Coming off much needed open dates, the Arkansas Razorbacks and Auburn Tigers find themselves backed into a corner as they put in their final preparations for their annual meeting at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.
At stake is the chance to move out of the SEC West cellar and a chance to ignite a second-half of the season run.
Bryan Harsin’s Tigers have dealt with unrest ever since the coach’s unpopular hire among Auburn boosters came to pass after the Tigers paid Gus Malzahn to go away. It’s been a popular theory since last spring that one way or the other this would be Harsin’s last season On the Plains.
With every loss the pressure has built. Boosters already made sure the athletics director who hired him, Allen Greene, was not retained when his contract was up just before the season opened, and the only real question about Harsin seems to be whether he will last the entire season. Your guess is as good as mine.
Things aren’t nearly as desperate On the Hill at Fayetteville, but early season enthusiasm has dissipated as the Razorbacks’ long list of injuries has grown week by week. Arkansas coach Sam Pittman remains popular despite a three-game SEC losing streak. The Hogs got off that three-game schneid two weeks ago by winning a 52-35 track meet at BYU, but those three SEC losses to Texas A&M, Alabama, and Mississippi State still stand out.
The Alabama and Mississippi State games were blowout losses, but the 23-21 A&M loss is of the type that will haunt the players, coaches, and fans whenever they think about this season. It is the proverbial “one that got away.”
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Auburn
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 29
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala.
TV: SEC Network
Nov. 5 – Liberty
Nov. 12 – LSU
Nov. 19 – Ole Miss
Nov. 25 – at Missouri
It should be noted that starting quarterback KJ Jefferson didn’t play against the Bulldogs at Starkville, and that the Hogs are a very different team with him on the field, but then again KJ did play against the Aggies. Man, that loss stings.
To heap a few more coals on the fire, South Carolina, a team the Razorbacks beat, 44-30, on Week 2 now boasts a better record than the Hogs at 5-2 and are ranked No. 25, while Arkansas has slipped to just a game above .500 and out of pollsters’ minds altogether.
Similarly Cincinnati, whom Arkansas whipped, 38-27, on the opening week of the season is now 6-1 and ranked No. 20.
So, Arkansas and Auburn are desperate for a win any way they can find it.
Victories have not come easy for the Razorbacks of late against Auburn, having lost six games in a row to the Tigers. The Razorbacks should have won at Auburn two years ago, but a quick whistle nullified what should have been a Tigers fumble on a backwards pass behind the line of scrimmage by Bo Nix that if called correctly would have been the key to a Razorback victory.
The Hogs’ last win over the Tigers was a 2015 four-overtime shootout in Fayetteville when Malzahn was coaching the Tigers and Bret Bielema, whose Illinois squad is 6-1 and ranked No. 17, was Arkansas’ head coach. The final score was 54-46 Arkansas.
The way the Razorbacks’ defense has been playing this season with its injury-plagued secondary, we could be in for another shootout Saturday. Shootouts might be the only way the Hogs can win the rest of the season.
To be fair, Pittman did say the Razorbacks go into this game as healthy as they are going to be this season. That might or might not yield better play in the Razorbacks’ secondary and other position groups.
The truth of college football is no player is ever 100% healthy. Pain is every bit as much of the game as a squad’s offensive and defensive scheme. Every player that sees meaningful playing time is dealing with some level of pain, but there is a difference between hurting and being injured.
Some players can play with certain injuries, and other players can’t. Every player has a different pain tolerance. Sometimes when a coach mentions toughness, he’s talking about a guy playing through something undisclosed. Not every time, but more often than you might think.
However some injuries are debilitating and take a player out of the game until they reach a certain level of health. Each injury is different because each player is different.
No doubt there are several Hogs gutting it out and playing with a level of pain and injury that would have some if not most onlookers laid up in bed. But that’s not just with the Razorbacks. It’s with all teams.
However, the Hogs’ injuries have been so concentrated in the secondary that it became a problem, not just an issue.
Maybe the open date has allowed the Razorbacks to get past the worst of that. We’ll know a lot more come Saturday.
Running the football is what the Razorbacks and Tigers do best. Both are middling to average at stopping the run. Neither are that good at stopping the pass.
Auburn is talented on the defensive front, but Jefferson’s ability to make plays with his legs and his arm may be the advantage the Razorbacks need. However, the Hogs need to start faster than they generally have this season and to protect that football at all costs.
The Hogs can’t allow Auburn to build an early lead of any consequence in their stadium and expect to escape with a victory. Arkansas can’t give away anything cheap, especially early, and expect to win. The Hogs need a clean game.
Win or lose, the Razorbacks return to Fayetteville for a three-game November home stand against Liberty, LSU, and Ole Miss that will tell the tale of whether this season will be deemed good, average, or bad.