AUBURN, Ala. – The Auburn Tigers are unlikely to dismiss a team coming off a lousy season when it couldn't even win a Southeastern Conference game.
The sixth-ranked Tigers open defense of their SEC championship Saturday against an Arkansas team that's in pretty much the same situation they were going into last season.
The Razorbacks went 3-9 and lost all eight SEC games just like Auburn did two years ago before a dramatic bounce-back that ended in the national championship game.
"They went through the (kind of) season we went through just two seasons ago," Tigers defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker said. "Now they're coming out and redeeming themselves."
Still, Auburn is a three-touchdown favorite in the game even with uncertainty about when quarterback Nick Marshall will play after a one-game demotion to the bench for getting ticketed for marijuana possession in July. Sophomore Jeremy Johnson will start his first SEC game but coach Gus Malzahn said Marshall will play.
"It's going to be a tough matchup. Out of the gate you're going against one of the most proficient offenses in 2013 — but 2013 was 2013," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. "Whatever shows up in the backfield, and whatever person lines up on the field, we've just got to roll with it and make the best of the situation."
The rivalry has featured plenty of gamesmanship since Bielema and Malzahn arrived. They've carried out a public debate on hurry-up offenses. Bielema had also indicated Auburn sent an incomplete game video last season, and an Auburn player appeared to fake an injury.
Here are things to watch when No. 6 Auburn hosts Arkansas on Saturday:
QUARTERBACK QUESTIONS: The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Johnson was effective when he played last season, but has limited experience against SEC opponents. Arkansas' Brandon Allen played most of last season with shoulder problems, and the passing game struggled. Now, he's healthy but also dealing with a potential distraction after his truck was burned early Monday morning. Razorbacks coaches and players don't think that will affect Allen in the game. "I feel like that was the least of his worries out there on the field, which is right where we want him," right tackle Brey Cook said.
DEEP BACKFIELDS: This game features no shortage of solid running backs, but the pecking order on both sides could be determined as the season progresses. Arkansas has Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall. The Tigers counter with Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and freshman Roc Thomas.
SEC OPENER: Bielema, a former Wisconsin coach, likes the prospect of opening against an SEC opponent, and not just because he's 8-0 in openers. "I always used to sit in a conference from afar and I'd look down here and these guys were playing one another early on and all the attention would be (on the SEC)," he said. "I thought it was a great thing." It's the first time Arkansas has started off with a league game since 1980 while in the Southwest Conference.
IN THEIR DEFENSE: Both teams are hoping for marked improvement in this area. The Razorbacks have three new defensive assistants, including coordinator Robb Smith, after finishing ninth in the SEC in total defense. Defensive end Trey Flowers leads the way. Auburn was 12th in yards allowed but has defensive lineman Gabe Wright and linebacker Cassanova McKinzy back.
MISSING PLAYERS: Auburn cornerback Jonathon Mincy like Marshall also will play but not start after a June arrest. Starting defensive back Robenson Therezie might not play because of an unspecified eligibility issue, and starters Carl Lawson and Alex Kozan are out with injuries for all or most of the season. Bielema said senior cornerback Tevin Mitchel won't play because of a lingering hamstring injury.