AUBURN, Ala. — The SEC West matchup between Auburn and Arkansas has intensified in recent years.
Yet despite last year’s game in Fayetteville, a back-and-forth, four overtime loss for Auburn, the once heated rivalry has simmered a bit.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, who made the jump from high school and began his college coaching career as the Razorbacks’ offensive coordinator in 2006, admitted the 2015 loss still frustrates him, but realizes he has no choice but to move on from it.
“That’s history, there’s nothing you can do about it,” Malzahn said. “Like I said, every year is different. This is a different team we have. We got a lot of new guys. They’ve got some new guys. But yeah I try not to think about things I can’t control any longer.”
Once upon a time — when Malzahn was a co-offensive coordinator at Tulsa and then OC at Auburn — the matchup against the Razorbacks was more meaningful.
Malzahn isn’t the only person on the Auburn sideline with ties to Arkansas, either. Before he suffered a career-ending shoulder injury, Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee was a backup quarterback for the Razorbacks from 2002-04.
Lashlee’s college coaching career also started on the sidelines in Fayetteville, where he served as a graduate assistant for Malzahn.
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema knows and understands the connections, but says his players don’t give it thought.
“The fact that it’s the SEC West makes it, I think, special,” Bielema said. “…Our kids don’t know anything (about the connections),” Bielema said. “That’s white noise we don’t hear or our kids don’t hear. We worry about OK, we’ve got an SEC opponent from the West who’s playing really good football. They’re a ranked football team that if we continue to play well that’s another notch in our belt, that’s the things we concentrate on.”
Since 2006, Arkansas has won 6-of-10 matchups, including last year’s extended battle. As much as both teams may want to downplay the competitiveness of the series, this year’s game carries obvious weight.
Both teams are ranked — it’s the first time Auburn has squared off against a ranked opponent in 399 days.
“It’s an important game because it’s the next SEC game and we’re playing at home, they just had a big win and they’ve got some momentum,” Malzahn said. “It’s a big game. We just kind of look at it as another game on our schedule and they’re a good team again and traditionally we’ve had a lot of good games with them.”
Of course, temperatures can always rise again — perhaps even as soon as Saturday afternoon.