Arkansas-Malzahn soap opera continues on the wet plains of Auburn

Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool was named the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week.

Arkansas Razorbacks coach Sam Pittman said Thursday that if his Hogs fall at No. 13 Auburn (1-1) on Saturday it won’t be because of a hangover from their upset victory over Mississippi State last week.

Pittman said emphatically that the Razorbacks (1-1), while proud of their success last week at Starkville, Miss., put that game to bed prior to their practice on Monday and have been full-steam ahead in preparing for their trip to Auburn, Ala., to face Gus Malzahn’s Tigers (1-1).

Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. Saturday. The game will be televised by ESPN, rather than the SEC Network as originally planned. Rain, possibly heavy, will likely play a role in the contest.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Auburn
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10
Where: Auburn, AL

Remaining schedule

Oct. 17 – Ole Miss
Oct. 31 – at Texas A&M
Nov. 7 – Tennessee
Nov. 14 – at Florida
Nov. 21 – LSU
Nov. 28 – at Missouri
Dec. 5 – Alabama

The first-year coach, who guided the Razorbacks to their first SEC victory after suffering 20-consecutive losses dating back to November of 2017, said he and his staff emphasized with words and deeds early in the week the need to move forward and not look back with his somewhat youthful squad.

Pittman also said he doesn’t want his Razorbacks to get embroiled in any foolishness concerning Auburn offensive coordinator and former Razorback head coach Chad Morris, who is now calling plays for the Tigers. A couple of Auburn players have mentioned in Twitter posts that this game carries special importance to them because of Morris being dismissed by Arkansas with two games remaining on what became the Razorbacks’ second 2-10 season in a row under Morris.

Pittman said his concern isn’t with the Razorbacks’ past but rather with their future. He’d rather the team concentrate on their assignments than worrying about the coaching personnel on the other sideline.

One hopes the Hogs are able to take such a stoic and grounded approach, but as long as Malzahn and now Morris coach at Auburn, the game will no doubt have a bit more significance to Razorback fans.

Malzahn has earned the Razorbacks fans’ ire for a number of reasons, not the least of which being his Tigers’ four-consecutive victories over the Razorbacks by a whopping average of 34.2 points. Overall Auburn is 6-1 against Arkansas during his seven previous seasons on the plains.

The Tigers are favored by 13 points this week, but Arkansas fans know this isn’t just another game to Malzahn, whose history with the program goes back to the 1980s when he walked on to one of Ken Hatfield’s squads before transferring to Henderson State.

Malzahn’s intersection with the Razorbacks program reads like a bad romance novel. They’re like star-crossed lovers pitted in a battle against one another.

Malzahn’s next crossing with the Razorbacks came in 2003 when he interviewed for an assistant coaching job with Houston Nutt while the head coach at Springdale High. Malzahn likely could have had the job as tight ends coach, but he had his eyes set on the offensive coordinator position that had already been filled.

Three years later after his Bulldogs won the state title, Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles twisted Nutt’s arm, forcing him to hire Malzahn as offensive coordinator in order to lure Mitch Mustain, Damian Williams and the rest of “The Springdale Five” to Arkansas.

The gambit worked, and Arkansas won the SEC West in 2006 thanks to stellar play by Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Marcus Monk, Peyton Hillis, and a solid defensive unit.

However, Nutt and Malzahn mixed like King Saul and David in the Old Testament, and after a loss to — ironically enough — Bret Bielema’s first Wisconsin squad in the 2007 Capital One Bowl, Mustain and Williams split for Southern Cal, and Malzahn resigned to become Tulsa’s offensive coordinator.

After a difficult 8-4 season in 2007, disharmony among Razorback fans ultimately exiled Nutt to Ole Miss, and Bobby Petrino was ushered in as the head Hog for three fine seasons in four years before his off-the-field shenanigans caught up with him in an Elkins ditch during the spring of 2012. John L. Smith stepped in as interim coach for a season before Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long shunned Malzahn, then head coach at Arkansas State, in favor of hiring Bielema as the Hogs’ latest head coach.

Less than an hour after Arkansas announced Bielema as its head coach, Auburn named Malzahn as its man. Many feel Malzahn kept Auburn on hold until Arkansas announced its choice.

Bielema’s five-year run with the Razorbacks’ peaked in his third season with an 8-5 mark in 2015. That December, Georgia hired Pittman away from Bielema’s staff, and not coincidentally, the Hogs fell to 7-6 in 2016, and Bielema was fired in 2017 after a 4-7 season so Arkansas could chase after Malzahn. Under pressure, Malzahn had put feelers out to Arkansas boosters at midseason before his Tigers rallied to win the SEC West with victories over top-10 ranked Georgia and Alabama.

Arkansas not only fired Bielema but also Long to clear the decks so it could steal Malzahn away from unappreciative Auburn.

However, the Tigers’ rallying to win the SEC West and maybe even more importantly beating Alabama made Auburn’s boosters too proud for them to allow Arkansas to steal Malzahn away. A seven-year, $49 million deal kept him an Auburn man.
Malzahn’s agent Jimmy Sexton also represented Morris, who was SMU’s head coach. Sexton pulled what amounted to a bait-and-switch, delivering Morris to Arkansas in lieu of Malzahn. Acting Arkansas athletic director Julie Cromer-Peoples with the UA Board of Trustees’ approval hired Morris in a frenzy, and the result was the back-to-back 2-10 seasons — the worst stretch of Razorback football in modern history — all Hog fans have suffered through the past two years.

It was one of the biggest mistakes if not the biggest in Arkansas football history to hire Morris without a permanent athletic director available to call the shot. While Cromer-Peoples bears some of that burden, the biggest portion rests with the UA Board of Trustees for allowing her to do it.

Yes, waiting until Hunter Yurachek was officially hired as AD would have put the Razorbacks behind in recruiting, but in hindsight, the decision to hire Morris without a permanent AD in place did more damage to Arkansas’ football program than perhaps any other one decision made in modern Razorback history.

While fans and the media dote on the soap-opera stuff, it’s hard to know how it will affect either team, if it does at all.

That said, Pittman is tasked with the Herculean job of cleaning out Arkansas’ football stable, so to speak, and based on the effort the Razorbacks gave last Saturday in their unexpected upset of Mississippi State, he and his staff are doing a pretty good job.

That said, Auburn is a different animal than Mississippi State, and while the Tigers have struggled some with Morris’ offense, quarterback Bo Nix is the type of player that can give a defense fits with his arms and legs. We did not see that against the stonewall defense Georgia deployed, but his play along with that of his talented receiving corps made Kentucky wilt in the second half of a 29-13 victory in Auburn’s season opener. A bit of good news for Arkansas is that the Tigers receiving corps is a bit banged up going into Saturday’s game.

Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom devised – and his Hogs’ executed – an outstanding plan for a one-dimensional Mississippi State offense. Auburn won’t be as one-dimensional Saturday, even if the predicted rain does fall. Arkansas will have to stop a determined Auburn running game that is looking to prove itself against the Hogs. We will see how well the Razorbacks play defensively when they have to worry about the run and the pass. The Razorbacks may do fine, but that’s not been the case in recent years against the Tigers or most other opponents.

Like Auburn, Arkansas’ offense has struggled to get out of the gate in its two games, and much of the issues comes down to the offensive line with two sophomores and two redshirt freshmen starting. Razorback blockers have yet to mesh with Arkansas’ backs. Word is that senior starting tailback Rakeem Boyd may be out for this week’s game too after suffering a second-quarter injury last week against Mississippi State. His absence would leave further questions about the Hogs’ ability to run on a stout Auburn defense.

Grad-transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks is still feeling his way through Arkansas’ offense. He played better against Mississippi State after throwing two interceptions in the opener against ball-hawking Georgia, but some of his ball-handling issues in both games have me anxious to see him perform in rainy, muddy conditions. Having Boyd and sophomore receiver Treylon Burks, who also went out of last week’s game with an injury, would help, but how much either can be depended upon will be a mystery to fans until game time. reported Thursday that starting All-SEC middle linebacker K.J. Britt will miss the game because of torn ligaments in his right thumb.

As well as Arkansas played on defense last week at Mississippi State and as much as Auburn struggled on offense against Georgia, I have a hard time believing the Razorbacks have the wherewithal to upset Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Even without Britt, the Tigers are too strong on defense, and Arkansas’ has struggled too much on offense for me to have belief in another road victory for the Razorbacks this weekend.

However, if the Razorbacks do upset Auburn, Yurachek should probably check into the price of bronze on Monday morning. Folks will be wanting to erect a statue in Pittman’s honor.