Auburn-Arkansas Preview

Auburn-Arkansas Preview

Published Oct. 29, 2013 5:15 p.m. ET

Gus Malzahn's offenses have always taken off swiftly upon his arrival at a school, just not quite like what's happened with Auburn.

Heading into Saturday's visit to Arkansas, the eighth-ranked Tigers are on a three-game offensive tear they couldn't manage even when Cam Newton was powering the 2010 team to the national championship with Malzahn as offensive coordinator.

Auburn (7-1, 3-1 SEC) has produced one of the program's 12 highest-yardage totals in each of the past three games, averaging 652 yards during the stretch with no Heisman Trophy candidate or big star leading the way. The Tigers had never gained 600 yards three times in a season.

They have key additions like quarterback Nick Marshall and tailback Cameron Artis-Payne, but perhaps the biggest newcomer was Malzahn and his hurry-up, no-huddle offense.


"I think guys (are) just playing harder, and actually believing in the coaches and having trust in the coaches," tailback Corey Grant said.

The first-year turnaround is nothing new. Malzahn's offenses as coordinator at Arkansas (3-5, 0-4), Tulsa and Auburn climbed an average of 53 spots in the national rankings in scoring offense, 49 in total yards and 19 in rushing yards in his initial season.

Auburn's rise has made that look like chump change. The Tigers' surprising climb into SEC championship contention has been spearheaded by an offense that has jumped 85 spots nationally in scoring, 102 in total and 73 in rushing.

"Gus has got an extremely unique package that they're obviously grasping very, very well," Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema said. "And they've got players that fit into it. I think their execution has gotten better every game."

Marshall's passing numbers have only been decent, with six touchdowns against four interceptions. Malzahn said Tuesday he's "day to day" for this game with an injury to his throwing shoulder, but the quarterback practiced Sunday.

Marshall is a key part of the nation's fifth-best ground game, with 461 yards and five touchdowns despite missing all of one game and most of another with injuries.

"They're No. 1 in the SEC in rushing the football," Bielema said. "He's a valuable part of that, whether it's a read-zone or a quarterback run game or he makes the right call on where the ball needs to be handed off. And he's very efficient. I think he's gotten better every game. You can see him gaining confidence."

Marshall has plenty of help in the running game.

Tre Mason (753 yards, nine touchdowns), Artis-Payne (510, five) and Grant (451, four) have all played significant roles. All four of those players, Marshall included, have produced 100-yard games. Only five teams have had four players reach triple digits in a game this season.

"It's actually fun, getting in, with the O-line we have and the receivers we have," Grant said. "I can just break one at any time."

The offensive renaissance is not just about Marshall and the running backs.

Sammie Coates' 25.5-yard average on 21 catches leads the nation. And the offensive line led by center Reese Dismukes and left tackle Greg Robinson has given up seven sacks, tied with Alabama for second-best in the league behind Arkansas.

"I think each week we have improved in our execution of the run game," Malzahn said. "The fact that we've had three different running backs all do a solid job, our line has done a solid job and then the fact that our quarterbacks have been able to run, too. That has been the biggest factor."

The Tigers' 24 rushing touchdowns and 12 passing TDs already top last season's totals in 12 games.

Bielema, meanwhile, is not having much first-year success at Arkansas.

The Razorbacks have dropped five straight and were totally dominated in their past two games, losing 52-7 at home to then-No. 14 South Carolina on Oct. 12 and 52-0 at top-ranked Alabama on Oct. 19.

And that's not the only thing Bielema is upset about, as his war of words with Auburn is alive and well.

His latest issue with the Tigers' coaching staff came as a result of game video Auburn shared with the Razorbacks, footage Bielema said painted a less-than-complete picture of the Tigers' plays.

"There are just some clips that haven't, shall we say, the TV copy doesn't match the film copy," Bielema said.

Bielema's complaint, which he said he filed with the SEC, is the most recent in a series of run-ins with Auburn - dating to back-and-forth banter between he and Malzahn during the summer.

During SEC media days in July, Bielema had his first run-in with Malzahn after the Auburn coach said he thought Bielema's concerns for player safety in a no-huddle, hurry-up system were "a joke."

"I'm not a comedian," Bielema responded.

The Malzahn-Bielema exchange was followed by another bit of public banter between the Arkansas coach and another Auburn coach in August following an injury to Razorbacks tight end Austin Tate.

Following Tate's injury, Tigers assistant coach Tim Horton - previously an assistant at Arkansas - tweeted his well-wishes to the tight end for a speedy recovery. His tweet, however, came a day before Bielema planned to release news of the injury - leading to a phone conversation between the two.

"I go over in detail our players, our coaches, our media in-house and, of course, we release information," Bielema said at the time. "I forgot to review this with the Auburn staff."

Arkansas has won two straight and four of five in the series, with three of those victories coming when Auburn was ranked.