J.R. and Henry: Football, basketball, good times
On Saturday, the leader of the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division will be in action. But it won’t be the game involving Auburn and Florida. Or LSU and Kentucky. Not even Alabama and Mississippi. Instead, it’s the one pitting Division I-AA Southeast Missouri State and the 4-1 Arkansas Razorbacks. Not exactly a glamour matchup, but for Hog fans who are justifiably excited about finishing the first half of the season at 5-1, it’s the only game in town.
But it isn’t the only game that matters to Razorback faithful. That is Auburn and Florida and it’s the biggest game of the weekend for Arkansas’ SEC title hopes. A Florida win over Auburn, and Arkansas holds a clear two-game lead over the Tigers along with the tie-break. Whereas an Auburn win probably means the Tigers run the table.
Although Auburn still has Georgia at home, and Ole Miss and Alabama on the road, there’s no doubt that the Gators are the Tigers’ stiffest remaining test. While Arkansas has a favorable remaining schedule, getting its two highest ranked foes at home, it’d be hard to bet against a 7-1 Auburn team representing the West in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
So after reveling in a Razorback victory, Arkansas fans should be putting on their Florida hoodies and practicing their Gator chomp in preparation for the game in primetime on ESPN. Well, actually, the game is on ESPN Full Circle. You know, where ESPN wastes several channels by showing the same game on each one. It’s a great concept except that only one channel has the game at an angle that allows you to actually see what’s going on. Anyway, just turn to ESPN and cheer for the Gators.
As for the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks, they’re 3-2 on the season and coming off a 21-0 loss to Ohio Valley conference rival Eastern Illinois. While this is Arkansas’ first game with the Redhawks in exactly 100 years (who could have imagined Southeast Missouri had such a rich football heritage?), Houston Nutt has faced the Redhawks four previous times and won all four while coaching at Murray State. And unless Houston decides to switch to the wishbone and move Jacob Skinner to quarterback and play Brian Vavra and Jeremy Davis exclusively at tailback, it’s unlikely that Nutt’s perfect record will wind up blemished after Saturday. And even then it would be close.
J.R. and Henry's prediction: Arkansas 45 SEMO 10
Sure, it’s still football season, but with the Razorback basketball team’s first practice on Friday, a few words about the upcoming season are in order.
First, much like the feeling coming into this years’ football season, there’s quite a bit of excitement about what the new Hogs are going to look like this year. And with the excitement comes some trepidation.
For while Arkansas gets in Mississippi State transfer Gary Ervin the first legitimate point guard of the Stan Heath era, and two freshman shooting guards who are rumored to actually be able to shoot, the Hogs still lost basically their entire backcourt including NBA first-round draft pick Ronnie Brewer.
Plus, this is a big year for Heath. For whatever reason, (maybe because he’s not a native Arkansan like the football coach, maybe because Hog fans still remember the not-so-far-gone glory days with Nolan Richardson) Heath’s honeymoon with the fans seemed short. Even though his teams have gotten better each year, a large contingent of fans haven’t seen fast enough improvement. A regression from last years’ tournament team could put Heath’s job in serious jeopardy.
But there’s ample reason to expect that this team will be better. At a minimum, the new backcourt should be improved defensively. Junior College player of the year Sonny Weems is expected to fit nicely into the void left by Brewer’s departure. And the entire frontcourt returns, including Charles Thomas, who has progressed into a nice option on offense, and Steven Hill, who is the league best returning defender. Although not much has been made of it, getting Michael Washington eligible may make this version of basketball Razorbacks a tough out come March.
It’s a good time to be a Razorback fan. The football team is winning, and the basketball team has the promise of an entire season ahead. Enjoy it while you can.
J.R. and Henry blog their sports column on Little Rocking every Monday and Thursday.