No Mediocrity Accepted
The wonderment of what could have been seemed to stop not long after we published our column criticizing the poor coaching effort by the Razorback staff against LSU in last Friday's 31-26 loss. If such a mentality is brought to Saturday’s SEC Championship game in Atlan, the Razorbacks will lose, plain and simple.
But realistically, the LSU game probably wouldn’t have changed where the Razorbacks will go bowling should they win the SEC Championship. It’s very unlikely the Hogs would have gotten an invite to the BCS Championship game, although we sure would have liked to have made the powers that be have to make a decision in the unlikely event that USC loses to UCLA. However, if Arkansas loses, the LSU debacle means Arkansas slides from a BCS Bowl (maybe the Rose) to the Capital One Bowl. Big difference.
This is Arkansas’s third trip to the championship since the Razorbacks joined the SEC. There’s not much need to recount the past two experiences: straight beatdowns by Florida (34-3) and Georgia (30-3). In each of those games, Arkansas was clearly overmatched, and mustered a grand total of 6 points in two games. Against Florida in 1995, Madre Hill tore his ACL and Danny Weurffel tossed strike after strike under the tutelage of The Ol’ Ball Coach. The next year, Florida won the national title and Weurffel won the Heisman Trophy.
Against Georgia in 2002, the Hogs simply didn’t come ready to play. Yes, Georgia was the stronger team by a long shot, but Arkansas looked like a deer in headlights when the refs blew the opening whistle. One could not help think about Coach Norman Dale taking his Hickory Huskers into Indianapolis and having them measure the height of the rim and the distance to the foul line, so as to calm their nerves of playing far outside the confines of what was comfortable. Obviously that didn’t happen. The Bulldogs dominated from the opening kick on their way to the Sugar Bowl. It’s unlikely any Hog fans were surprised at the result, as the University turned back 5,000 or so tickets of its 15,000-seat allotment for the game. Given that Arkansas was probably not much more than the fifth best team in the conference that year (see the pounding the Minnesota Golden Gophers administered in the Music City Bowl as further proof of that), the Hogs would have had to bring their “A” game to stay close, and didn’t.
This year is much different for the Razorbacks.
First, Darren McFadden will be wearing red and white. No team in America has a guy this good, especially not Florida, who, while winning 11 games, hasn’t done much to distinguish itself offensively, Tim Tebow’s double pump theatrics notwithstanding. The Hogs enter the game with the nation’s fourth best rushing attack, which in addition to McFadden, includes workhorse Felix Jones. With a seasoned offensive line, arguably the best of Nutt’s tenure, and a defense that has risen to the challenge again thanks to Broyles Award finalist Reggie Herring, Arkansas comes into the game with all the tools for a victory. Well, almost.
Casey Dick played miserably against LSU last week. Nutt immediately named him the starter for the SEC Championship game, a decision which caused many in Hog Nation to scratch their heads. Wasn’t this the same coach who applauded his “quick trigger” when it came to getting the guy in the game who gave the Hogs the best chance to win?
We would have stuck with Mitch Mustain and his 8-0 record even in spite of his turnover against South Carolina. He’s a freshman and you have to expect some bad decisions from freshmen. But Mustain’s also a winner at every level. Remember, Dick’s 4-3 as a Razorback starter with only a quality victory against South Carolina on the road. While Dick didn’t cost the Hogs the game against LSU (the coaches did), he didn’t help. Completing 3 of 17 passes for 26 yards won’t win games, no matter how many big plays Darren McFadden has. Dick needs to step up and the coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn needs to be ready to use that “quick trigger” and get Mustain in the game if he doesn’t.
The Razorbacks can expect another stingy defense on Saturday. Florida currently ranks fourth nationally at stopping the run. While they may not sound intimidating since the Hogs ran all day on LSU, a team with arguably the best defense in the country, Florida will be ready. Urban Meyer’s proven to be a strong head coach and while his offense has not jelled the way he expected, his defense, led by Batesville native Charlie Strong, has. Florida doesn’t blow teams out, but they don’t give up too many big plays either. They will key on McFadden, and while stopping him may be impossible, containing him may not be. Look for Florida to employ Mississippi State’s strategy. Let McFadden come to then, rather than go after him and wind up grasping for air.
Gator quarterback Chris Leak is a senior and he made some big plays to beat Florida State last week. Freshman sensation Tim Tebow, who can throw the rock when he needs to, will see action as well, particularly on third-and-short situations. This will be a test for defensive end Jamal Anderson and the rest of the Hogs front seven. If the Gators are successful on third down, they are going to be very difficult to stop.
As for the game plan, expect the Hogs to run right at the Gators. But running the ball won’t be enough to win. The quarterback, whether it’s Dick or Mustain, needs to make plays, manage the game, and not turn the ball over. The coaches, more importantly, need to send in plays that can work. Gus Malzahn’s coaching philosophy is to take what the defense gives you. They didn’t do that last week. If they want to win this week, they better coach the game that it’s font of them and give the guys on the field the chance to win.
The Georgia Dome will be rocking. With a realistic Sugar Bowl appearance in their midst, we think the Hogs, behind a Doak Walker-winning performance by Darren McFadden, win this game.
JR AND HENRY PREDICTION: ARKANSAS 34 FLORIDA 27
On to NOLA, baby!
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Another quick word about the basketball Razorbacks, who got drilled last night at Missouri, 86-64. It was an absolutely terrible, uninspired performance by the basketball Hogs. After playing so well, and with so much pride and heart in Orlando's Old Spice Classic against decent teams, Arkansas showed none of that in its first true road test of the season.
As for Missouri, the Tigers play a confusing style and are difficult to prepare for, but UA head coach Stan Heath had plenty of time to prepare his team for this game, and they clearly were not prepared. First--year Tiger coach Mike Anderson will have Missouri rolling soon, but the Tigers are currently talent poor and still they embarrassed Arkansas on national TV.
Maybe Arkansas was still tired after playing three games in four days, and having late-night flights and early-morning classes. And one game does not make a season. But this is a talented team that should be in the NCAA Tournament in March. We think they will be, but if they’re not, the head coach needs to answer for it. And since this basketball head coach doesn’t enjoy as long a leash as the football team’s head man, we suspect he will.
J.R. and Henry blog their sports column here twice a week.