Razorbacks celebrate history as Malzahn, No. 11 Tigers come to town

It’s a weekend of celebration for the Arkansas Razorback football and basketball programs.

The University of Arkansas and the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame will honor Razorback legend and Hall of Fame electee Darren McFadden on Saturday, while members of the 1969 Razorback Sugar Bowl team and members of the 1989 Razorback Southwest Conference championship team will meet for reunions during the weekend.

On the hardwood front, the UA will dedicate and name the court at Bud Walton Arena in honor of legendary Razorback basketball coach Nolan Richardson when first-year coach Eric Musselman’s Hogs play host to Arkansas-Little Rock for an exhibition game at 3 p.m. Sunday.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Auburn
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 19
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

Oct. 26 – at Alabama
Nov. 2 – Mississippi State
Nov. 9 – Western Kentucky
Nov. 23 – at LSU
Nov. 29 – Missouri

The Trojans are coached by another Razorback legend Darrell Walker (1980-83), an All-American guard for Eddie Sutton who might be the best one-on-one defender ever to play for the Razorbacks.

Oh yeah, the football Hogs (2-4, 0-3 SEC) also play host to No. 11 Auburn (5-1, 2-1) at 11 a.m. Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium for a SEC Network-televised game. The football game should be the centerpiece of the weekend, but the Hogs are suffering though an SEC losing streak that’s reached 11 games, and few if any are giving the Razorbacks much of a chance to turn that downhill skid around against Gus Malzahn’s Tigers.

The Hogs started the week as 16.5-point underdogs, but that number had inflated to 19.5 by Thursday evening, despite the fact that Arkansas defensive coordinator John Chavis had schemed defenses in four of the 11 worst offensive performances by a Malzahn-coached Auburn squad, according to a report by Brandon Marcello of “Auburn Undercover.”

It would be good for the Razorbacks if Chavis does have the Tigers’ number because the Razorbacks have struggled putting points on the board this season because of inconsistent play across the board, but particularly at quarterback.

That inconsistent play has left a big question mark at who will start behind center for the Hogs this week. Senior Ben Hicks started the first three games of the season for the Razorbacks but was relieved against Ole Miss and Colorado State by junior Nick Starkel.

Starkel started the last three games for the Hogs, but Hicks finished in SEC losses to Texas A&M and Kentucky. That has left Morris and his offensive brain trust scratching their heads following the Kentucky loss. Morris said the quarterback position and everything else would be reevaluated this week in practice.

Morris likely knew who he would start in Saturday’s game when he last met with the media on Wednesday, but mum was the word on the starter. He said both QBs would be ready to go even if he didn’t tell them who the starter would be until they got on the bus to the stadium.

Morris must figure that bit of information is one of the only advantages he has over his close friend Malzahn going into the game?

Unless one of both of them play better than they have up to this point in the season, it probably won’t matter who starts against the Tigers’ dominating front seven.

My guess is that it will be Hicks with Starkel ready in relief, but who knows? Many Hog fans are eager to see freshman K.J. Jefferson get a shot. What do the Hogs have to lose?

The answer with six games to play is Jefferson’s redshirt year. Unless necessary, it would be foolish to play him this week or next against Alabama. However, it would be just as foolhardy not to get Jefferson’s feet wet in each of the Razorbacks’ last four games this season. That way he gains experience, but still has four years of eligibility.

Some would like to see freshman wide receiver Treylon Burks (6-3, 225), who played some quarterback in high school, to get snaps behind center. Would Morris have the audacity to use the Wildcat against Malzahn, the coach who revitalized the Wing T-look with McFadden in his one season as Arkansas’ offensive coordinator? It’s worth a shot, especially in red-zone situations where the Razorbacks have bumbled and stumbled all season under Starkel and Hicks’ direction.

Morris said he usually visits with Malzahn by phone on a weekly basis except for when their teams are getting ready to play each other. The two haven’t spoken in a couple of weeks, but Morris cheerfully said he anticipated talking with Malzahn on Sunday.

Morris’ end of that conversation, no doubt, would be much sweeter if the Razorbacks could spring an upset, but that seems unthinkable the way this season has gone for the Tigers and the Razorbacks. Auburn is still in the hunt for the SEC title, while the Hogs seem lost in the woods.

One thing that wasn’t exactly cheerful this week was the Razorback players’ attitudes when answering questions from the media in interviews that can be viewed on several youtube channels. The Hogs, who had a tendency to be overconfident during interviews early in the season, were edgy and a bit surly. Some even seemed to reflect an us-against-the-world tone that didn’t exactly play well to some Razorbackers.

To be honest, I kind of liked seeing them show a bit of anger and frustration from the situation they’ve worked themselves into. It shows they still care and are invested in the back half of this season. Maybe, they can channel that frustration and anger into something positive on the football field.

While there is little doubt that this year’s squad is more talented than last year’s 2-10 squad, it’s not showing up in the win column. Anything can happen in football, but it’s expecting too much from this squad to pull off an upset over Auburn. However, with three of the next four games —including Auburn — at home, this is as good a time as any for the Razorbacks to begin showing some progress without taking steps backward.

Maybe McFadden can be a good luck charm of sorts for the Razorbacks. He is joining the team for the Hog Walk, scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Saturday Morning at Razorback Stadium.

As for Sunday’s exhibition basketball game, Musselman said that he understands the exhibition game against Little Rock isn’t just another preseason game, not just because of the dedication of Richardson court but also because of the opponent.

Arkansas had a long-standing policy of not playing in-state schools in any sport including tiddlywinks dating back decades to when John Barnhill served as athletics director from 1946-71. That went by the wayside last season in Hunter Yurachek’s first year as athletics director.

The sun did rise after the Trojans whipped Dave Van Horn’s No. 5 baseball Hogs, 17-7, last spring, but dropping even an exhibition game to Little Rock in basketball would be an inauspicious start for Musselman’s tenure as head basketball coach. We’ll see how it goes.

There are a lot of celebrations of Razorback history this weekend. I’m looking forward to a time when celebrating Razorback victories and even championships is something Hog fans can enjoy in the here and the now.

History has to be made before it can be celebrated, and what we’ve seen lately from the Razorback football and basketball programs has hardly been worth remembering.