There are two emerging constants in Bobby Petrino's tenure as Arkansas coach. The first is that the Razorbacks have established an almost crippling psychological dominance over South Carolina, even as the latter continues to stockpile splashy recruits and allegedly trend upward in what seems like the fifth decade of the Steve Spurrier era. He is now 2-5 against Arkansas since taking over for Lou Holtz in 2005, with both of those wins coming at the expense of Razorback squads that finished below .500. Petrino has claimed three straight wins in the series by an average of 18 points.
(Aside on Spurrier: Has any coach ever looked more disengaged and just plain overmatched than this onetime sultan of the ranks? I think he might honestly covet a reunion with Dan Snyder at this point.)
The second is the affirmation of a genuine, meaningful rivalry with LSU. For years, it was about as significant on the national scale as the Egg Bowl, or the Little Brown Jug game, or whatever the hell absurd token neighboring also-rans play for these days. But of late, Arkansas-LSU is a game of consequence, played with vigor until the end gun, and provided that neither team experiences a hiccup the next two weeks the enormity of the 2011 edition will be unrivaled. And as we all saw Saturday night, likely by shuffling from one room to another or hammering the "back" button on the remote feverishly, both teams remain on that collision course. LSU nudged by Alabama, 9-6, in extra innings, closing out the Tide in their aggressively overhyped 1-2 matchup not long after the Hogs registered their 44-28 win over South Carolina in a game that should have boasted an even wider margin. Neither game was especially palatable, but if you are an Arkansas fan, you went to bed Saturday night knowing that the entire postseason menu remains available even if the most desired option is still a reach.
The South Carolina "test", as it were, shouldn't have been as close as the final score. Dropped certain touchdowns by Ronnie Wingo and Cobi Hamilton — normally as sure-handed as they come — took points off the board for Arkansas, and Tyler Wilson made an uncharacteristically bad decision that turned into an interception return for a touchdown. Zach Hocker missed two field goals in a single game for the first time in his two-year career as well. While the Razorback defense played inarguably its most complete game of the year, it once again extended South Carolina's rare scoring drives with penalties. All of this mattered little in the end because South Carolina was punchless (207 total yards) and had no answer for Dennis Johnson, who amassed 252 all-purpose yards by himself, or Jarius Wright (four receptions for 103 yards and two first-half touchdowns).
You could, therefore, say that once again Arkansas failed to play a perfect game. Frankly, I prefer it this way. If we're saving our magnum opus for the very end, there's no better place to unleash that kind of performance than in Baton Rouge.
Thankfully, the Hogs get two more home games to purge whatever ailments they continue to have. This weekend's tilt with Tennessee brings the not-your-father's-Volunteers into Fayetteville, seeking their first SEC win of the year in mid-November. The Vols have one of the country's worst rushing offenses, and will likely start their third-string, true freshman quarterback Justin Worley for the third consecutive game while phenom Tyler Bray continues to nurse the fractured thumb on his throwing hand. All of these offensive woes have left a fairly capable but shallow defense hung out to dry. Oh, and they had to find a kicker for the Middle Tennessee State game last week by scouring a frat house. I am not embellishing for comedic effect here.
It shapes up as a likely rout but the tussles at Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, perhaps fortuitously, provided a sharp kick in the arse that reminded us all why no game can be taken for granted. This is, after all, the toughest conference in America. I learned that watching a press conference in Oxford on Monday afternoon. It was repeated many times by an oddball in a suit.
What the Hogs have lacked in panache thus far, they have made up for with sheer will. It won't take much of that to beat Tennessee, but it's a game that demands caution nonetheless. And for the first time all season, it merits an honest prediction: Arkansas 41, Tennessee 24.