HOOVER, Ala. — The Nov. 2 game between Auburn and Arkansas is suddenly a lot more interesting after an unexpected war of words between the two schools’ new coaches.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said he considered concerns about the way fast-paced offenses impact player safety to be “a joke.”
When that comment was relayed to new Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, an otherwise dull second day at SEC Media Days was spiced up considerably.
Raising his voice and speaking forcefully, Bielema said he was convinced that forcing players to remain on the field for multiple snaps without rest increases the risk of serious injury.
“The personal safety of my players is paramount,” Bielema said. “It’s not a joke to me.”
Auburn’s first-year coach has built his career upon the hurry-up offense ever since he was an innovative high school coach in Arkansas.
But some coaches, including Bielema, have said that rules should require that defenses be given additional time to substitute players. Otherwise, he said, defensive players might go an entire drive without rest, increasing the risk of injuries.
Malzahn doesn’t buy it.
“As far as health or safety issues, that’s like saying the defense shouldn’t blitz after a first down because they’re a little fatigued and there’s liable to be a big collision in the backfield,” Malzahn said.
“If you’re going to look at rule changes, officials, we need to look at the guys on defense that are faking injuries to slow down these fast-paced teams.”
Conveniently for the assembled media, Malzahn and Bielema shared the same time slot at SEC Media Days on Wednesday.
“All I know is this,” Bielema began. “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. I can’t do anything about it because the rules do not allow me to substitute a player in.”
The two camps are digging in, with Bielema, Alabama’s Nick Saban and Florida’s Will Muschamp on the traditional wing and Malzahn and Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze leading the hurry-up side.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones had already left before Wednesday evening’s row played out, but he has used a hurry-up offense for most of his time as a head coach.
“We do want to play up-tempo but I think to play great defense sometimes you have to protect your defense,” Jones said. “If that means slowing the tempo down, we’ll be able to do that.”
Oh, Brother: New Kentucky coach Mark Stoops didn’t have to wait long to be asked about his brother Bob (the Oklahoma coach) saying the overall strength of the SEC was overrated.
“That’s got to be my first question?’’ Mark Stoops said, smiling.
“Yeah, I certainly understand Bob defending his conference. I just left the ACC (Florida State). I think everybody’s going to defend what they’re doing in their conference. With that being said, I don’t think any of us need to defend what’s going on here in the SEC. The success we’ve had in the SEC speaks for itself.’’
The Veteran: Senior Ja’Wuan James is a veteran of SEC Media Days, having also attended last year with coach Derek Dooley. He said he advised first-timers Jacques Smith and Tiny Richardson to relax and take it all in.
“I’m happy I got a second time to come,’’ James said. “I was nervous my first time so now I’m going to have fun with it and enjoy the day.