Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A two-time graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Biletnikoff Award.
Marquee opener a motivator
Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall is pressured by Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers during the third quarter of their game Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013 at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE It doesn't take much to get Arkansas' football players motivated this off-season.
If the winless conference season and 9-game losing streak to end 2013 weren't enough, the Razorbacks open the season next month with a game at defending national runner-up Auburn. The Tigers are likely to be a top 10 team in the preseason polls and are considered one of the favorites to win the SEC title for a second straight year.
"Those guys went as far as the national championship, so just to have them opening day will show us how far we came," Razorbacks defensive end Trey Flowers said during spring practice. "To have teams like that to open up, we're just going to embrace that fact and try to get after them."
A game against a team the caliber of Auburn is a far cry from past season openers for the Razorbacks. Since 2008, Arkansas has opened the season with a team from the FCS five times and last played a BCS conference team to start the year in 2006.
The game against Auburn will also be the Razorbacks' first season opener against a conference team since joining the SEC and first season opener away from home since 1999.
"The great thing is when you have a team like that coming in the opener, it allows you to have extreme focus from January when we came back for the first time, knowing that competitively when we took the field again the other team was going to be Auburn," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said.
"Preseason practice 10 through 20 you tend to feel sorry for yourself; it's hot, you've got blisters and all that jazz. All we've got to do is say the word 'Auburn' and it will go off the charts."
Bielema said the game against Auburn and season finale against Missouri - last year's SEC East champion - makes Arkansas' schedule unique in a year the Razorbacks can't afford another drop-off.
"Those are the two teams who played in the SEC Championship Game a year ago," Bielema said. "It should be a good measuring stick of where we're at."
Auburn beat Arkansas 35-17 last November in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks have never played Missouri in a conference game.