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November 2, 2013

Speak softly, carry a big playbook

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AUBURN | Arkansas has been a problem for Auburn in the past, but now the main characters are Gus Malzahn and Bret Bielema.

Yeah, things are changing.

Auburn (7-1) has been one of the most intriguing teams in all the Bowl Subdivision this season. You've seen it unfold. Why did this renaissance begin so quickly? Malzahn and his staff have provided major upgrades in terms of strategy. They've also created an environment where falling short of personal expectations, for any reason, is akin to quitting.

Nobody quits.

So now we come to the ninth game on Auburn's schedule, which doesn't look like much of a challenge. The Razorbacks seem spent. Their head coach, a man from Illinois who played at Iowa, has resumed his silly war of words against Malzahn. It's a weak ploy; Malzahn is so understated in the public eye that a chance to somehow flummox him with biting remarks and baseless accusations is essentially nil. He lets his football team do the talking without saying a word.

And that's how it should be.

The issue, of course, is that Bielema's team hasn't been able to shut anyone's mouth since the middle of September. Even then it was hapless Southern Miss, which has lost 19 consecutive games. In the absence of excellence, Bielema has elected to create an artificial spectacle.

Bravado doesn't win football games.

Toughness does. Execution does. Malzahn has elicited dramatic improvements in both areas since arriving last winter. The Tigers are an accurate reflection of their head coach -- always on task, aggressive, assured.

That's why Auburn will win this game.

While the final drive against Mississippi State probably is the defining moment of this season so far, some players feel differently. The trip to Baton Rouge remains a largely unspoken, daily scourge within the locker room. While losing at LSU wasn't seen as a major slip at the time, so to speak, players now look back on that game and believe it was a senseless stumble.

Something was different about Auburn during those first 20 minutes or so. The assuredness wasn't there. Neither was the concentration. Players were out of place. The team was a step slow -- and LSU wasn't.

It avoided the same pitfalls in College Station a few weeks later. The Tigers started fast, limited mistakes, fell behind, didn't get overwhelmed by the moment, built a retort and won the game. In that order.

That's how road games in the Southeastern Conference are won.

That the LSU game remains a fresh wound despite the elixir of Texas A&M says a lot about this team. Malzahn's insistence that it hasn't arrived, that success cannot be cataloged until January, has affected profoundly the way players view their task.

Auburn has struggled at Arkansas in recent seasons. The Tigers were annihilated in 2011 because of drops and defensive lapses, in 2009 because of a slow start.

These Razorbacks don't resemble those Razorbacks.

Bobby Petrino's career crashed. The program followed in turn. And now Auburn is led by a former Arkansas player and assistant who wants nothing more than to keep his team blasting through the Western Division. He wants that Iron Bowl showdown with a trip to Atlanta on the line.

There's been a lot of talk this week about Malzahn perhaps being more focused for this game because of his ties to the program. That seems like a reasonable concept on face value. The problem is that Malzahn isn't orthodox. He doesn't dabble in rhetoric. He's a bookworm who speaks in Xs and Os and Ws without any attention paid to anything beyond what adds meaning to those three letters.

He'll do what it takes to beat Arkansas on Saturday -- nothing more and nothing less.

His team is strong and focused.

Arkansas isn't.

This series appears to be on the verge of a major turn. And it's one that could leave Bielema in the awkward position of explaining to his supporters how this team has fallen below the incredibly low standard set by John L. Smith last season.

That's the one time I'd actually like to hear Bielema speak.



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