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Auburn returns from bye to face no-quit Arkansas
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Auburn returns from bye to face no-quit Arkansas

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Gus Malzahn has seen the tape. He’s seen Arkansas struggle.

He’s seen the Razorbacks’ frustrations come out on film. He’s seen them miss opportunities, make mistakes and fall down in defeat.

But what he hasn’t seen when studying Arkansas is a team that’s quit — and he expects a strong shot Saturday from resilient Razorbacks coached by one of the men he respects most in football.

Auburn and Arkansas kick off at 11 a.m. Saturday on SEC Network in Fayetteville, Ark., bringing Malzahn back to his old stomping grounds again, and bringing him back into another meeting with his dear friend and Arkansas head coach Chad Morris.

Auburn is 5-1 and 2-1 in the SEC, looking to bounce back from its first loss of the season at Florida on Oct. 5, and faces an Arkansas team that’s one of only two without a conference win the SEC, standing at 2-4 on the season and 0-3 in the league — but the Arkansas players haven’t quit on their coaches, Malzahn said this week in preparation, and he knows his team will be challenged on the road.

Despite the record, Arkansas is “close,” Malzahn says. As Morris put it in his press conference this week, the Razorbacks are “20 yards away from winning the last two games” — by the same token, a winning record on the season and in the conference. Arkansas lost by just four points each in its last two losses to Texas A&M and Kentucky away from home.

Arkansas drove down to the Kentucky 15-yard line down four points in the final three minutes of that 24-20 loss at Kentucky last weekend, but ultimately fell to the Wildcats. Against Texas A&M on Sept. 28 in AT&T Stadium, Arkansas drove down to the Texas A&M 19-yard line down four points in the final minute, before a fourth-and-5 pass fell incomplete and the Aggies survived 31-27.

“We’re talking about a team that, the last two games, they had really good opportunities to win,” Malzahn said this week. “They’re playing extremely hard. I think that is a tribute to their coaching staff. We’re expecting to get their best.

“They definitely have our attention,” he added.

Arkansas beat Portland State and Colorado State in non-conference games surrounding the team’s only decisive loss, coming 31-17 to Ole Miss in early September. Arkansas lost to San Jose State 31-24 before responding with that near-upset of Texas A&M.

“We’re putting ourselves in that position and now we’ve got to finish the deal,” Morris said in Fayetteville. “We just haven’t done that.”

It’d be a boon for Morris’ program to make that happen against No. 11 Auburn and his familiar foe, Malzahn.

The two traveling intertwined journeys crossed paths for their meeting as head coaches last year, in Morris’ first season leading the Razorbacks.

A look back at that game alone gives Auburn plenty to fear from Arkansas. Auburn beat Arkansas handedly 34-3 last year, but the Tigers’ offense was held to a season-low 225 yards of offense in the game, with defense and special teams helping bolster that struggling offense.

Malzahn and Morris first met during their rise through the high school coaching ranks some 15 years ago, with Morris guiding a powerhouse at Stephenville High School in Texas, and with Malzahn innovating offense at Springdale High School in Arkansas, near where Morris finds himself now.

They’ve both led high school programs to state titles, won championships as coordinators at the highest level of college football, and now they both lead SEC power programs — and that isn’t all they share.

“I root for him every other game but this one,” Malzahn said. They also share a friendship. “And I think he does the same.”

Morris was the offensive coordinator at Tulsa two years after Malzahn in 2010, then he was the OC at Clemson from 2011-04 before taking over as head coach at SMU from 2015-17 on the way to Arkansas before the 2018 season.

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