Auburn’s big annual series all seem to have an overriding trend, even if they haven’t held up perfectly over the last couple of seasons: the LSU game is won by the home team, the Georgia game by the road team, the Iron Bowl by the favorite. The Arkansas game, however, belongs to the underdog. Tubby may have struggled madly as a favorite against Houston Nutt’s Hogs, but don’t forget that the turn from outright catastrophe to passable accomplishment in both 2003 and 2007 was made, in part, at the expense of what were supposed to be Nutt’s two best teams.
So Auburn will at least have this going for it when the Tigers square off against the Hogs this season: it’s supposed to be their year for once. Or, at the very least, it's not supposed to be Auburn's year. So, uh ... we've got them right where we want them, right?
Last year: After five games, the Hogs looked like the worst team in the SEC, having squeaked past I-AA Western Illinois and UL-Monroe by a combined five points before getting annihilated by Texas, Alabama, and Florida by a combined 98.
From that point on, while the Hogs didn't exactly catch fire--no team legitimately "hot" loses in Starkville, do they?--they were more-than-respectable, winning at Auburn, downing eventual bowl winners Tulsa and LSU, and losing nailbiters to Kentucky and Ole Miss. Despite the hiccups to start the year, one questionable pass interference call against the Rebels (one the Hog partisans I know will be more than happy to swear at you about) might have been the only thing keeping a team gutted by graduation from making a bowl anyway. Thus, you know, the optimism for 2009.
Notable previous meeting: In 1984, first-year Arkansas coach Ken Hatfield took over for Lout Holtz and guided the Hogs to a 7-3-1 record and a berth in the Liberty Bowl, where they prepared to take on Pat Dye's 8-4 Auburn team in the first-ever meeting between the two proud programs. That year, Liberty Bowl organizers adopted a new logo including the famous Liberty Bell, and at the annual team dinner, unveiled a mini-replica of the bell to be used as a centerpiece for the head table and a trophy for the winner.
Unfortunately, the replica had been made with one noticeable flaw--namely, that it didn't include the instantly-recognizable crack featured on the original. According to reports, Arkansas players and coaches were milling about with bowl organizers after the dinner, and joking about the missing crack, when starting Hog defensive tackle Jackson "Wild Man" Jennings offered to put a crack in the bell free of charge. Before organizers could ask Jennings what exactly he meant, Jennings viciously headbutted the bell in what he later admitted was his attempt to crack it. Unfortunately for him, the bell had been cast out of the same iron alloy that made up the original, and Jennings would suffer a mild concussion that would hold him out of the game two days later.
With Jennings absent from the Razorback line, Bo Jackson would roll to 193 yards and MVP honors in a 21-15 Auburn win.
Actual series history: Auburn and Arkansas have still played just 18 times, with Auburn holding a 10-7 edge and the two teams playing a single tie, 24-24, in 1992. The road team has gone 6-1 in this series over the past seven years.
Causes for Alarm
1. Look, we can be honest about this, can we? "Razorbacks" is an incredible nickname. I mean, come on, it's a feral pig with a razor for a back. According to Wikipedia, not only are the Hogs the only team with a porcine nickname in D-I (or professional sports), but the name was chosen in a vote of the student body in 1910. Pretty shrewd choice there, 1910 Arkansas students, and no doubt it's the resulting approval of the football gods that enabled the Hogs to escape the collapsing SWC for the cushy confines of the SEC ... unless you think it's just coincidence the lame-O SMU "Mustangs" and Houston "Cougars" are still kicking around Conference USA.
2. The weird thing about playing Arkansas is that your odds are much, much better that you're going to wind up playing some multiple-overtime instant classic ... and much, much better that you're going to end up losing said classic, as the Hogs have compiled a 7-1 overtime record since 1996, a record that includes games lasting six, six, and seven overtimes. If Auburn's going to win, they'd better od it in regulation, is what I'm saying.
Causes for Confidence
1. If there's any karma to be had from the coaches on the two sidelines, it's all going to be in Auburn's favor. Petrino is still the same slimeball who decided he'd be more than happy to listen to the slimeball Auburn administrators flying into Louisville in the dead of night while he still had games to prepare for; now that those particular slimeballs are nearly all gone or emasculated, Petrino should have some debt to our fine football program that needs to be paid in the form of, I don't know, a heartbreaking last-second loss or something.
On top of that, Arkansas is still the same program that hired Gus Malzahn in what was quickly revealed to be a transparent attempt at recruiting his players, then ignored many of his schemes and ideas in the process of eventually running him out of town before the cultists behind him caused the man in charge too much trouble. Arkansas still owes Malzahn a debt, one that needs to be paid in the form of, I don't know, a heartbreaking last-second loss or something.
2. Man, what's happened to Arkansas? Consider some of the, um, characters from the Hogs fairly recent past: Nolan Richardson, Darren McFadden, the Dick brothers, Joe Kines, Matt Jones, Houston GIGGITY Nutt and the Flying Circus trailing behind him, Corliss Williamson ... dude, not only was there a freaking President showing up to their games not that long ago, it just happened to be the President who'd do things like this:
Not that all of these guys were totally upstanding role models at all times, but at least they were interesting. Now their head football coach is a bloodless robotic mercenary, the only defining characteristic of their current basketball coach's tenure is a willingness to suspend anything that moves, and as for the players, well, we don't even have so much as a Dick joke to make at their expense any more. It's just not the same scene, man, and I know I can't be the only one disappointed by this turn of affairs. They'll pay for not keeping us entertained one day.
Actual alleged analysis: I'm not going to enjoy this section of the preview. Here, I'll quote Phil Steele (slightly de-abbreviationed) on the Hogs:
Arkansas was 6th best in SEC play last year (+.1 ypg). Arkansas (-9) almost made my Turnovers=Turnaround article and qualifies for my yards-per-points article on both offense and defense. They were #3 in the FBS in starts lost to injury (47). Their 18 returning starters are the most in the SEC.In other words: if not for the turnovers, injuries, and bad luck in the red zone, the Hogs would have been in the top third of the SEC last year, and now they've got nearly everyone back and anothery ear in Petrino's system.
That's not to say Auburn doesn't have a few reasons to think they can win this game. Underdogs and road teams have had a freaking ton of success in this series, and if we know Auburn's going to be road team, we can be just about as certain they're going to be an underdog, too. While Arkansas's defense returns a ton of guys, most of those guys were terrible last season; if the Spread Eagle 2.0 takes off the way we're hoping, Auburn could put some serious points up, even at their place. And while virtually everything we've read over the past year regarding Ryan Mallett has been positive, he still hasn't, you know, played an actual game. The last time he did--take it from a guy who's watched more than his fair share of Michigan games over the past few years--he was a total train wreck. Yeah, he was a true freshman at that point, but aside from being able to throw the ball through a wall it's not like he showed off too many glimmers of his alleged potential, either.
That said: I think Steele is pretty much on the mark. Unless Mallett is a total bust (and he couldn't be better suited, physically, to a Petrino offense), the Hogs are going to be stout, a top 25-caliber team and a shoulda-been legit SEC West contender if their schedule wasn't such a bear. (Their four road games: LSU, Florida, Alabama, Ole Miss. Holy crap.)
I think that if the injury bug spares us, Auburn's going to be capable of upsetting a stout, top-25 caliber, shoulda-been legit (or just legit) SEC West contender. But on the road, with their offensive overhaul having a year's head start on ours, and Petrino unfortunately still a hell of a coach as well as a reptile, I'm guessing we'll have to look elsewhere for said upset. But hey, there's always hope: I bet a lot of Hog fans would have said the same thing about Auburn at this time last year.