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A brief history of the Bret Bielema-Gus Malzahn rivalry behind Arkansas-Auburn

From public debates to apparent in-game trolling, these two have added some heat to an SEC West matchup.

Arkansas v Auburn Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

The game between Arkansas and Auburn on Saturday would’ve been intriguing under any circumstance. The Razorbacks were ranked 17th in the AP, the Tigers 21st, and while neither’s going to win the SEC, both appeared to be quality teams jockeying for postseason positioning.

Auburn ended up blasting the Hogs, 56-3.

And that score will become a part of this series’ overarching storyline. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn have thrown a few barbs at each other in the last few years, and while their relationship looks thawed this year, either man would love to beat the other.

The first thing to know:

Malzahn is an Arkansas high school football coaching legend, and for a while, his national title run as a coordinator at Auburn, successful season at Arkansas State, and return to lead Auburn to another BCS title appearance rankled Razorbacks:

"I think if [Arkansas] would’ve hired Malzahn, [local tensions] would’ve been fine by now," [radio host Bo] Mattingly says. "We've come full circle as a state since Gus left, but when he came up as a name for the job, there were all those leftover feelings. Do you like Gus? Did you get over Gus? The state is still divided over him."

And Bielema and Malzahn have needled each other several times.

This thing started to gather steam in July 2013, at the glorious mess that is SEC Media Days.

Bielema has long coached a fairly rugged style of offense in which his players take their time between power running plays. He called his scheme “normal American football,” and he had harsh words for the hurry-up, long a Malzahn staple.

All I know is this: there are times when an offensive player and a defensive player are on the field for an extended amount of time without a break. You cannot tell me that a player after play five is the same player that he is after play 15. If that exposes him to a risk of injury, then that's my fault. I can't do anything about it because the rules do not allow me to substitute a player in whether I'm on offense or defense.

The problem that people have is you look at it just from an offensive or defensive point of view. I'm looking at it from a head coach's point of view, that the personal well-being and safety of my players is paramount.

Malzahn responded that he “thought it was a joke” when he heard Bielema’s riff against the hurry-up. Bielema said he was “not a comedian.” (Bielema went on to crusade against the hurry-up elsewhere, and his beef wasn’t at all limited to Auburn.)

During the 2013 season, Bielema accused Auburn of breaching the SEC’s game-film-sharing protocol, then ran the same play he’d accused the Tigers of not being forthright about.

“It was pretty good,” Malzahn would later acknowledge of the play.

Some Arkansas people thought an Auburn player faked an injury in their game that year, too.

That has often been a tactic used by defenses to slow down hurry-up offenses ...

... giving the situation some irony.

"Yeah, I didn't see it. We didn't [fake injuries], though. We weren't doing that," Bielema said. "But you'd have to ask them."

They’ve even had accidental beef before, like that time Bielema was thought to be implying Auburn was stealing Arkansas’ signals.

There have been signs of grudging competitive respect ...

“Gus runs an offensive style and philosophy that is completely opposite of what I believe in, but who can argue with his success?” Bielema said at the following year’s media days. “That makes me respect him even more."

"It's a big game,” Malzahn said this week. “We just kind of look at it as another game on our schedule. They're a good team again, and traditionally we've had a lot of good games with them."

The two definitely don’t hang out, per se, but maybe everything’s hunky dory.

... but not too much respect.

The series has been mixed, with both coaches having their moments.

Both started their current jobs in 2013. Auburn won their first two meetings handily. The 2013 game felt like a sort of statement from Malzahn, who won by 18.

From SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey that day:

There's never been a shortage of overnight rivalries in the SEC West. Competition breeds acrimony, but this region's nasty habit of swapping scorned bedfellows exacerbates it. Ole Miss hated Auburn for taking Tommy Tuberville. Arkansas hated Ole Miss for harboring Houston Nutt. LSU will forever hate Alabama for poaching Nick Saban.

But even without having actually shared a bed, Bielema has time and again heaved a divorcee's disgust at Malzahn and Auburn since he arrived in the SEC.

Last year’s game was a thriller, Bielema’s first W in the series. Arkansas needed four overtimes, and the loss still sits poorly in Malzahn’s stomach.

The 2016 edition isn’t gonna make Bielema hate Auburn any less.

The Tigers put up 541 rushing yards and 89 through the air, their best day on the ground since the 2013 SEC Championship.