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Arkansas prepares for difficult opener at Auburn
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema leaves the field after an NCAA college football game against South Carolina in Fayetteville, Ark., Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013. South Carolina won 52-7. (AP Photo/April L. Brown)
FAYETTEVILLE Bret Bielema has talked throughout the preseason about his increased comfort level at Arkansas, and how he expects that to translate to a better team on the field.
The second-year coach won't have to wait long now to test just how far the Razorbacks have come since last season's disaster.
After a winless run in the Southeastern Conference, the first for Arkansas since joining the league in 1992, Bielema hopes to snap a nine-game losing streak when the Razorbacks open the season at No. 6 Auburn on Saturday.
Last season's highlights were far and few between for Arkansas, whose 3-9 record marked the first losing season of Bielema's head coaching career.
The former Wisconsin coach has continually praised the progress of the Razorbacks during preseason camp, and he hopes an opening conference game will add to the urgency for a team desperate to rebound from last season. Even if that opening game comes against the Tigers, who reached the national championship game last season before losing 34-31 to Florida State.
"I think it allows you to focus a little bit early on," Bielema said. "Now, at the time this was scheduled, they weren't the defending SEC champs and they didn't come within a hair of chinny-chin-chin of winning the national championship."
Bielema and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn's careers have intersected since the day they were both hired into the SEC following the 2012 season — and not always because of on-the-field events. The two engaged in a bit of back and forth regarding player safety in an up-tempo offense prior to last season, and their opposite opinions were once again in the news this offseason thanks to a debate over whether to bar offenses from snapping the ball before 10 seconds had elapsed on the play clock.
"We're obviously two totally different kinds of people, probably, in certain regards," Bielema said. "But two very similar people when you look at the details of what we believe in."
Auburn defeated the Razorbacks 35-17 last season, doing so in Malzahn's return to his native state of Arkansas.
The two have downplayed their rivalry, and the focus this week appears to have finally shifted away from the coaches to the quarterbacks — with Auburn starter Nick Marshall suspended to start the game because of a marijuana possession citation and Arkansas' Brandon Allen finally healthy after battling a shoulder injury for most of last season.
Allen completed 49.6 percent of his passes last season, but he was able to practice only one day a week and received numbing shots in his throwing shoulder in order to play after injuring his shoulder in the third game of the season.
The Razorbacks' passing game finished last in the SEC, and Allen's return to health has been one of many reasons Bielema expects improvement. Arkansas also has the talented running back trio of Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall.
Allen's truck was involved in an early morning fire on Monday, an incident that's being investigated by police and fire officials as a potential case of arson.
Bielema, however, doesn't expect the incident to affect Allen's play this week against the Tigers — who the Razorbacks hope to shock on their way to winning their first SEC game since 2012.
"I think (Allen) would like to just thank all the people that reached out to him," Bielema said. "But other than that, I really don't see it being a big issue with him."