The unknown's starting to gnaw at me. In the first quarter of Saturday's game, after the Hogs failed to convert a fourth down in Warhawk territory, sports talk show host Derek Ruscin tweeted that Arkansas "should have punted."
"Relax," I replied. "This game is basically one big hypothetical situation."
By that I mean non-conference games are essentially a chance for the Hogs to see a variety of live situations against ostensible competition. To whit: A true freshman has won the place-kicking job, and he's backed up by a very shaky senior who seems happy to focus on getting touchbacks on kickoffs. The Hogs are liable to have to go for it in shallow opposition territory at some point this season. Why not take the opportunity to try and convert that in a relatively low-leverage situation?
Even with that rather bad attitude regarding ULM's legitimacy, I managed to get all worked up over the effort. Petrino may be prepared to try and fail, to focus on weaknesses when calling plays, to test rawer players and schemes to the breaking point, but all of that starts to make it look like our favorite team is banging its head against the wall. Most of us normals don't have the patience for method. Faith is a fragile thing.
And you have to admit, despite his fairly sterling numbers, Mallett looked troubled out there. He sailed balls and stood too long in the pocket, refused to check down and zipped it to routes that required finesse. It was hard to watch, however ultimately effective.
What makes all this worse (or better?) is that the rest of the conference games on Saturday featured some abysmal football. It may be early in the season, but SEC fans have to hope things shape up soon, or the conference is going to fast lose the popular myth of speed, self-cannibalization and strength-of-schedule. With the loss of that myth will come the loss of cushy non-conference scheduling: Fans are happy to see teams cut their teeth against inferior competition as long as the regular season is perceived to be a merciless gauntlet. But even the "down year" narrative can't account for FCS upsets and sloppy contests like the Georgia-USC game.
Georgia was on the wrong end of a very messy affair. The tacit SEC-East Division Championship game doubled as a red carpet premiere of the Marcus Lattimore Show, with Todd Grantham's shiny new pro-style Bulldog defense serving as the carpet. Something like the reverse of what happened to Tommy Tuberville in Auburn seems to be going down in Georgia, though I doubt this story ends quite as spectacularly.
The Hogs don't have a weapon like true freshman Lattimore, though Petrino has spent the last two games looking for a meaningful alternative. The easiest way to beat a good 4-3 defense is with a tough, straight-up-the-gut running game. It keeps the middle linebacker honest and forces the secondary to deal with crossing patterns and slants on their lonesome. If you want to see long, arcing throws to a wide receiver streaking down the sideline, then you're going to have to sow chaos in the middle of the field.
Joe Adams was already our most thrilling playmaker, a young man with enough dynamite in his cleats to change destinies, but his role in the upcoming game should be pivotal. Georgia's secondary looked better because Stephen Garcia and his receivers looked worse, over-shooting often and dropping the few catchable passes. Mallett shouldn't get much trouble out of the coverage. If Knile Davis or Ronnie Wingo can make the sweep more fruitful, we may be able to sustain the indefinite loss of Dennis Johnson, our most consistent, visionary runner.
The defense definitely has a bigger job on their hands. People have been falling all over themselves to praise its efforts so far. Keeping ULM and Tennessee Tech under 200 yards is heartening, yes, but I'd be surprised if that number holds. Despite Aaron Murray's youth, he's looked poised and more than competent. I could count the iffy decisions he's made on one hand. I'd wager at this point he'll be about as good as Matt Stafford when all is said and done. Whether or not he has A.J. Green to throw at, it looks like he's going to manage around a 65 percent completion percentage. Behind Georgia's typically stout lineman, the Hogs are looking at a fairly balanced offense, stacked with SEC-caliber personnel.
Arkansas can and should beat this team, but it would help me sleep at night if they'd do so with some authority. You can't feel good about the season if the Razorbacks stumble to the finish line on Saturday. A sloppy win over a Georgia team this rife with internal issues is as good as a loss. Alabama's looming just around the corner, and the defending NCAA champions will never fall prey to luck, circumstance or self-destruction.