South Carolina Proving Ground
Saturday night’s game against South Carolina offers the Arkansas Razorbacks that very rare second chance to make a first impression. Even though Arkansas is the only undefeated team remaining in the SEC, the Hogs simply aren’t getting much attention on the national scene. All the speculation about SEC teams making a run to the national title involves Florida and Auburn, even though the Razorbacks bombed the Tigers on their home field.
Part of the reason for that is probably because Arkansas had two straight losing seasons before this year, and really hasn’t been on the national radar since 1998, and even then only marginally. That 8-0 Hog team was ranked on 10th before rolling into Knoxville and losing to Tennessee. The Hogs actually moved up in the polls even after they lost.
But part of the reason is also because in Arkansas’ highest profile game to date, the Razorbacks got buried by Southern California at home 50-14. The Hogs then followed that up by giving a lackluster performance against an average Alabama team, in a game where they were outplayed but won. By then, most of the national writers had probably already made up their minds about the merits of the team. Even a dominating performance against media darling Auburn hasn’t swayed many it seems.
So Saturday night the Razorbacks have a chance to make the writers forget about that game against the other USC, and start defining Arkansas as the team that beat Auburn instead of the team that got blown out by the Trojans. The game will be nationally televised in prime time, and there is no World Series to compete against, and no other marquee national game. Most college football fans will be watching the game in Columbia, and looking to find out if Arkansas is for real.
And there’s ample reason to think that the Razorbacks will not disappoint. First and foremost, Arkansas is coming in on a serious roll. In a sport where momentum means so much, the Hogs are still riding the wave that that started in Auburn, and has swept away the last three inferior opponents. It’s hard to tell if Arkansas is getting better, but the Hogs have done what a title contender should do and won each game handily without taking injuries.
Perhaps more importantly, much of the momentum that South Carolina had going into the Tennessee game was spent in the losing effort against the Volunteers. Had the Gamecocks beaten Tennessee, they would still control their destiny in the SEC East and the game against Arkansas would have serious title ramifications on both sides of the division, for the first time since the two teams joined the SEC. But they didn’t, so South Carolina will be playing for pride and not a title on Saturday. Again, Arkansas’ schedule continues to help its cause. Arkansas is the sandwich game for South Carolina, between SEC East rivals Tennessee and Florida.
Still, being a 6:30 game (7:30 in Columbia) will help the home team. The crowd probably won’t be that excited about the game Saturday morning, but after a full day of tailgating, you can bet they’ll be ready to roll by game time.
So Arkansas must forget about Tennessee and ESPN Gameday possibly coming to town until at least Sunday. South Carolina has comparable talent to Arkansas. The Hogs will need their best effort.
As for what will happen, this game will be won or lost at the quarterback position. Mitch Mustain will be the key. Darren McFadden and Felix Jones will get their yards, and will score some points. But the difference between winning and losing will be in the true freshman’s arm. That’s why we would have liked to have seen more work in the passing game the past three weeks. Mustain’s got a ton of talent, but he needs more experience and needed more chances to move the ball through the air.
But those chances are gone, so no need worrying about it. Arkansas still has two of the best tailbacks in the nation. With McFadden and Jones, and Mustain doing just enough to win, Arkansas will continue to ride the wave of momentum to another big SEC win.
J.R. and Henry Prediction: Arkansas 27 South Carolina 21.
Bring on Gameday.