Auburn’s future bright after win over Arkansas

The extra bit of emotion was clear outside the Auburn locker

room following a 35-17 win over Arkansas, even if Tigers’ coach Gus

Malzahn only admitted it in bits and pieces.

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.”