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Razorback football preview, part three



This is the last leg of a three-part trek through Arkansas's football season (read parts one and two). November has been kind to the Hogs recently, but it may also be the month that causes more fretting than usual this fall with Bobby Petrino's steadying hand being notably absent.

Arkansas has lost but twice in the penultimate month of the year the past three years, both to LSU at Baton Rouge. In 2010, the Hogs reeled off four wins and capped off their sprint to the Sugar Bowl by vanquishing the Tigers at War Memorial Stadium, then encored last year with three conference routs at home before gasping in the last lap at Tiger Stadium. 

In this columnist's view, the trend's correlation is with the Hogs' commitment to exerting old-fashioned, ground-based force on the opposing defense. The Petrino aerial wizardry is now culture rather than curiosity, but when Arkansas has truly exercised dominion it has actually been meat-and-potatoes at the core. Knile Davis was a workhorse in November 2010, carrying the ball 93 times over a four-game stretch, and that included a paltry 11 in a rout of UTEP. With Davis healthy again, that template will again be used this November.

Arkansas will enter its November stretch at 7-1 and 4-1, and host Tulsa for homecoming on Nov. 3. The Golden Hurricane had a fine 2011 (8-5) but were walloped all four times they played Top 25 competition and will struggle to find an able successor to quarterback G.J. Kinne. Tulsa does have a competent pair of speedsters at running back (Trey Watts and Ja'Terian Douglas), a versatile pass catcher in H-back Willie Carter. The Hurricane also have a collection of formidable defenders.

Nonetheless, this is homecoming, Arkansas will have swagger, and Tulsa will simply peter out. This will be the first of Davis' signature November games, as he will go for a career-long 80-yard touchdown run early and finish with over 150 yards in a single half. Kiero Small will win the Crip Hall Award by scoring a touchdown on both offense and defense, returning a fumble for a score late in a rout. Razorbacks 55, Hurricane 17.

After the drubbing, things get serious in a hurry. By Nov. 10, South Carolina and Arkansas both will be vying for an opportunity to reach Atlanta after an early-season conference loss. The Gamecocks are, once more, inexplicably rated ahead of the Hogs in almost all preseason polls; Steve Spurrier continues to elicit a remarkable degree of respect for a coach whose single national championship was won 16 years ago. Melvin Ingram and Stephon Gilmore are no longer anchoring the defense. Monster receiver Alshon Jeffery followed them to the NFL as well.

The Hogs have blasted the Gamecocks the last three years, including a 41-20 rout at Columbia in 2010 that many would contend was the most complete performance of the Petrino era. Certainly, Arkansas is hardly fazed by the Cocks as a general rule, but much is on the line this time, and Spurrier's smirk will actually reflect something other than wanton displeasure. Connor Shaw is savvier at QB than most perceive, and will wing it early to send the cliched "statement." But the game will be ultimately decided by turnovers, and a late fourth-quarter interception by Tevin Mitchel punctuates a true slugfest in the Hogs' favor. Razorbacks 30, Gamecocks 24.

Thankfully, Arkansas will not have to proceed directly into the LSU maw after that win, getting Mississippi State at Starkville. The myth of Scott Field is just that: Arkansas bares its warts here, but rarely loses. The Bulldogs still have no discernible downfield attack, and the loss of Fletcher Cox on defense is substantial. This one is predictably garish — Tyler Wilson chucks a couple of interceptions and completes barely half his passes — but Davis and Jonathan Williams have long scoring runs in the second half as the Hogs pull away. Razorbacks 34, Bulldogs 14.

And, finally, on Nov. 23, our long-staked BCS hopes are tested against LSU, this time at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. When I observed that the Hogs would again succumb to Alabama's mystique in September, more than a few people inferred that I would project a loss to LSU as well. After all, they contended, LSU appears even stronger this year than the team that vaporized the Razorbacks last year.

I simply don't hold that opinion. The Tigers, for all their worldly athletic gifts, occasionally play less than spirited and may be taken aback by just how enthused and imposing the on-campus crowd will be. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger will end his promising first year as starter with a clunker (three interceptions, lost fumble) and Arkansas will embrace the chance to imprint itself on the national championship picture this time. On the back of Davis (career-high 34 carries for 181 yards) and some clutch third-down conversions by tight end Chris Gragg, the Hogs finish off an 11-1 schedule and await their BCS destination. Razorbacks 27, Tigers 17.

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