FAYETTEVILLE — Sometime before kickoff tonight, Arkansas’ Bret Bielema and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn will stand together in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
It’s a common custom between coaches before the game. Typically, an uneventful meet-and-greet before they try to best the other on the field. But this exchange will be watched closely because of the banter between the two coaches since July, a flame stoked by Bielema when he raised issues about discrepancy between television coverage and game film Auburn provided Arkansas this week.
So Bielema was asked Thursday what the two coaches, who haven’t had much direct interaction since taking their respective jobs last winter, will tell each other.
"I have no idea," Bielema said Thursday. "I remember going into my first year as a head coach … During the summer I was sitting there thinking what am I going to go to the 50 and shake Jim Tressel’s hand and talk about? What am I going to talk about with Joe Paterno? Usually I just sat there and listened because those guys will talk."
No matter what happens, the moment is just the opening act to the main show.
Arkansas (3-5, 0-4 in SEC) plays eighth-ranked Auburn (7-1, 3-1 in SEC) in Razorback Stadium tonight at 5 p.m. in a game pitting programs built around different philosophies and teams searching for wins for very different reasons.
On one side, the Gus Bus is rolling back into town with a coaching staff loaded with Arkansas ties (offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, running backs coach Tim Horton, offensive line coach J.B. Grimes) and a hurry-up, no-huddle offense hitting its stride the past few weeks. It has helped the Tigers become one of the biggest surprises in the SEC season, too, after finishing 3-9 a year ago.
But keeping pace with Alabama in the SEC West championship hunt will require something Malzahn hasn’t experienced since his one-year run as Arkansas’ offensive coordinator in 2006. He hasn’t been on the winning sideline in Fayetteville, suffering losses as the offensive coordinator at Tulsa (2008) and Auburn (2009, 2011).
Malzahn has shrugged off the homecoming this week, saying he didn’t expect it to be anything different than a "normal game on the road." Lashlee, who has been with Malzahn since playing quarterback for him at Shiloh Christian, said it’s no surprise.
"Let’s be honest, it’s a place we’re from and we’ve been before," said Lashlee, who played at Arkansas. "It’s a big game, but it’s a big game because we have a lot of opportunity out in front of us. I have known Coach and back in high school it didn’t matter who we were playing he prepared the same way."
Bielema and the Razorbacks, meanwhile, are desperate for a win after suffering through five straight losses – the last two by a combined score of 104-7.
Arkansas’ brand of Bielema’s "normal American football" is going through obvious growing pains with an offense that has scored 17 points in the past three games and a defense struggling to stop opponents in conference games.
Arkansas hasn’t scored a point in seven quarters, hasn’t won a game since Sept. 14, and is on the verge of falling to 0-5 in the SEC for just the second time.
It’s a historical low the Razorbacks — who will honor 20 seniors tonight before their final game in Fayetteville — are determined to avoid by beating the Tigers.
"I want to score one more point than they get on Saturday," Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said Tuesday. "If it’s 12-11 or 61-60, I’m happy. I want to get one more than them. I want to win. I want to win the football game."
It would mean plenty to Bielema, who has seemingly been at odds with Malzahn since responding to the coach’s initial thought that anyone who claimed the hurry-up, no-huddle was dangerous for player safety must be joking. Bielema made it clear he wasn’t a "comedian" at SEC media days, lashing back at the assertion while standing by his firm belief that worn down players are more susceptible to injuries.
He took it a step further last week, saying the best thing for Arkansas’ recruiting efforts is for the Philadelphia Eagles to fail under no-huddle coach Chip Kelly.
"Every kid that plays offense and defense and special teams football in college wants to play in the NFL," Bielema said. "He wants to play in a system that’s going to be benefit his ability to play at the next level. I really believe that over the course of time, the pro-style offense is going to win out for that exact reason."
Malzhan’s said this week he wasn’t referring to Bielema in particular last July, but it certainly hasn’t quieted the philosophical war. Bielema made sure of that Monday, when he revealed Auburn left a "swinging gate" formation from its extra-point and two-point conversion team off of the video it sent to the Razorbacks.
Malzahn only offered a brief response to the issue, saying the Tigers will always "operate with the utmost integrity" and that the SEC was aware of the situation.
He also paid a compliment to Bielema for his success while at Wisconsin.
"He’s an excellent coach," Malzahn said. "I mean, look at his track record. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He’s won everywhere he’s been. I know they’re going to be prepared, and he’s also got a very strong staff with him."
Bielema — who admitted he didn’t know much about Malzahn’s career until he arrived at Arkansas — said he respected the coach’s accomplishments as well.
There’s no doubt Malzahn’s system has been successful dating back to high school. He wrote the book — literally — on the hurry-up, no-huddle and it helped him rise from the high school ranks to Arkansas’ staff in 2006. He won a national championship and Heisman Trophy winner as offensive coordinator at Auburn in 2010, earned a head coaching job at Arkansas State in 2012, and now at Auburn.
But his history in the state doesn’t impress many of the current Razorbacks.
"I have never really paid much attention to coach Malzahn whenever he coached here or wherever he was at — Springdale High," Arkansas offensive tackle Grady Ollison said Tuesday. "I never paid too much attention to that."
Instead, Arkansas wants to prove its brand of football under Bielema is capable of success despite the struggles. The goal is to make sure Bielema has a memorable moment when he and Malzahn are face-to-face again for the postgame handshake.
"Coach B said earlier in the week this game is all about pride," Arkansas receiver Javontee Herndon said. "We’ve got to start somewhere. … This is a new beginning."