Auburn football has always appeared to be big on family and togetherness.
Whether it’s the ‘All In’ campaign, or the message board which is titled aufamily.com, the school likes to take care of its own.
So it’s kind of ironic that this week, former Auburn player and assistant coach Travis Williams, who is now the Arkansas football defensive coordinator, is getting next to no love from some fans and followers on the Plains.
Williams, who starred at Auburn from 2001-04 and was a two-time all-SEC linebacker, later came back and coached his old position group. He even recorded a rap song while in school, ‘Tiger Walk’ that was used for some time as pregame hype from the Jordan-Hare Stadium speakers.
All that credibility isn’t buying him too much benefit of the doubt, it seems. A perusal of message boards, Auburn fan sites and media in Alabama dedicated to covering Auburn appear to lean toward a consensus of Arkansas not having a good defense, and that Auburn will exploit that for a win on Saturday afternoon in Fayetteville.
Here is just a sampling from aufamily.com:
-It’ll be a tough road game and Arky is getting some momentum with the league’s top RB finally back and a new OC. Their defense isn’t great.
-I think KJ forces a ton of broken tackles and gets generally the looks he wants as far as pressure when passing. I just don’t think they have enough dudes outside of him and their defense is meh.
-Idk what the score is. We probably lose unless the offense clicks for the first time. We’ve seen some glimpses in back to back games, but too many unforced errors/issues.
-I do feel like Auburn will be one of the best defenses they’ve faced probably outside of Bama. I also think Auburn has started to establish itself on offense.
-Auburn 27, Boston Butts 24
And this zinger from Reddit:
It doesn’t look their defense has been able to really stop anybody
That’s a lot of overlooking the fact Auburn has a passing game that scares no one and a running game that is good but not great. It’s ignoring that while Arkansas hasn’t shut anybody down, the Hogs have played solid defense for the majority of the season and are just as dangerous of a ball-hawking threat as Auburn.
Auburn football coach Hugh Freeze at least respects what Williams is bringing to the table.
“I know of Travis and his reputation,” Freeze said earlier this week in a press conference. “I think he’s an outstanding recruiter, number one. Then you put on the tape and see how hard his kids are playing defensively and that’s a great testament to his leadership.”
Motivation for Auburn Alum Travis Williams
It is only natural to want to play well against your alma mater. Anyone who suited up for a school, but later goes into coaching and faces them down the road, will want to do well against their old team.
Sam Pittman recognized that fact this week.
“He’s majorly motivated to do well,” Pittman said. “We haven’t talked to the kids about it yet. But it’s like anything. When we played Georgia and I came from Georgia, I wanted to do well. Not that I had any animosity — shoot, I got the head coaching job at Arkansas from Coach [Kirby] Smart — but you want to do well. I’m sure that’s what he wants.”
Arkansas assistant Marcus Woodson, formerly a defensive backs coach at Auburn, was also there when Williams was on Gus Malzahn’s staff at Auburn. So he will have added motivation, too.
Players have to execute, though, and schemes have to be tailored to stop what the other team does well.
“With Payton Thorne and Robby Ashford, they certainly have the opportunity to run the ball, sort of like we do with KJ,” Pittman said of Auburn’s quarterbacks. “Big challenge for us. We’ve got to handle the edges for the read part of it. Certainly they’re a downhill, inside zone, outside zone running team.”
Jarquez Hunter is another in a long line of Auburn running backs who are capable of 100-yard days and touchdowns galore.
“Their back is very fast and very physical,” Pittman said. “So it’s going to be a lot of challenges. I don’t think we can just sit there and line up and say, ‘All right, here we go.’ I think we’re going to have to give them different looks. Do some movement and things of that nature like we’ve done before. Basically just do what we’re doing better. I didn’t think we tackled particularly well last Saturday so that’s been a big emphasis for us this week.”
Florida was the first team to break 30 against the Hogs since Texas A&M did so on Sept. 30, and that was aided by a KJ Jefferson deflected pass near his own end zone that was returned for a touchdown and then an Ainias Smith punt return for six. Both touchdowns came in the second half.
The game plan on Auburn this year has been to stack the box and make them beat you through the air.
In the Tigers’ four losses, which were all in a row, they scored 10, 20, 18 and 21 points respectively.
Translation: When Auburn plays a team with a pulse, they don’t do much. An average of 17 points per game isn’t going to strike fear in the hearts of anyone, much less a Razorback defense that held Ole Miss to 20, Alabama to 24 and Mississippi State to 7.
LSU, Texas A&M and Florida all put up more than 30 on Arkansas, but Arkansas was in all of those games, and won one of them. Auburn lost to LSU by 30, and lost to Ole Miss at home.
Home Sweet Home for Arkansas Football
There is also the motivation boost for Arkansas to play well at home, along with wanting to make a bowl game. Auburn is one win away from bowl eligibility, while the Razorbacks have no room for error, as they have to win out.
In three games in Reynolds Razorback Stadium so far this season, Arkansas has looked pedestrian against Kent State, lost to BYU and was totally anemic against Mississippi State.
In a year where the home slate wasn’t particularly sexy anyway, the players should obviously want to go out on a high note and give the fans a reward for what they paid for.
“I haven’t talked about that, to be perfectly honest with you, because I know they know,” Pittman said. “I don’t want, if a hiccup came up on us, I don’t want them to feel like the only goal that we have left is the bowl. We’re talking about winning Saturday, if we’re lucky enough to get to Missouri with a chance to win that game to go to a bowl, we’ll certainly talk about it then, but the motivation right now is to play our best football.”
Not that Locked on Auburn’s Zac Blackerby is buying it.
That host of the Auburn sports podcast feels Auburn should win on Saturday, which of course is to be expected from those on the Tigers side. In the video below, he discusses Auburn’s defense being better than Florida’s defense which, again, is fair.
“Florida’s defense isn’t playing at the level that Auburn’s,” he says, before going off the rails a bit. “I also think Florida’s kind of given up a little bit. I don’t think they’re fully invested into this season. I think you could say the same about Arkansas.”
“One thing, when you talk to these kids that are playing for Auburn right now, they are bought in. They desperately want to go to a bowl game.”
The same motivation is absolutely in play for Arkansas, too. There was nothing about the last nine games that would make you think Travis Williams’ defense is anything but absolutely “bought in.” They play hard, fast and with an edge. Now that the offense is doing the same under Kenny Guiton, Arkansas is clearly the most dangerous 3-6 team in the nation. That’s why it’s favored in this game.
Indeed, in another “Locked on Auburn” episode titled “Auburn Should Be Able to Run the Ball vs Arkansas,” Blackerby does concede the possibility of “some kind of signature game for Travis Williams” helping to fuel an Arkansas win.
One thing’s for sure: if Williams’ defense goes out and holds the Auburn offense to, say, 10 points or less, it’s doubtful you’re going to see any Auburn folks hating on Williams.
In fact, they’ll probably be changing their tune to wanting him to return to the Plains to assume full responsibility for the defensive coordinator position after already serving as the co-DC back in 2019-20. Sure, Auburn football fans love Ron Roberts right now, but watch that change if Auburn then struggles the following week against New Mexico State and loses the Iron Bowl decisively, while Arkansas finishes strong. You may even hear some cries for T-Will as the Tigers’ next head coach.
If we know anything about Auburn football, it’s that the pendulum swings quickly. Yesterday’s hero can quickly become tomorrow’s sacrificial lamb.
More from Zac Blackerby on Arkansas vs Auburn below:
John Smith and Evin Demirel contributed to this column
More coverage of Arkansas football and Arkansas vs Auburn from BoAS…