JR and HENRY: One Game Away
With just two regular season conference games to play, Arkansas stands just one game away from winning the SEC West and claiming a spot in the SEC championship game against Florida. A remarkable feat any year, that’s especially true this year. After all, SEC West foes Auburn and LSU were both ranked in the top ten at the beginning of the year, and both were considered legitimate contenders for the national championship.
But neither of those teams are in the national championship race now, having each dropped two games so far in conference play. And while both teams have had good years, neither has had the year that Arkansas has enjoyed. In fact, Arkansas' domination of the SEC West has been so complete thus far that the Hogs need only beat Mississippi State to clinch their first outright West title since 1995. If the Razorbacks win Saturday, it will make the LSU game about rankings and the massive eyesore known as the Golden Boot. The answer to the question who’s best in the west will already have been decided.
Look back at the start of the year and how many, even the most ardent homers, would have predicted this?
Certainly not us. We dished out share of criticism at the beginning of the year. And, you know what? It was deserved. This team was not a good team through the first four games of the year. Thankfully, the Hogs made just enough plays to eek out victories in three of those games, and have been on an absolute roll since.
Houston Nutt and the entire coaching staff deserve credit for keeping this team focused and, more importantly, making it better each week. The team that played Tennessee last Saturday night was a dominant one. Better in every aspect than the Volunteers. And while Tennessee was banged up, that’s something to be very proud of, not to mention a sign of how much the two teams have changed since week 1, when Tennessee dominated California and Arkansas got dominated by Southern California.
In less than 12 months, Gus Malzahn has turned last year's unimaginative offense into one of the most entertaining and productive in the conference. Can anyone imagine this team running three consecutive off tackle plays for no gain like the Hogs did against South Carolina last year?
Also, remember that Malzahn doubles as the receivers coach in addition to running the offense. Think Marcus Monk is happy about that? He's a completely different player then he was last year. Monk consistently gets separation this year, his routes are crisper, and he has made big plays in most every game.
As for Darren McFadden, surely the front runner for SEC offensive player of the year, he's the most remarkable player we've seen wearing Hog gear. And the offense has used his talents beautifully, finding ways to get him the ball in space where he is almost impossible to handle. Against Tennessee, McFadden ran the ball as a tailback, caught the ball as a receiver, ran the ball as a quarterback, handed the ball off as a quarterback, and threw a touchdown pass as a quarterback. Absolutely wonderful use of a player that can’t be over utilized.
Likewise, Reggie Herring's defense, just like last year’s version, gets better as the year goes on. The defensive line, particularly at the ends, have been playing All SEC caliber football. The linebackers and secondary have been losing players to injury, but Herring and company have plugged the holes beautifully. The defense has looked vulnerable at times, but big stops keep getting made at critical times. There’s a lot of heart on that side of the ball.
But for all the improvements, and even though Arkansas is one game away from an SEC West championship, the Hogs are also one game away from potentially going back to Dallas for the holidays. If Mississippi State springs the upset, Arkansas has to beat LSU to claim the division (a three way tie at 6-2, and Auburn goes to the Championship game), no small feat to be sure. The Tigers are probably the league’s most talented team. And defensively, they’re likely to pose the biggest challenge for Arkansas’ run heavy offense.
As for Mississippi State, the Bulldogs are also an improving team. After a rough start, the Bulldogs have put together three wins, including an impressive performance in their last win against Alabama.
And, for the first time this year, the schedule does not favor the Razorbacks. Coming off a huge win against Tennessee and with LSU up next, it will be next to impossible for the Hogs to come out fired up for this game.
But emotion really isn’t need. A workmanlike performance should be sufficient. Arkansas has proved all year that it is better than Mississippi State. Now, it need only prove it to the Bulldogs.
J.R. & Henry Prediction: Arkansas 35 Mississippi State 17.
Atlanta, here we come.
JR and HENRY are a couple of regular guys who like to talk sports and who blog their column here every Monday and Thursday.