Beating Auburn might actually mean more to Arkansas than beating Alabama

Ketron Jackson Jr., Arkansas football
Photo credit: Nick Wenger

It’s no secret that even with Arkansas football coming off a win and a week off, the Hogs have their work cut out for them.

Ole Miss, LSU and Liberty are hardly fun teams in November. The combined record of these teams is an astounding 20-4 and they all come to Fayetteville within the month.

And the Hogs need a quality win. Auburn probably won’t register as one of them, but it has easily become the most important game of the year in many ways.

In fact, a win on Saturday will probably be just as good as a win over Alabama, all else being equal. Knocking off the standard bearer is great and all, but it’s nowhere near as sustainable as taking care of business against the SEC bottom dweller when you have the chance. The former is phenomenal, but the latter is essential. While the Tide may be an aspirational program for most anyone, it’s important for the Hogs to also get back to competing with the second-ranked Yellowhammer State.

Sam Pittman’s rather magical touch on the football program is due in large part to his recognition of its history. So he certainly knows that Jordan-Hare Stadium was a strangely great place for Arkansas tightrope teams to congregate.

And Saturday’s matinee against the Tigers offers a rare chance for the Hogs, too: them could be the team to ring the sack on Bryan Harsin.

On the contrary, it was a place where some committed Hog coaches thrived. Pittman is by no means in serious danger, but he can really get this 2022 campaign back on track with a win.

Houston Nutt saved twice…

No Razorback coach to date has handled the trip to the Plains better than Houston Nutt. Although he was and may still be controversial, he won 3-2 at the Jordan-Hare Stadium.

That included a hard-fought victory in 1998, part of his 8-0 start, and then the Hogs memorably beat the Tigers four years later thanks to Fred Talley going wild in a historic 38-17 game.

Courtesy of the great WARMACHINE2013, footage from Fred Talley’s epic afternoon at Auburn in 2002 remains a throwback favorite two decades later.

Nutt’s need for a miracle was greater four seasons later, and the odds of such a performance much longer. No. 2 Auburn had national title designs and the Hogs still hadn’t quite figured out how to execute Gus Malzahn’s offense.

They didn’t really do much that day either, but Darren McFadden broke away for one long run and Reggie Fish became a household name good grounds and stifling defense led Arkansas to a 27-10 upset.

Darren McFadden’s 63-yard touchdown run in 2006 helped the Razorbacks upset the No. 2 Tigers.

Nutt unquestionably resurrected his Razorback career with both of those wins. Arkansas ended up winning the SEC West both seasons, a highly unlikely outcome this season.

But Pittman can still learn from those wins years later. Auburn is stout in the backfield but shaky at quarterback as they were then, and this will seemingly be the umpteenth 11th hour kickoff between the teams in their SEC history. (But it will actually be the twelfth time in 29 years that they’ve started before noon.)

…and even Bobby Petrino and John L. Smith did it comfortably.

Nutt left the cupboard pretty bare for Bobby Petrino in 2008, and the Hogs were in the middle of a terrible stretch when they went to Auburn. Fortunately, the Tigers’ mess was even worse.

The Hogs pulled off a 25-22 upset that ultimately sent Tommy Tuberville in search of a new offensive coordinator. It wasn’t a matter of art, but it provided a first glimpse of Petrino’s creativity and ability to play Joe Adams’ games:

Joe Adams’ first and only career TD pass led the Hogs to an upset win over Auburn, 25-22, in 2008. And yes, that’s Jimmy Dykes on color commentary.

Even in 2012, when John L. Smith was aimlessly doing what he did for those few weeks, Arkansas did well on the Plains. His Hogs, the national punchline for nearly a month, somehow blanked Auburn 24-7 on the strength of five Tiger turnovers.

Auburn got salty pretty quickly after that under Malzahn, who beat the Hogs seven of eight times. However, the last of them was a doozy in 2020.

Pittman no doubt remembers that.

Could Arkansas end the Harsin era?

Harsin has been skating since he arrived, somewhat unwelcome, from Boise State. He was no slouch at Idaho, winning 69 games and the 2014 Fiesta Bowl in seven seasons there.

But his hiring in 2021 as Malzahn’s successor created a fan base that proved to be…er, challenging.

The move drew immediate criticism. Malzahn took a massive deal with the Tigers and won a lot of games, but the offense stagnated and lost more big games than it won.

It was no great sin for Auburn to want a change, but Harsin was not welcome from the jump. A 6-7 first year didn’t help matters, and then there was the matter of an internal investigation that didn’t exactly end with Harsin being vindicated.

The Arkansas football staff, hopefully and surely, doesn’t care at all about this drama. They had a little extra time to try to heal a defense that needed it and to keep the offensive motivation out of BYU’s way.

This trip may provide an end to a six-game skid against the Tigers. That would be another emphatic statement that Arkansas is just as capable of eventually threatening Bam’s stranglehold on the West when Nick Saban decides he’s done.

Whether Harsin survives is of no consequence to Pittman, but losing another to Auburn could mean the Hogs see an Auburn head coach committed again in 2023.

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