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Winning on road in SEC no easy task



Arkansas fans are renowned fatalists. 

You know all the lowlights by heart. Street to Peschel. The phantom pass interference against SMU. Atwater's missed pick in Miami. Stumble and Fumble. The Southern-Fried Misadventures of Reggie Fish.

In 2011, the worm seems to have turned. For a minute at least. What's happened the first two months is pretty special stuff, if you can cease bitching long enough to appreciate it.

We are winning contests that should have a surgeon general's warning emblazoned on the game program. These Razorbacks are besotted with self-destructive, maddening traits. They play lethargically early, recklessly at the end, and only sporadically well in between. And yet they are, as of this writing, a 7-1 team nestled snugly in the No. 7 spot of the BCS standings. 

The Hogs' first trip to Nashville in five years ended the same way the last one did: triumphant, but only by virtue of the Commodores' own sad history catching up to them. In 2006, Vandy's kicker, Bryant Hahnfeldt, kicked a 48-yard field goal attempt about 46 yards in the final minute — Houston Nutt famously credited the late Paul Eells' otherworldly breath for blowing the try short — and that allowed the Razorbacks to escape with a two-point win. 

This time, Carey Spear's 27-yard kick to send the game into overtime went dead right in the waning seconds and the Hogs tiptoed out of Vandy's crypt-masquerading-as-stadium as 31-28 winners. Vanderbilt rolled up 462 total yards, built a 14-point first-half lead and had the Hogs squarely against the ropes in the fourth quarter, driving for a score that would have given the Commodores a 15-point lead with about 12 minutes left.

That's when fate interceded again. A completely unforced fumble by Vandy's outstanding tailback, Zac Stacy, was snatched off the turf by Jerry Franklin, and the senior linebacker coasted to a 94-yard touchdown return that flipped the momentum permanently. Zach Hocker's third field goal of the game later gave the Hogs the lead, then Vandy's brilliant last-ditch effort at victory stalled at the Arkansas 10 before Spear's fateful shank.

It's been a charmed run through October: first-half deficits in all four games, all casually brushed aside by a team that seems to be far more adept at finishing. In this space before the season, I noted that the one nagging shortcoming of the Petrino era was an inability to close. We are presently, in ways that sometimes defy explanation, sloughing that albatross.

And while pundits might observe that we aren't knocking down titans, we're doing nothing differently from what champions do, year in and year out. Auburn narrowly dispatched Kentucky and Mississippi State a year ago. The year before, Alabama's national championship run was salvaged by Terrence Cody's meaty fingers in a two-point win over a sub par Tennessee team. The best teams are those that win across the spectrum, blowout to squeaker and all in between. 

One of the benefits of all these pre-noon kickoffs is that by the time Saturday evening rolls around, the pollsters are getting their digs in at other top-flight programs that have lost or struggled mightily. The Hogs aren't winning pretty, but once the flurry of upsets materializes (Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Clemson, etc.) the news about Arkansas having another dogfight becomes stale and largely irrelevant. We aren't losing ground, but we are content to let others do it for us.

Lost in the furor over another sketchy performance is an indisputable fact: winning on the road in the SEC is an onerous task, especially when it's Andre Ware's Early Bird Special. From this point forward, it's likely to be post meridiem start times in far friendlier confines (until LSU of course). It starts Saturday with a home date against a South Carolina team that sits just behind us in the BCS pecking order, a lone loss to Auburn blemishing its record. 

In many ways, the Gamecocks are a mirror of the Hogs, their loftiest hopes being thwarted by an early-season loss and a critical injury to their bellcow. They also appear to fancy a close game, with three of their seven wins by a field goal or less. For once, that predilection toward high tension may not work against us, as we have three recent wins by a combined 12 points.

Two full months in, nobody knows what to make of this team. It's reasonable to anticipate slippage in November, a final prelude to some nondescript December bowl sponsored by toiletries or industrial sanders. But it would also be none too surprising to see them march to Baton Rouge with a 10-1 record, brimming with swagger, and these next three weeks would seem to lay an ideal foundation for that sort of finale.

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