Season opener fuels Arkansas for fall


FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas guard Brey Cook and the Razorbacks have had plenty of reasons to stay motivated throughout college football’s arduous offseason.

The anticipation of a new year is always the first place to start, especially when a senior like Cook is preparing for his final year. Then there’s the frustrating fact Arkansas wants to rebound after going 3-9 and 0-8 in the SEC in a disastrous 2013.

But Cook said the Razorbacks have worked harder than any of his previous four summers because of one other reason: Arkansas is opening the season at Auburn.

“It’s huge motivation,” Cook said. “You get tired? No, you’re not tired. You’ve got Auburn coming up. There’s no tired. There’s no skipping a meal. … No excuses. You’ve got Auburn coming up. You want to say something to a leader, a team, say you’re tired, you’re sick? No you’re not. You’ve got Auburn coming up.”

Arkansas’ second season under coach Bret Bielema won’t begin with an easy task, traveling to Auburn to play the 2013 SEC champions on Aug. 30.

It’s not the normal course for the Razorbacks, who had opened the past seven seasons against nonconference opponents like Louisiana-Lafayette, Jacksonville State, Missouri State, Tennessee Tech, Western Illinois and Troy. Safety Alan Turner said Arkansas has embraced the path, though, welcoming the challenge of facing an opponent that fell a few seconds short of winning the national championship.

“We want to play them and start off with a quality opponent like them,” Turner said last Wednesday. “They just came from being the SEC champions and then the runner-up for the national championship. I feel like that gave us a little extra motivation because, you know, you have to be prepared come Aug. 30.”

There is some historical significance to the Auburn opener as well.

Arkansas will kick off the season against an SEC opponent for the first time since joining the conference in 1992. It also will be the Razorbacks’ first opener against a conference opponent since 1980, when Arkansas lost at Texas 23-17.

Preseason polls have not been released, but Auburn is a shoe-in for the top 25 after last year’s success. So the Tigers will be Arkansas’ first opener against a ranked opponent since 2006, when it lost to sixth-ranked Southern California 50-14.

Bielema — who also has been pitted in a pace-of-play war with Auburn coach Gus Malzahn since his arrival — said there’s no doubt it “supplies motivation.”

“You get halfway into the two-a-days, when it starts getting a little hot, a little tough, and all of a sudden you just mention the name Auburn,” Bielema said. “We’re opening with a team that played in the national championship game and was within seconds of winning it, that snaps guys in pretty quick.”

Malzahn said his team knows it must be prepared as Auburn plays a conference opponent in its opener for the first time since 1995.

“We do have a lot of our guys back,” Malzahn said. “We’re playing at home. But we really expect Arkansas to be much improved. We’re going to have to play well.”

It’s safe to say neither team volunteered for the immediate test. The SEC Network, which will televise 45 conference games this season, played a big role.

The conference wants to ensure intriguing games are on its new network — which debuts Aug. 14 — each week and factored it into scheduling. There are two conference matchups on the SEC Network the first week. Texas A&M and South Carolina will play Aug. 28, while Arkansas and Auburn meet two days later.

Auburn, which beat Arkansas 35-17 in Fayetteville last season, will be favored even though starting quarterback Nick Marshall’s status is unknown because of his citation for marijuana possession. But the Tigers understand firsthand how much effort Arkansas is pouring into the opener after last season’s disappointment.

“I know what 3-9 feels like … there’s no bigger motivation that that,” Auburn defensive tackle Gabe Wright said. “If you really have true athletes who give it their all, workouts, class, football, nothing else matters but those three things.

“We had high confidence and I’m sure that is what’s going on over there. They’re going to come with that fire and it will be a good game.”

Bielema revealed Arkansas’ preparation for the Auburn began last spring, when the Razorbacks devoted portions of practice time to no-huddle offenses. Arkansas’ success in keeping Auburn off the field will be key to an early-season surprise.

Cook said anything is possible because “you can’t predict” the SEC. He pointed Auburn and Missouri, which combined to go 24-4 and played in the SEC Championship Game after teams missed bowl games in 2012.

The Razorbacks play both this season. But Cook said there’s only one opponent motivating Arkansas as it continues to work through the summer.

“I don’t even know who else is on the schedule right now,” Cook said. “Just Auburn.”