The ongoing month-by-month season preview for the 2012 Hogs reaches Stage Two, AKA October. It is a light month, on volume (three games and one bye that, for a change, is well-timed) and strength of opposition (one preseason Top 50 opponent). Therefore, Pearls declares the Hogs will head into November at 7-1, comfortably in the Top 10.
What matters during these games is how the Hogs manage to sustain focus through a period of flaccid competition. Recall last year that the Razorbacks nearly frittered away a comeback win at Ole Miss and found great fortune in a three-point win at Vanderbilt the following week.
The October slate pits the Hogs against three programs under reconstruction. Only the first game is out of state, the match-up with Auburn on Oct. 6, where the War Eagle Tiger Plainspeople have had a rocky offseason and the prognosis for Gene Chizik's fourth team is sketchy: Gus Malzahn left for the resplendent rolling hills of Jonesboro, tailback Michael Dyer was summarily dismissed (then booted by Malzahn from ASU as an encore) and a defense that's never been particularly imposing under Chizik's watch is even younger than it has been.
The Hogs have rolled up an impressive 125 points in three games against Chizik's teams, always aerially proficient against a suspect secondary and balanced with power running. Jordan-Hare Stadium was the site of two coming-out parties in the Hogs' 65-43 loss in 2010: Tyler Wilson relieved a concussed Ryan Mallett and logged 332 passing yards and four touchdowns, and Knile Davis broke loose from a committee of running backs with 113 yards from scrimmage. Auburn found no heir apparent to Cam Newton last season and will still be searching for an able successor, all without Malzahn's playcalling acumen. Davis romps for a career-best four touchdowns, one in each quarter. Razorbacks 38, Tigers 23.
The next week, Arkansas welcomes Kentucky to Fayetteville for the first time in five seasons, and the Wildcats are in nowhere near the same shape as they were under Rich Brooks. Kentucky has regressed under Joker Phillips in every tangible way, and last year represented low ebb for a program that finally had worked its way to respectability. Neither Maxwell Smith nor Morgan Newton showed apparent interest in seizing the quarterback job, and tailback CoShik Williams, while a nice player, has a history of nagging injuries. The Wildcats' defense regularly boasts a competent playmaker or two, but never enough depth to thwart a high-caliber offense for long.
As mercurial as Kentucky has been over the years, the Wildcats have beaten the Hogs the last two times they've visited Reynolds Razorback Stadium (2002, 2007) and are a threat because they are simply an unknown. It's this absence of familiarity that will make this game the most ragged one of the season. Kentucky will play inspired early and take a lead into halftime, but this one ends with the Hogs racking up 24 unanswered after halftime, and with Ronnie Wingo being the catalyst with receiving and rushing touchdowns in the second half. Razorbacks 34, Kentucky 21.
The Hogs will enjoy the coveted midseason off week, then end October with the second and final Little Rock game of the season against Ole Miss. We won't rehash the merits of trading LSU for Mississippi as the designated conference opponent at War Memorial, but it is worth noting that the relocation of the Ole Miss game rekindles 1980s nostalgia for those of us who recall the Hogs and Rebels alternating between Little Rock and Jackson, Miss., throughout that decade. Expect a gorgeous autumn day on the golf course and a festive tailgating scene as usual (highlighted by the distinguished M.E.A.T., whose commitment to pre-game revelry is unparalleled), and a charged Razorbacks team bent on making a genuine entry into the national title conversation again.
For Ole Miss' part, the ruination of the program the past two seasons penetrated too far for Hugh Freeze to foster hope this fall. He can't revamp the offense as dramatically as he did in one season at Arkansas State, largely because his roster is bereft of capable skill players. The problem begins at quarterback, where one of two ill-fitting transfers (Barry Brunetti, who lost the starting job last year by halftime of the opener, or Bo Wallace) will have all sorts of difficulty against a relentless Razorback pass rush. Twenty-four years after Wayne Martin terrorized the Rebels with a school-record five sacks in a Hog win at War Memorial, Tenarius Wright will tie that mark, and Cobi Hamilton will lead the offense with a pair of long touchdown catches, continuing his trend of playing big in the capital city. Razorbacks 45, Rebels 14.