BY RYAN BLACK | email@example.com
With the 2013 season drawing closer by the minute, it’s never too early to begin taking a look at Auburn’s opponents in the coming campaign. On Day 5, we start off with the Arkansas Razorbacks. The Tigers will make the trip to Fayetteville, Ark., to square off against the Razorbacks in Game No. 9 this season.
Where: Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium (72,000) | Fayetteville, Ark.
All-time series: Auburn leads 11-10-1
When last they met: Though there were other games with a larger margin of victory for the opponent, Auburn’s 24-7 loss to Arkansas may have been its worst defeat in 2012. How so? The Razorbacks entered that contest dead-last in the nation in total defense, allowing 510.2 yards per game. They had lost by a combined score of 110-10 in their first two SEC games, against Alabama and Texas A&M, respectively. And Arkansas did not get a sack or force a turnover in either of those two losses. (This isn’t even mentioning the fact Arkansas had tumbled from a preseason No. 8 ranking to four straight losses after winning its opener.) After those defeats to the Crimson Tide and Aggies, the Razorbacks followed it up with another one, this one at home versus Rutgers the week before they arrived in Auburn. So of course, Arkansas’ defense came into Jordan-Hare Stadium and looked like world-beaters, coming up with five takeaways and eight sacks. The Tigers were so pitiful then-coach Gene Chizik made it a point to issue an apology to everyone invested in the program in his postgame presser. “The bottom line is,” Chizik said, “the Auburn fans and the Auburn family did not deserve this today, and I apologize to anybody who came to the game to watch it.” Need I say more?
The coach: Bret Bielema (First year as Arkansas’ head coach; 68-24 record overall in seven seasons at Wisconsin from 2006-12)
2012 record: 4-8, 2-6 in SEC; finished in sixth place in SEC West
Total offense: 420.17 ypg (49th in Division I, 6th in SEC)
Scoring offense: 23.50 ppg (89th, 12th)
Total defense: 409.92 ypg (73rd, 12th)
Scoring defense: 30.42 ppg (81st, 12th)
2012 Year-in-Review: Last year was over before it really began for the Razorbacks. The day former coach Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle on April 2, 2012, about 20 miles southeast of Fayetteville, Arkansas’ hopes and dreams of a storybook season went down with it. Petrino was let go, of course, but not before lying about what had happened and bringing further embarrassment upon the program. (A certain bowl-cut hairstyled student journalist from The Red & Black even penned a column on the stupidity and extreme arrogance of Petrino’s actions.) Enter John L. Smith. The eccentric coach was in over his head from the beginning, as he deserted his alma mater, Weber State, for the chance to take the helm of the sinking ship that was the S.S. Arkansas. Smith ended up making more headlines for off-the-field matters (declaring bankruptcy in the middle of the year) and bizarre press conferences — remember to “smile!” — than he did for his coaching. (My predecessor, Aaron Brenner, even wrote a great “7 at 7″ about Smith, the coach he dubbed “The Most Interesting Man in the SEC.”) As for the season itself, Arkansas won its opener against Jacksonville State before losing to Louisiana-Monroe the following week in overtime, a defeat which sent the rest of the season into a tailspin. The only solace the Razorbacks could take out of the 2012 campaign was beating Auburn and Kentucky in league play to avoid being labeled “the worst team in the SEC.”
Biggest area of concern: Quarterbacks like Tyler Wilson don’t grow on trees. Expecting redshirt sophomore Brandon Allen to try to replicate Wilson’s production would be ludicrous. Wilson left Fayetteville holding 29 school records and was the first Razorback signal-caller to earn first-team All-SEC honors. A few of those school records he owns are career passing yards (7,765), career completions (593) and career completion percentage (63.3). I could keep listing Wilson’s numbers all day, but for the sake of you, the reader, I’ll digress. One thing in Allen’s favor is that he had the chance to start two games last year while Wilson was hurt. Another is that he won’t be asked to put the ball in the air as much in Bielema’s run-heavy scheme. In Bielema’s seven years at Wisconsin, only one Badger quarterback topped 3,000 yards passing in a season: Russell Wilson in 2011, totaling 3,175. In the six other seasons, Wisconsin’s starting quarterbacks averaged just over 2,000 passing yards per year at 2,075. And in the situations when Arkansas elects to throw, Allen will have to find a reliable go-to option to fill the shoes of receiver Cobi Hamilton, who caught 90 passes for 1,335 yards and five touchdowns last season.
Key returning player/unit: One could easily pick defensive end Chris Smith here. The senior will be in the running for multiple postseason honors and awards as one the top players in the country at his position at the end of the year. But in an offense where being able to pound the ball on the ground is integral, center Travis Swanson will be a nigh-irreplaceable part of the Razorbacks’ offensive line this fall. The senior, who has already been named a preseason All-American second teamer by Athlon Sports, has been a constant presence up front during his Arkansas career. He has started all 38 games he has played in as a Razorback and blocked for a 3,000-yard passer each season. He also was part of the line in 2010 that was the first in school history to have both a 3,000-yard passer and a 1,000-yard rusher in the same season. Having a veteran like Swanson to ease the transition into the Bielema era is a luxury for the Razorbacks.
Extra point: Bielema ended his tenure at Wisconsin taking the Badgers to three straight Rose Bowls, though they lost all three games. The last Big Ten coach to pull off that feat was the legendary Woody Hayes of Ohio State, who led the Buckeyes to four consecutive Rose Bowl appearances from 1973-76. The Buckeyes came away victorious just once during that span.