Auburn's future bright after win over Arkansas
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP)
Whether the habitually reserved Malzahn wanted to admit it or not, the smiles and hugs among his friends and family told the story of how much the win meant - especially after his first three trips to his home state ended with losses.
''And I knew that, there's no doubt,'' Malzahn said.
Now that Malzahn's homecoming is out of the way, the story line for Auburn becomes itself.
More specifically, the remarkable season the No. 7 Tigers (8-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) have put together - rising from the ashes of last season's 3-9 collapse to rank among the SEC's best heading into their final three games of the season.
Exactly how far Auburn can ride its current five-game winning streak is unclear. What is clear is Malzahn and the Tigers believe there's nothing they can't overcome, even with a schedule that includes next week's trip to Tennessee before home games against Georgia and top-ranked Alabama.
''I think it was big for (Malzahn),'' Auburn linebacker Jake Holland said. ''I think it's big for the whole team. We're 8-1 now and each week getting better.''
While the Tigers still have hope of reaching the SEC championship game for the first time since their national championship season of 2010, the Razorbacks (3-6, 0-5) are now one loss away from sealing a second straight season without a bowl appearance.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was full of optimism when he was hired away from Wisconsin last December, but he appears closer than ever to missing out on a bowl game for the first time in his eighth season as a head coach.
The myriad of season-long problems for the struggling Razorbacks were once again in full force on Saturday, from three turnovers on offense to a defense that allowed 233 yards rushing by Auburn.
Two of the turnovers came after starting quarterback Brandon Allen was injured in the first half, missing two series while a gash on his right leg was stapled and bandaged. Those drives ended with an interception thrown by quarterback AJ Derby and a fumbled snap by the backup, leading the first of four rushing touchdowns for Auburn's Tre Mason.
Bielema tried nearly anything imaginable on Saturday, from a fourth-down conversion using a swing gate formation, to an onside kick attempt and a pair of halfback passes. None of the creativity, however, was able to slow Arkansas' continued fall.
''It's baby steps,'' Bielema said. ''I'd much rather be sprinting, but right now we're walking.''
Allen, who has also missed action this season while battling a shoulder injury, returned and finished 10-of-22 passing for 112 yards and a touchdown, but he was unable to pull the Razorbacks closer than 28-17 in the second half.
''I think if you didn't know it by now, he's a tough kid,'' Arkansas fullback Kiero Small said of Allen. ''... He's all in for this team. That's one thing, I think as a team we've got guys who are in it for the cause.''
The Razorbacks' cause at this point is just hoping for something positive to happen before the end of the season.
The Tigers, on the other hand, have suddenly turned from one of the biggest surprises of the SEC to being in a position to reach the SEC title game. That's no easy task given the teams still left on Auburn's schedule, but then again, it's not like the Tigers were supposed to have come this far in the first place.
''I'm just proud of the guys,'' Malzahn said. ''They play together, they do what the coaches ask, they play for each other.
''And they're finding ways to win.''