King: Arkansas, Auburn have similar task this week

By: Harry King
Published: Wednesday, October 23, 2019
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn (left) and Arkansas coach Chad Morris speak prior to a game Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn (left) and Arkansas coach Chad Morris speak prior to a game Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Fayetteville.

LITTLE ROCK — In the narrowest way, Arkansas and Auburn share the same role in the run-up to the highly anticipated Nov. 9 meeting between unbeatens Alabama and LSU.

The similarity begins and ends Saturday when the Razorbacks and Tigers play on the road as the only teams that can ruin No. 1 vs. No. 2 in Tuscaloosa.

Arkansas is more obligation than opponent for the Crimson Tide, while Auburn is a potential spoiler. Simply, Arkansas can’t win and Auburn can, an assertion supported by various circumstances:

—Ninth-ranked Auburn is an 11-point underdog, which seems high to someone who had penciled in seven.

—Deservedly, Arkansas is a 32-point underdog. For perspective, know the line was established with the knowledge that Heisman Trophy favorite Tua Tagovailoa would not play against the Razorbacks.

—Auburn-LSU is the CBS game of the week at 2:30 p.m. SEC teams seem to have a better home-field advantage at night, none more than LSU at Death Valley.

—Arkansas-Alabama is on ESPN at 6 p.m. See above.

—LSU and Alabama are 1-2 in the SEC in scoring, averaging 50.1 and 48.7; Auburn is No. 16 in the country in scoring defense at 17.1 points per game and Arkansas is tied for 93rd at 30.7.

—Auburn is No. 2 in the SEC in average rushing yards per game and Arkansas is No. 13, while the Tigers are No. 12 in the country in rushing defense and Arkansas is No. 100 and running the ball is invaluable.

—Auburn can win out and play in the SEC championship game.

—Arkansas must beat No. 1 or No. 2 to have a chance to qualify for a bowl game.

In addition to the talent gap between Arkansas and Auburn, Gus Malzahn has a huge advantage over Chad Morris this week when it comes to intangibles.

Considering the prizes available, Auburn players will be riveted to their coaches’ messages. No sales pitch needed.

On the other hand, after losing at home to Auburn by 41 points, Morris must convince his athletes to pay attention all week, work hard and compete their tails off against an opponent that is far superior. And, if Alabama wins by 30-plus as expected, Morris must make the same pitch again next week, knowing that if the players don’t comply, they probably fritter away a legitimate chance to win an SEC game.

Paying attention and working diligently is much easier to sell when a coach can reference the chance to win two close games deep in the fourth quarter as a sign of progress, as Morris was able to do after Texas A&M and Kentucky.

During the Auburn postgame, Morris previewed his approach when he said: “The only thing to do is for us to go back to work and keep pushing forward and keep developing the guys on our roster and keep recruiting.”

Much like Morris, Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead, Ole Miss’ Matt Luke, Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt and Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason must somehow convince their players there is still success to be had if they stay the course.

At 2-3, Ole Miss is the only one of the five with more than one SEC victory, and the Rebels’ Ws were recorded against the Razorbacks and Vanderbilt, a combined 1-7 in the conference.

Right there with Arkansas’ embarrassing loss to San Jose State is Tennessee’s home loss to Georgia State, Vanderbilt’s 24-point home loss to UNLV, and Mississippi State being the first conference team to lose to Tennessee in almost a year.

In addition, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt have the potential for bad losses in November with division leaders on their schedule, and Tennessee is erratic at best.

To counter the pessimistic info, note Vanderbilt’s 21-14 upset of then-No. 22 Missouri last Saturday.

Vanderbilt was No. 119 in the country in scoring defense while 20-point favorite Missouri was No. 17 in scoring offense, but, early on, TV announcers provided a heads up that the energy of Mason’s players was evident Friday. Such enthusiasm might help explain how a defense that had given up 30 or more in five of seven games stopped the Tigers on 12 of 15 third downs.

In the on-field postgame, Mason said he wanted his players and others to understand that many people want the Vanderbilt job, “but, I’m the man built for this job.”

In his sixth year at Vanderbilt, Mason is 10-34 in the SEC. Including Morris’ 0-12 record in the SEC, Arkansas is 11-33 during the same period.

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