AUBURN, Ala. — Remember when Cam Newton sliced his way through the Arkansas defense, leading Auburn to a thrilling win en route to the Heisman Trophy?
Remember when an unknown commodity, Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson, came off the bench in place of injured starter Ryan Mallett to light up the Tigers during the 65-43 shootout between ranked teams on The Plains?
It was just two years ago. The midseason meeting was part of Auburn’s unpredictable national title run under coach Gene Chizik. It was a banner season for the Razorbacks under Bobby Petrino, too, winning six straight after the loss to reach the first Bowl Championship Series game in the program’s history.
But the teams will meet in Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time since that high-scoring game under much different circumstances at 11 a.m. today. Arkansas (1-4, 0-2 in Southeastern Conference) and Auburn (1-3, 0-2) are now struggling opponents, searching for a win in hopes of salvaging seasons off to brutal starts.
“We’ve got to go out there and get a win,” Arkansas receiver Cobi Hamilton said earlier this week. “No matter what, we’re desperate for a win.”
The struggles are a reminder of how quickly things can change in college football.
Auburn’s slide seemingly began the minute Newton walked out the door, becoming the top pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. The Tigers went 8-5 last season, struggling on defense and with finding consistency at quarterback.
Those same problems have continued this season. Auburn’s schedule hasn’t provided any relief with losses to top 25 opponents Clemson, Mississippi State and LSU, either. But the Tigers have had an extra week to prepare for Arkansas after the 12-10 loss to LSU on Sept. 22, and understand today’s game is critical to recovery.
“There is an urgency around Auburn, without question, when you’re 1-3,” Chizik said. “And there’s an urgency to win. There was an urgency last week. We didn’t get it done. But we expect our team to play with that energy and that passion every week. Our kids are hungry, and they want to win.”
Said Auburn quarterback and former Shiloh Christian star Kiehl Frazier: “We know we have the talent to win. We just have to execute right.”
The Razorbacks’ free fall is well-documented now, too. It began with April’s motorcycle accident, which led to Petrino’s firing and John L. Smith’s return.
There have been rocky times off the field with Smith at the helm. The on-the-field results have produced the program’s first four-game losing streak since 2004, its worst start since 1992, and two SEC losses by a combined score of 110-10.
But the Razorbacks insist they haven’t packed things in during what seems destined to be remembered as one of the most disappointing seasons in school history.
“It’s hard,” Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said. “We’ve been through a lot of adversity. But you just can’t think about that. I know I sound like a broken record, but you’ve just got to move on. Just get another week. The greatest thing about sports, you get another chance to play. We’re just going to try to change this around, turn it around, and everything like that and it has to start with Auburn.”
The Razorbacks still believe they have the talent to get it done against the Tigers, beginning with Wilson. The quarterback has enjoyed big performances against Auburn the past two seasons, throwing for 594 yards with six touchdowns.
“Arkansas obviously hasn’t started the season in the way that I’m sure they wanted to, but I think they’re still a very, very dangerous football team,” Chizik said.
But the teams will meet as unranked opponents for the first time since 1999, when Arkansas beat Auburn 34-10. It’s also the first time they’ve played as unranked opponents in Jordan-Hare Stadium since 1996, when Auburn won 28-7.
Neither will crack the top 25 with a win today. But it could go a long way for both teams, who have been under plenty of scrutiny because of their struggles.
“We’ve got to go out and make sure we don’t make mistakes, and play good enough to win, and get a win under our belt,” Smith said. “I don’t think our attitude is bad. I think these guys have held together and support one another and believe in what is going on ... Now it’s just a matter of us going to the field and making sure that happens on a weekend. Take what we do in practice and take it to the game.”
Arkansas hasn’t been 1-5 or worse since 1958, when Frank Broyles’ first team opened the season 0-6 before winning four straight. Auburn, meanwhile, is trying to avoid its first 1-4 start since 1998 when it finished 3-8 under Bill Oliver.
One of them will reach that low Saturday, continuing a disappointing season two years removed from the shootout between ranked teams. The other will move forward with a sigh of relief, hoping it will kick off a strong finish.
“We’re just hungry for a win,” Arkansas running back Knile Davis said. “I think a lot of the heartache and bad feelings will go away if we get a win. We’ll kind of be rejuvenated, so that’s what we’re waiting on.”