AUBURN, Ala. — You won’t find bigger names or bigger bodies at the quarterback position than Auburn’s Cam Newton and Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett.
But the two quarterbacks insist this afternoon’s showdown at Jordan-Hare Stadium, which should be on every Heisman voter’s must-watch list, won’t be a game of one-upmanship.
“It’s an extra incentive that we’re playing an SEC West team that is undefeated and ranked high,” Mallett said. “But he plays on their offense, and I play on my offense. It’s not me versus him.”
“It’s just do your job and win the football game,” Newton said. “That’s it.”
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Seventh-ranked Auburn (6-0, 3-0 SEC) and No. 12 Arkansas (4-1, 1-1 SEC) will face each other as ranked teams for the first time in the schools’ histories.
Both teams are where they are because of their quarterbacks, who have made their mark in different ways.
Mallett, a 6-foot-6, 238-pound junior, has thrived in coach Bobby Petrino’s quarterback-friendly system by picking apart teams with his strong arm. He leads the SEC in passing yards (349.6), touchdowns (13) and total offense (344.8).
“I’ve been in this conference a long time, and he throws it as good as anybody when he’s on,” Auburn cornerbacks coach Phillip Lolley said.
Newton, a 6-foot-6 250-pound junior, has been one of the most-feared dual threats in the country, thriving in coordinator Gus Malzahn’s up-tempo offense. Newton leads the SEC in rushing (672 yards), pass efficiency (180.73) and touchdowns accounted for (21).
“We have faced big quarterbacks, but not the caliber of the runner that this kid is,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson told the Arkansas News. “This guy is a big tailback that can throw the ball basically. He wants to get it downfield, and, when he does he’s not looking to avoid you. If he’s got you in his sights, he’ll take you. He’s damaged some people.”
It might come down to which defense can keep the damage to a minimum.
Auburn has allowed more passing yards than any team in the league, although the Tigers have done a good job of making teams work for their yardage, having allowed only three pass plays of 25 yards or more.
Arkansas, which ranked last in the SEC in total defense in Petrino’s first two seasons, has turned a corner this year. The Razorbacks are third in the league and 19th nationally in total defense, allowing 302.4 yards per game.
The Hogs have a history of doing well defensively against Malzahn, who was their offensive coordinator in 2006. While at Tulsa in 2008, Malzahn’s offense failed to top 37 points for the first time all season, losing 30-23 to Arkansas.
Last year, the Razorbacks built a 34-3 lead while Malzahn’s offense struggled to move the chains. Auburn lost 44-23 to fall from the ranks of the unbeatens.
“They played well,” Malzahn said. “We didn’t play well.”
If Auburn makes it a four-quarter game, it could be to its advantage. The Tigers have pulled out four close games this season, all of which have come down to the final quarter or overtime.
The Tigers have allowed three fourth-quarter points in three games against SEC opponents this season.
Arkansas has been out-scored 31-24 in the fourth quarter this season. The Razorbacks failed to score in the final quarter of each of their past two games — a 24-17 win against Texas A&M and a 24-20 loss to Alabama.
“Our guys understand that, certainly in this league, they’re all going to be close,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “You’ve got to find ways to win at the end.”