at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

The first is that Arkansas expatriate and Auburn head football coach Gus Malzahn will one day ride back to Northwest Arkansas on a white steed to save the Razorback football program from the malignancy of “normal American football” and restore greatness to the once proud program with his no-huddle, spread philosophy.

The second is that all of a sudden the worm will turn with Bret Bielema’s program, now in its fifth season, and this current bunch of Razorbacks will rise to the occasion and win four of their final six games to earn a bowl bid, and thus restore a measure of faith among fans in Bielema and the program he’s been attempting to build on the hill.

Like I said, two fantasies.

The hard truth for both of those wings of the Razorback Nation is that neither seem realistic.

As an optimist, I freely admit my heart is with the latter of the two scenarios. I like Bielema and his positivity. I like how he has cleaned the program up from within, even though the results have not been up to standard on the football field. I think he is a solid football coach, and I personally like his football philosophy when it is executed as designed.

I personally would like to see his Hogs get on a midseason run that turns the current situation around and propels the Razorbacks to their fourth-consecutive bowl game. I’d love for that run to be inspiring enough to pull together Arkansas’ fanbase and unite them around Bielema so that there is hope for a better future with the program.

From my mindset, that is the best thing that could play out over the next six Saturdays. Stability is what the Razorbacks’ program needs.

However, stability in collegiate football means winning, and the Razorbacks haven’t done that enough over the last year. The Razorbacks have lost their last six games against Power 5 opponents dating back to last season, and with the way the Hogs have played this season, it’s difficult, even for an optimist, to see that trend changing.

The Hogs, of course, play No. 21 Auburn Saturday, travel to Ole Miss on Oct. 28, and then travel to Baton Rouge, La., to play No. 24 LSU on Nov. 11.

None of those teams are unbeatable, but it’s been so long since Arkansas has won a game against a credible opponent that it is hard to make a case for them actually doing it.

If there is any chance of a late-season push, Arkansas must find a way to win at least one of those three as well as top Mississippi State and Missouri in home games to close out the season.

It could happen, but it certainly doesn’t seem likely. Some signs of life this weekend against Auburn would be great, but this game isn’t a good matchup for the Razorbacks.

The Razorbacks topped Auburn two years ago by outdueling the Tigers in overtime, 54-46, but the Hogs’ offensive line woes have gotten so bad that their offense can’t keep up in a score fest no matter who quarterbacks the team. Arkansas’ defense simply isn’t strong enough in the front seven to hold a good offense in the 20-point range. That’s where this game would need to be played for the Hogs to have a shot at an upset.

As an optimist, I know that sounds pretty pessimistic, but the Razorbacks just have not played well enough this season for me to harbor great hope for an upset. I’m down to hoping to see improvement from a struggling team.

Photo: Wade Rackley, Auburn Athletics

As for the other fantasy of Malzahn one day swooping in like Sir Lancelot to save the Razorbacks program from “mediocrity,” it’s just not going to happen for a number of reasons.

First, Malzahn would have to fail at Auburn. Auburn is not a stepping-stone job. Sure, the Tigers’ faithful have run several good coaches off the plains, but none having willingly left the job for another.

At any given time, it is one of the top four or five jobs in the SEC and that makes it an elite job. Competitive men don’t leave elite jobs on their own volition.

Malzahn is feeling the heat this week after his Tigers surrendered a 20-point lead to LSU before losing, 27-24, last Saturday. With Texas A&M, Georgia, and Alabama still left on the schedule, it’s not inconceivable that Malzahn could be pushed out this season if the Tigers don’t finish strong.

To Malzahn’s loyal supporters in Northwest Arkansas, that has the makings of a scenario where he could make a Houston Nutt-like move when he slipped off to Ole Miss when things turned sour here in Fayetteville.

Malzahn could “return home” to the Arkansas job he has “always coveted” to lead the Razorbacks to glory. That, at least, would be the spin on the story, if it happens.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that Malzahn waited to accept the head coaching job at Auburn until after Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long hired Bielema as the Hogs’ head coach after the 2012 season. I do believe he had the Auburn offer in hand while at Jonesboro as Arkansas State’s coach but was hoping for a call from Long.

Malzahn returning to Arkansas is a great fantasy, but it’s unlikely to happen even if Arkansas does make a change at the top.

First Auburn would have to tank most of the rest of the season. I don’t think that will happen, and if it does, Malzahn becomes a far less attractive candidate to Arkansas.

While the embers from the behind-the-scenes pettiness that became public in 2006 don’t glow as hot as they once did, there is a considerable faction of Razorback supporters that are as ardently opposed to Malzahn ever being the Razorbacks’ coach as those who desperately long for him to get the job. It’s a well-heeled, influential faction, too.

Hiring Malzahn to be Arkansas’ head coach would simply be too divisive for it to happen now and probably ever.

If Bielema is to be replaced, Arkansas will have other options for a head coach that wouldn’t automatically drive a wedge into the fan base.

I just don’t see Malzahn ever being hired by Arkansas, but I have been wrong before.

As for Saturday’s game, the familiar script of Arkansas playing fairly well early, not adjusting at halftime, and finally being worn down in the second half seems likely to me. Hopefully, the Razorbacks put up a better fight than last season when the Tigers ran through them like wet toilet paper en route to a 56-3 victory at Auburn.

As for Arkansas’ quarterback situation, Austin Allen is the better option if he is truly healthy. He’s more experienced and that gives the Hogs a wider playbook than with freshman Cole Kelley.

However, Arkansas’ issue isn’t really quarterback but rather the offensive line. It has been dating back to last season. Last week Arkansas (2-4, 0-3) moved all-conference candidate Frank Ragnow from center to guard and inserted junior Zach Rogers at center and pushed Johnny Gibson from guard to tackle. Against Alabama, it was hard to tell how much difference the adjustment made.

If Arkansas stuck with that lineup, another week of work together in practice should have help the group work better together, but Auburn’s defensive front seven is just a rung below Alabama’s.

I anticipate it being difficult for Arkansas to mount an effective rushing attack against Auburn (5-2, 3-1). That will lead to too much reliance by the Razorbacks on the passing game, and that usually results in turnovers. That’s a losing equation for any team, much less the Hogs.

Prediction: Auburn 42, Arkansas 24