Razorbacks battle Auburn for a semblance of relevance

Arkansas defensive back Jaylon Braxton (11) breaks up a pass intended for Florida wide receiver Kahleil Jackson (22) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

In terms of national and regional interest, Saturday’s Arkansas-Auburn matchup barely registers on the excitement meter.

It has been relegated to the TV spot of doom in the SEC — the SEC Network’s 3 p.m. telecast opposite CBS’ SEC Game of the Week.

The only folks who will tune in Saturday are Razorback and Tiger supporters and possibly a few others who for whatever reason decided it was a good idea to bet on the game. The Hogs are a 2.5-point favorite in case you were wondering.

The matchup could be classified as a battle to stay out of the cellar of the SEC West, as if anyone really cares about that.

No program is going to celebrate a fifth- or sixth-place finish in the West during the last year of SEC divisional play. Oklahoma and Texas join the league next year and divisional play is out the window, at least for the foreseeable future.

An Auburn win would keep it from that dubious distinction and also make the Tigers (5-4, 2-4 SEC) bowl eligible.

A Razorback victory wouldn’t guarantee anything for the Hogs (3-6, 1-5), but it would keep the possibility of a bowl trip alive and would allow Arkansas to keep pace with or possibly move ahead of Mississippi State at the bottom of the SEC West standings. The Bulldogs play at Texas A&M Saturday night in what amounts to another meaningless game beyond the two fan bases.

However, for the Razorback and Tiger faithful, this is a meaningful game with something to prove,

In the first year of Hugh Freeze’s tenure as Auburn’s coach, he is trying to muck out the remnants of the Bryan Harsin debacle and get the Tigers program back on solid ground. A victory over the Razorbacks would keep that narrative inching forward while a loss to what is an underachieving Hogs squad might raise some uneasy questions during what is usually a first-season grace period.

As for the Razorbacks, they definitely have underachieved. Yes, five of six losses have been by a touchdown or less against mostly formidable competition. One could argue the Razorbacks have been more competitive overall this year than last.

However, 3-6 is not where any SEC program wants to be in November no matter the circumstances. Sam Pittman’s Razorback program appears to have regressed in his fourth season, while his contemporaries have their programs in contention.

Ole Miss and Missouri, who hired respective coaches Lane Kiffin and Eliah Drinkwitz just before Arkansas hired Pittman, are ranked No. 10 and No. 16 respectively in the latest Associated Press poll and are No. 9 and No. 14 respectively in the latest College Football Playoff Rankings.

Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurkachek had talks with both or their representatives before moving on to hire Pittman, who was Kirby Smart’s assistant head coach and offensive line coach at Georgia.

A program’s fortunes can turn on a dime in the SEC. Pittman’s Hogs had Kiffin’s Rebels on the ropes at Oxford on Oct. 7 before falling 27-20, and we’ll get a chance to see what the Razorbacks can do head-to-head with Drinkwitz’ Tigers on the day after Thanksgiving in Razorback Stadium.

The Hogs proved there is still sustainable life within the program last Saturday by earning the program’s first win at Florida in overtime against a mediocre Gators squad, but that victory will merely be a footnote in Razorback history if the Hogs aren’t able to stack another win on top of it this weekend in Razorback Stadium.

Pittman, interim offensive coordinator Kenny Guiton and the rest of Arkansas’ offensive coaching staff did a fine job of calling plays that suit both quarterback K.J. Jefferson and Arkansas’ struggling offensive line against the Gator last week. Auburn should expect more of the same on Saturday.

Saturday could be another record-setting day for Jefferson. The three-year starter hasn’t had his best season, performing mostly in fired offensive coordinator Dan Enos’ new-to-Jefferson offense.

Yet, he is poised to set a new Arkansas career passing yardage record on Saturday if he throws for 160 or more yards to overtake Tyler Wilson’s record of 7,765 yards.

However, setting that record will only be memorable if it comes coupled with a victory over Auburn.

Arkansas’ defense has been a bright spot in an otherwise dim season. Defensive coordinator Travis Williams’ troops aren’t a dominating group, but they are opportunistic and stingy. Kicking game breakdowns had them playing with their back against the wall on three first-half drives last week at Florida, and their tackling wasn’t as sharp as Pittman likes, but the defense has kept Arkansas in all of their losses, which is a credit to Williams, who played and coached at Auburn.

The key to the game will be which team can control the other team’s running game best. Auburn averages 190 rushing yards a game, and if they hit or exceed that average, it is going to be a long day for the Hogs.

Likewise, Jefferson and running backs Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, Rashod Dubion, and A.J. Green can have success against the Tigers, it bodes well for the Hogs.

With a win over Auburn, the narrative argument can be made that Pittman, his staff, and players have righted the ship despite stormy waters, and that there are better days ahead.

A loss means that all the questions that were asked after the 7-3 loss to Mississippi State will be back on the table once again.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 football schedule

Overall: 3-6   SEC: 1-5   Streak: W1

Sept. 2 – Arkansas 56, Western Carolina 13
Sept. 9 – Arkansas 28, Kent State 6
Sept. 16 – BYU 38, Arkansas 31
Sept. 23 – LSU 34, Arkansas 31
Sept. 30 – Texas A&M 34, Arkansas 22
Oct. 7 – Ole Miss 27, Arkansas 20
Oct. 14 – Alabama 24, Arkansas 21
Oct. 21 – Mississippi State 7, Arkansas 3
Nov. 4 – Arkansas 39, Florida 36 (OT)
Nov. 11 – Auburn (3 p.m. SEC Network)
Nov. 18 – Florida International (6:30 p.m. ESPNU)
Nov. 24 – Missouri (3 p.m. CBS)