NO. 21 AUBURN (5-2, 3-1 SEC) AT ARKANSAS (2-4, 0-3):

Rivalry bristles as Bielema, Malzahn play their games

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Saturday, October 21, 2017
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, left, talks with Auburn coach Gus Malzahn prior to a game Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Michael Woods
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, left, talks with Auburn coach Gus Malzahn prior to a game Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Try as they might, the Arkansas Razorbacks and Auburn Tigers can't seem to shake the idea that feuding comes natural in their SEC West rivalry.

Perhaps it's fueled by the strange habit they've had -- until recently -- of winning at the other's home stadium.

Certainly, Auburn's history of recruiting in the state and having men from Arkansas on its coaching staffs, like current Coach Gus Malzahn, plays a role.

Then there's the rift from almost five years back, when Malzahn and Arkansas' Bret Bielema were fresh on their new jobs and exchanging barbs over hurry-up offenses and the risk for injuries, plus a minor flap over shared game film.

Those issues played out in an entertaining fashion during Auburn's 35-17 victory here in 2013, when Bielema's Razorbacks ran a successful Swinging Gate play -- a set Bielema claimed had been missing from Auburn tape -- and a Tigers player appeared to feign an injury, a common claim Malzahn had leveled at opponents.

Finally, last year, the Tigers took exception to Arkansas players ringing the AU logo at midfield for a pregame players' pep talk, confronted the Razorbacks over it, then put a 56-3 whipping on the Hogs.

Bielema and Malzahn come to Reynolds Razorback Stadium for today's 6:30 p.m. kickoff with both fan bases in a tizzy and both teams looking to redirect their fortunes in the second half of the season.

Bielema has confronted the rocky start for the Razorbacks (2-4, 0-3 SEC) head on, imploring fans to help out today no matter their outlook.

"As much support as we can get from the people in the stands regardless if you're frustrated, irritated, mad, upset, to show up and be great to these kids would be a huge thing," Bielema said at his Monday news conference.

Malzahn and the No. 21 Tigers (4-2, 3-1 SEC) were well positioned at No. 10 in the AP poll last week, building nicely after a 14-6 loss at defending CFP champion Clemson in Week 2.

Then, a 20-0 first-half lead at LSU turned into a 27-23 loss and the critics on the Plains got louder.

"Our fans are very passionate," Malzahn said. "Our fans want to win championships and they should. Any time you blow a 20-point on the road, they should be frustrated, and I'm frustrated also. ... When we go to Arkansas, we need to win."

Bielema has also deemed the game important for a Razorbacks team that has lost six in a row against Power 5 opponents, a run that started when Arkansas blew large halftime lead against Missouri and Virginia Tech.

"Once you're in a position where you've lost a few games like we have, it's hard to turn that corner just instantly," Bielema said. "The players have got to believe they can have some success. And they've got to believe it for four quarters. In this league, that's a very, very big deal.

"I think our kids need an environment, a very, very positive emotion, so I'm excited for them to see that, hear that. They control the rest from there. It's a big game because we're 2-4. To get back on track would be a huge step in the right direction on Saturday."

Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen is likely to miss a second consecutive game with a shoulder injury, which would give redshirt freshman Cole Kelley another start. The Razorbacks went with a shuffled offensive line in what felt like a youth movement last week, with 22 of Kelley's 23 completions going to freshmen and sophomores in a 41-9 loss at No. 1 Alabama.

Speaking of the Crimson Tide, former Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel provided perspective on the grind Bielema and Malzahn are up against in SEC trying to keep up with Alabama Coach Nick Saban, a longtime friend of Pinkel's.

"Well, I call it the Saban Rule," Pinkel said at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club. "What he's done is he's put the hot seat on a lot of people, just because of the consistent level at which his teams play.

"They lose 12 starters and you see them the next year and it looks like they didn't lose anybody. Just what he's done really has not been done I think in college football history with 85 scholarships, the consistency level of how he plays. And obviously that puts pressure on our whole league and certainly the West. It's difficult."

Bielema was asked on this week's SEC teleconference if building the Arkansas program has been about as difficult as he thought it would be or even harder.

"I knew I had my work in front of us," Bielema said. "I come in and we win three games our first year, seven games the next year and eight games the next year and kind of going on that rhythm. We're in position to win eight, nine games last year and don't play very well in the second half of our last two games. and turned it into a little bit of a harder job and a little bit more difficult."

Bielema said he and his staff have worked to keep a positive outlook among the players.

"In today's world, man, everything wants to be negative," he said. "There isn't anybody who wants to be positive. They'd much rather be negative and that affects everything, from the way your players feel, to the way they hear, the way they walk about the community, as well as recruiting, also, and the fan base. It all kind of ties together.

"I'm excited. The job is enjoyable. Obviously we've just got to win games."

Malzahn was in the same boat this week.

"We're moving forward," he said. "We still have a good team. I think that is evident."

Malzahn said Auburn must win today and spend the bye week getting healthy.

"And we'll be set to finish this thing," Malzahn said. "So that's our approach. That is our players' approach. That is what we're going to do."

Auburn has won 6 of the 11 games played at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, including a 35-17 victory in 2013 in the first meeting between Bielema and Malzahn.

Arkansas has won 5 of 13 games played at Jordan-Hare Stadium, including resounding upsets of Auburn teams coached by Camden native Tommy Tuberville in 2002 and 2006.

Even the 2012 Arkansas team, led by John L. Smith, tripped the Tigers 24-7 on the Plains two years after Auburn's national championship, perhaps sealing the fate of Coach Gene Chizik, who was fired that November, less than two seasons after winning the national championship.

Malzahn holds a 3-1 edge in head-to-head meetings against Bielema's Razorbacks, with the teams trading out victories in three home games since Auburn's road victory in 2013.

Auburn dominated last year's game 56-3 after the logo incident, rushing for 543 yards, the most ever allowed by Arkansas, and posting the most lopsided winning margin in series.

"I think just the way they ended a year ago, it would be fair to say that from the time they walked off the field last year to where we are, they've made themselves aware of it," Bielema said.

Sports on 10/21/2017

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