AUBURN | Before Auburn played Arkansas State early this season, an Arkansas graduate who'd come to the game with his former-ASU-cheerleader wife asked me, "We're always hearing that Arkansas don't have a real rival in the conference. What does the rest of the old SEC think about us?"
"Still the new guy," I answered.
He nodded, knowing exactly what I meant. The Hogs remain an outlier, even after 21 SEC seasons and in an era when the conference stretches beyond Fayetteville.
I thought Rob Pate's pre-game column was particularly insightful on this point. Pate observed that Arkansas' opponents in the SEC "don't have a good feel for (Arkansas') program, their attitude, their personality, their heritage. You know no one that attends, attended, coaches or plays for the Hogs."
He was speaking of players, but I think the same lack of familiarity, all these years on, still applies to fans as well.
It's an odd thing, considering that two out of Auburn's last three head coaches are natives of Clinton Country. Tommy Tuberville had a lot of trouble with Arkansas, dropping what turned out to be critical games against lightly-regarded Razorback squads on multiple occasions.
After that experience, Auburn fans looked on this week's tilt in Fayetteville, against what's probably the worst team in the SEC West by a wide margin, with some trepidation.
"Yeah, they're bad," the chatter conceded, "but what if Gus gets the same brain-lock Tubs had every dang time we played those guys? I don't want to read about Jonathan Williams running past somebody's window on Sunday morning."
So even though Arkansas is arguably the weakest SEC team on Auburn's schedule, getting past them was a bigger deal than if the Tigers had drawn a cellar-dweller like, say, Kentucky. Not only did Gus Malzahn need to win just for the simple expedient of keeping a remarkable season going, he also needed to show that he didn't share the egg-laying tendencies of an otherwise-successful predecessor.
Of course, Arkansas entered this game with a literal new guy, Bret "Bert" Bielema, who's now in a six-game losing streak coaching in a conference about which he said less than two years ago, "We at the Big Ten don't want to be like the SEC, in any way, shape or form."
For reasons that still defy understanding, Bielema has continued shooting his mouth off even after abruptly leaving a cushy job at Wisconsin to become Boss Hog. There's no reason to recount his more recent displays of verbal jackassery, but based on Bielema's record to date, one has to assume his high opinion of the Conference That Can't Count has carried over to coaching at Arkansas. The Razorbacks really do look like a Big Ten team already. After all, they can't beat anybody in the SEC.
In a devious bit of in-your-face strategy, Malzahn chose to beat up on "Bert" using what could not have added up to a single page of his playbook. While the Tigers did occasionally rev up the pace to something approaching Malzahn Ludicrous Speed, for the most part the offense stuck with maybe three or four plays: Brutal, punishing, relentless, yardage-devouring plays.
Led by an offensive front that whipped the larger Razorback defensive line from start to finish, Tre Mason battered his way to four touchdowns and 168 yards -- with no single run accounting for more than 20. Augmented by the legs of Nick Marshall, who only bothered to throw the ball eight times, mostly screens (plus, of course, the game-breaking Sammie Coates go-route), Mason slaughtered so many Pigs on that field, he's going to be lucky if PETA doesn't file a formal protest.
Arkansas attempted to do what offensively-limited teams have to do when playing a superior opponent --control the clock. They did a pretty fair job of it, holding the ball nearly 10 minutes longer than the Tigers, but only had 17 points to show for all that trouble when the game ended.
The Hogs did a nice job exploiting Auburn's now well-established problems in the middle and in coverage, earning a respectable 346 total yards, roughly two-thirds of which came on the ground. Like other Auburn opponents, though, they found the going much rougher once they crossed the 20-yard line.
I confess to never having been fond of bend-don't-break defense and watching Arkansas march around between the 20s Saturday night drove me mildly nuts. That said, seeing Auburn's brute-force stop of the Hogs on the goal line on consecutive plays did more than a little to calm my nerves. If "Bert" really wants to play "normal American football," he's going to have to figure out something other than hoping really hard that his guys can push around the other guys.
But that's more than enough about Bielema and his growing list of embarrassing losses. With "the new guy" vanquished, Auburn and Malzahn are free to move on to closing weeks studded with more familiar foes, starting this weekend with an old nemesis that's been missing from the AU schedule for far too long.
Amen Corner beckons. What could be more Auburn than taking on four SEC teams in November? Away with the pig hats, bring on the guys dressed like traffic cones.
The Gus Bus has more miles to travel.