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Hogs take the judicious path 

Auburn -- not so much.

Another businesslike, 38-14 drubbing. Another game where the victor exposed the vanquished as one-dimensional. Another demonstration of Arkansas's place in the SEC pecking order.

Mere 14 days earlier, it was Alabama giving the Razorbacks a discourteous reminder of which program holds supreme jurisdiction when these alleged power struggles are being waged. The beating was methodical and metered, not unrepentantly violent. After a spirit-killing interception late in the first half, the Razorbacks still only trailed the Tide 17-7 at halftime, and had possession coming out of the locker room. The scene grew progressively bleaker from there.

Before 74,000-plus at Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday, the Hogs purged that woeful September yin in favor of October yang, replicating Bama's model and flipping the scoreboard their way. They did so against an Auburn team that isn't quite the same without Cecil Newton's personified collection plate at the helm. The Tigers scarcely resemble defending national champions in ways beyond the mere dearth of a Heisman Trophy winner, though. This team lacks an identity and will accordingly settle into that intermediate strata of the conference with which Arkansas fans are frustratingly well acquainted.

What Razorback fans hopefully recognize now is that this upward climb is more satisfying than some rickety, one-legged speed-skate that may or may not be imperiled by investigations or sanctions. Auburn won a national title, sure. Arkansas fans yearn for that and feel it is an attainable goal. The question is whether we take the autobahn and all its attendant risks, or if we are willing to travel a more judicious path. An examination of the three most recent football seasons gives a rather stark answer.

In 2009, both Arkansas and Auburn finished 8-5 and 3-5 in the SEC in what could fairly be characterized as rebuilding campaigns. The Razorbacks surged to the end by winning five of their last six, with the loss being in overtime at Baton Rouge. Arkansas bounced Auburn from the ranks of the unbeaten in October with a commanding 44-23 home win, and Auburn proceeded to stumble to four losses in its next six games.

Auburn then welcomed Cam Newton last season and promptly ran the table, but Arkansas also took meaningful steps forward by winning 10 games and claiming a spot in the Sugar Bowl. The Tigers' march to the championship was controversy-addled due to the well-known allegations concerning Newton being openly prostituted to Mississippi State by his father (and per most sources, the investigation is anything but concluded). The Razorbacks' closest brush with scandal was ancillary: Ohio State's narrow Sugar Bowl win was vacated after tat-gate.

Now it's 2011 and after another comfortable victory over the Tigers, Bobby Petrino is 3-1 against the school that once surreptitiously wooed him. All three wins have come against Auburn teams that were ranked in the Top 25 at the time. This version of the Tigers is out of sorts, scrambling for competent quarterbacking, its defense backsliding further from the Tuberville days when it ranged from respectable to formidable. The Tigers' current head coach, mawkish and smug to a degree that even Steve Spurrier would find distasteful, keeps stoking the NCAA's fire in the interim, seemingly more devoted to defending his crown through posturing than actual coaching.

Meanwhile in this corner of the universe, Tyler Wilson is calmly completing 18 straight passes and playing error-free football. Joe Adams is darting out of the backfield for the second-longest run in university history. Greg Childs is making important catches in traffic. Jerry Franklin and Alonzo Highsmith are breaking into the backfield to snuff out runs. Tramain Thomas is stepping into throwing lanes. And again, Bobby Petrino is sporting that wry grin.

Saturday's victory represented Arkansas at its confident, polished best, and revealed an opponent that alternately crests and troughs from week to week. Auburn started fast, as Texas A&M did, but wound up punting on six of its second-half possessions and chucking three interceptions. If passes from Barrett Trotter or Kiehl Frazier were on target — and that was rare — then the receivers or backs frequently mishandled them. The yardage that Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb gained was largely inconsequential from the first quarter forward. The Hogs dominated the Tigers in much the same way they were manhandled in Tuscaloosa, giving a balanced effort on offense and on the other side, responding well to Willy Robinson's exhortations to finish tackles.

So forgive me if I enjoy this consistency. We do not have the brass ring yet, but this formula may mean that we don't have to tithe in excess for it.

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