Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
GAME DAY: Arkansas vs. No. 6 Auburn 3 p.m. today, Jordan-Hare Stadium, SEC Network:
Equipped for battle?
Hogs enter Tigers’ den upbeat but unsure
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Arkansas at No. 6 Auburn illustration.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Arkansas enters its second season under Bret Bielema today with big improvement as its goal but knowing it faces a difficult task.
The Razorbacks, riding a school-longest nine-game losing streak, take on defending SEC champion and No. 6 Auburn at 3 p.m. Central at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Arkansas at Auburn
WHEN 3 p.m. Central today
WHERE Jordan-Hare Stadium
RECORDS Season opener for both teams
RANKINGS Auburn is No. 6/5 (AP/Coaches polls)
BETTING LINE Auburn by 19 1/2
COACHES Bret Bielema (3-9 in second year at Arkansas, 71-33 in ninth year overall); Gus Malzahn (12-2 in second year at Auburn, 21-5 in third year overall)
SERIES Auburn leads 12-10-1
TV SEC Network
RADIO Razorbacks Sports Network, including KABZ-FM, 103.7, in Little Rock; and KQSM-FM, 92.1, KEZA-FM, 107.9, KUOA-AM, 1290, and KUOA-FM, 105.3, in Fayetteville. XM-Radio 85, Sirius 85
The Tigers are a 20 1/2-point favorite in the SEC West game, which occupies a midafternoon kickoff time to accommodate the SEC Network's broadcast.
The forecast calls for temperatures in the high 80s and an 80 percent chance for rain and possible thunderstorms.
Bielema and his coaches have worked diligently at rebuilding the esteem, and trying to add a dash of swagger, to a team that is coming off a 3-9, 0-8 season and carries the baggage of posting the school's first winless SEC season as well as a 12-game conference losing streak dating to 2012.
"When you go 3-9, and 4-8 the year before that, you worry about where they are mentally in their belief," Bielema said. "There's a lot of teams that want to win on Saturday, and there's very few teams that take the field expecting to win. Once you can get that across, you're going to win a lot of games."
When Bielema was asked about the possibility of his team feeling nerves today, he tried to flip the context.
"We're confident in what we're doing," he said. "A lot of people are talking about what we're not going to do. For the University of Arkansas, we've got to worry about what we're going to do and concentrate on winning."
End Trey Flowers, a defensive captain along with safety Alan Turner, said the Razorbacks' focus is not simply on breaking their losing streak.
"It's just more of win this game," Flowers said. "We're ... not trying to look back on what happened last year and what didn't happen last year. We're just trying to stay focused on beating Auburn one play at a time, one rep at a time."
Intriguing story lines abound, including the numerous ties between the coaching staffs, highlighted by Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn's background as a Fort Smith native who spent a year as the Razorbacks' offensive coordinator in 2006.
The Tigers went 12-2 overall and 7-1 in the SEC last year in Malzahn's first season, becoming the first SEC team to go from winless in the conference to a title the next season.
"Your goal is to repeat as SEC champions," Malzahn said. "It's obviously tough to do. Our guys understand that it's been, what, 16 or 17 years?
"We have an extremely challenging schedule. We're going to have the same thing we did last year -- take it one game at a time. We've got this first one, and that's really the only thing on our mind."
Playing time allotted to Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall will be scrutinized. He will not start the game based on his citation for marijuana possession in July. Malzahn said 6-5 sophomore Jeremy Johnson will start and that Marshall also will play, but he's given no indication of how playing time will be divided.
The tug-of-war over tempo will be key.
Arkansas would like to limit possessions and execute time-consuming drives, while the Tigers would like to push the pace with their hurry-up attack that led the nation with an average of 328.3 rushing yards per game last year and put Arkansas on its heels in front of the hostile crowd.
The Razorbacks held the ball for more than eight minutes longer than the Tigers last season, but struggled to cap drives with points, lost the turnover battle 3-0 and fell 35-17.
"That was probably a little closer than the score, and our guys know we'll have to play well to be successful," Malzahn said.
The Razorbacks would like tailbacks Jonathon Williams, 1,000-yard rusher Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall running behind a physical, deep offensive line to control the pace and make it easier for Allen and the inexperienced Arkansas receiving corps to work the play-action passing game.
Arkansas ranked third in the SEC and 21st nationally with 208.7 rushing yards per game.
"The biggest thing, we've harped on it with our players, to play good against these guys, you've got to get lined up right, you've got to get adjusted to all the formations, you've got to fit the run and you've got to tackle well because they've got backs that really run hard," Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said.
Bielema and his staff have emphasized the importance of not making mistakes, particularly unforced errors.
"A lot of times early season contests are decided by who makes the least amount of mistakes," Bielema said. "Unfortunately that was our forte a year ago. A lot of times we did some things that prevented us from winning that had nothing to do with our opponent."
Sports on 08/30/2014