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December 4, 2012

HURT: Malzahn, Bielema have tough tasks

Arkansas and Auburn both hired head football coaches on Tuesday. Both coaches - Brett Bielema at Arkansas, Gus Malzahn at Auburn - want to restore their respective teams to the upper reaches of the Southeastern Conference's West Division, even though the "No Vacancy" sign is flashing, the available spots being occupied by Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU. Auburn and Arkansas were up there in recent memory, but when both fell, both fell hard.

Despite that, it appears that two teams looking at the same destination are planning to take very different roads in their efforts to get there.

The hiring of Bielema came as a surprise even to seasoned Arkansas observers, who as late as Tuesday morning were betting on Mike Gundy to get the job. But after a little thought, it becomes apparent that the Bielema hire makes perfect sense for a program whose first run was at LSU's Les Miles.

Arkansas did not land Miles, who has a better gig in Baton Rouge, but for a program that coveted Miles, Bielema makes perfect sense. He has the same Big Ten roots as Miles (a self-proclaimed Michigan man). He has the same reputation for hard-nosed, smash-mouth grinding football as Miles. By hiring the Wisconsin coach, Arkansas is announcing that it is going to try to compete with Alabama and LSU at their own game. The Razorbacks are going to run and be physical under Bielema. That's his style.

It will take a couple of recruiting classes, at least, to pull anywhere close to even in terms of talent, but it appears that Arkansas is committed to do so. And it is impossible to imagine that such a recruiting mission will not begin with an effort to flip Alabama commitment Altee Tenpenny, the star running back from North Little Rock. Sure, everyone remembers Bielema's tough words about Urban Meyer's ungentlemanly recruitment of previously committed players at Ohio State. But does anyone doubt that Bielema will do the exact same thing? Of course he will.

Auburn, on the other hand, is excited with the hire of Malzahn, who will try to get to the top of the West in the other way, by spreading things out and hurrying them up. Those boosting the Malzahn hire immediately proclaimed that Nick Saban "hates the hurry-up" offense and cited two games, Auburn in 2010 and Texas A&M in 2011, as "proof." Those games are certainly proof that a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback helps. The last time Saban faced a Malzahn offense without a Heisman winner, in 2011, Auburn didn't produce a single offensive point.

It is entirely possible that Malzahn was hired less for philosophy and more for familiarity. Kirby Smart to Auburn never made much sense to me, although he will be a fine head coach one day.

It seems like a stretch to me that Auburn was overwhelmed with interest from big-time BCS head coaches but decided on Malzahn anyway. It seems likelier that there was a comfort level between AU's athletic administration and Malzahn that led to his hiring. I do think he is a clear upgrade from Auburn's previous head coach, but he has a lot of work ahead.

Arkansas and Auburn can, when things go right, be relevant in the SEC and the nation. Both will try hard, although it is hard to see both of them succeeding. It will be interesting to see which one gets back to the top first on their divergent paths, or if they can get there at all.

TideSports.com Recruiting: Andrew Bone's Insider Report

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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