J.R. and Henry: Biggest Game of the Year?
It’s sad to say, because it really demonstrates the depressed state of the program. But this Saturday’s game against the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville is setting up to be the biggest of the year for the Arkansas Razorbacks. With Alabama and Auburn looming on the horizon, a loss to Vanderbilt could foreshadow a 1-4 start. That’s something that this team, with its freshman quarterback and embattled head coach, could scarcely survive.
When asked, most Arkansas fans will tell you that they believe that their team will beat the Commodores. And truthfully, Arkansas fans should expect to see the Hogs win this one. There’s not too many teams in the SEC that this can be said about, but Arkansas has more talent than Vanderbilt. The oddsmakers apparently agree, making Arkansas a six-point favorite on the road.
Still, we wonder if Arkansas’s favored status is more a product of the two programs’ history rather than the current teams. Here’s a little experiment: Peel off the names and look at the first two games. Team A lost at Michigan 27-7 and at Alabama 13-10. Team B lost at home to Southern California 50-14 and won at home over Utah State 20-0.
Last year, the two played with Team A beating Team B on Team B’s home field 28-24. Competing in the same league, Team A was 5-6 last year, Team B 4-7. Both teams start new quarterbacks this year. Team B has an all-league running back, but Team A has home-field advantage. Obviously, there’s more to it than that, but given these big picture facts, can either team’s fans feel that confident about their chances on Saturday?
But you can’t peel off the names, and, with apologies to our legions of Vanderbilt fan readers, Vandy is Vandy in most people’s minds and that, more than the actual merits of the teams, probably accounts for Arkansas being installed as the favorite.
So now that the veil has been lifted and Team A is Vanderbilt and Team B is Arkansas, what’s going to happen on Saturday? With all the conflicting reports from Fayetteville, it’s almost impossible to predict what Arkansas team will show up, much less how the Hogs will match up with Vanderbilt. Will Arkansas be more balanced against the Commodores than they were against Utah State, or will the Razorbacks lean even more on Darren McFadden and the running game? We’ve got “reliable sources” that tell us both will happen and they can’t both be right. And, is offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn making the decisions on offense, or is he just calling the plays from a script written by Houston Nutt and the old guard? Rumors in Fayetteville are flying so fast it’s impossible to keep up.
But that’s what happens when you combine a declining program with a staff that consistently fails to acknowledge publicly any potential shortcoming with its team, painting only rosy pictures of what to expect in a tomorrow that seems increasingly farther away. It’s almost as if Houston and the gang believe that the problems will go away if they’re not talked about, as in, “Maybe our kicking game really will get better if I keep telling everybody it is.” Let the light shine in, Houston. Arkansas fans don’t expect perfection, but straightforwardness is required. Not talking to the media won’t stop the rumors; it will feed them.
As for the game, expect a low-scoring affair (stop the presses!). Neither team has found its identity on offense. And unless Vanderbilt stops Arkansas’s running game completely, don’t expect Mitch Mustain to throw more than 20 passes.
In the end, McFadden makes the difference, and only one team has him. Call us homers if you will, but McFadden is enough for Arkansas to pull out a win by the narrowest of margins. The final:
JR. & HENRY PREDICTION: Arkansas 14, Vanderbilt 13.
Let’s hope whoever’s kicking can make two extra points.
J.R. and Henry, two Little Rock sports fans, file their column for the Little Rocking blog every Thursday and Monday during football season.