State of the Hogs: Top 10 (Carolina)

There's one item you probably didn't expect in our weekly Top 10 Things to Watch. But, actually, it's all worth watching this week. It's one of the highlight games of the season.

The matchups are so good this week that's it hard to keep our Top 10 List of Things to Watch to just 10. It could be a dirty dozen, perhaps a baker's dozen. Maybe Top 25 is a better way to describe what we are going to watch this weekend at Columbia, S.C.

From quarterback play, to running backs, to kickers, to punters, to the replay official -- it's all worth putting on my list this week. It's a top 20 battle, No. 18 Arkansas at No. 19 South Carolina. So much is riding as far as the SEC East race and for the pecking order for bowls.

No doubt, folks in Atlanta are paying attention. Representatives of the Chik-Fil-A Bowl, set in Atlanta, will be on hand to scout the two teams, although I've got a suspicion that South Carolina is the target of the desires from that bowl. Arkansas has never played in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl. It's probably designed with the SEC East in mind. They'd love to have South Carolina. The best way for the Gamecocks to end up there is for Arkansas to win Saturday.

I've always liked the Arkansas-South Carolina matchups. The two teams are the newest members of the SEC, joining in 1992. Many times, their battle goes a long way to defining their season. The winner is going to get a decent to great bowl this time. The loser slips a bit. There have been years that the winner became bowl eligible that day and the loser didn't make it at all. There have also been times the game has defined coaching tenures. Danny Ford's fate was sealed after a loss to Carolina. It was the same before that with Brad Scott at Carolina.

When this season's over, I've got the feeling this will be one of the games that either boosted a team to glory, or gave us a clue that things weren't going to turn out so well. In that regard, it may be a bigger game than most fans from either side realize. Bobby Petrino noted his team gets it as the Hogs head to Carolina.

Carolina has been a 3-point favorite for most of the week. That's the advantage Vegas gives to the home team, so it's probably too evenly matched teams. The season stats look similar, although Carolina runs it a little better and Arkansas throws and catches a little better. We've noted the field goal kicking. Carolina is 8 of 8, Arkansas 8 of 9. That's the way it looks in a lot of places, extremely close.

I'll get started by the No. 1 key in the game, stopping the run. Someone told me once that in the SEC, it starts with stopping the run and it finishes there. Things may be a little different with Bobby Petrino and Steve Spurrier as coaches since both invest heavily in the passing game. But I didn't have a hard time getting our No. 1 thing to watch. Here goes:

1) Marcus Lattimore
If he stays healthy, he could make South Carolina fans forget about George Rogers -- or at least build another statute to go beside the one of the Heisman Trophy winner. Rogers was a beast. So is Lattimore. Only 6-0, 218 in the program, he plays much bigger. He doesn't have the top end speed of some SEC backs, but he's big, shifty and understands the craft of running. Bobby Petrino likes to talk about the nail and the hammer. On each play, there is a player that is the nail and another one who hammers the nail. There haven't been many plays this year that Lattimore was the nail. He missed a game with a knee problem, but he looks to be healthy this week. The Hogs have to slow him down, without ignorning the Carolina wideouts. It's a tough challenge.

2) Mallett and Garcia
Really, it's best to combine the two quarterbacks here. Ryan Mallett and Stephen Garcia are given a lot in these two offenses. There are lots of reads and checks at the line of scrimmage. Both head coaches want to make eye contact with their quarterbacks as they get to the line to suggest checks, but there's still so much that happens in their progressions in the pass in the passing game that require decisions by the quarterbacks. Casey Dick lost his job because of poor decisions in a game at Columbia two years ago and Garcia took some heat for the way he played at Fayetteville last year. In both cases, it was the way they picked receivers and read the option routes that both head coaches love. You can learn a lot by just watching body language of the coaches as they mentally grade their quarterbacks during this game.

3) Disguise
The Halloween candy is gone. The costumes are shoved into a closet. But this game is all about disguise. Both head coaches don't miss a trick and have every play for every scheme. They've seen it all. They have good playbooks and make great adjustments. So the key will be how safeties and linebackers disguise the schemes. If they line up in the front that's called before the snap, these quarterbacks are trained to cut up the defense. So the game will be disguise. Show a look, then another, then at the snap, slip into a third. That's the game that will determine whether or not the quarterbacks get a false read and make a mistake. Which team gives away a corner blirz too soon and gets burned? Does a shift happen too early and allow the offensive line to count everyone? There are going to be two or three of these situations on every snap. It's a lot to watch, but it's at least in the top three of things to watch, maybe higher.

4) Hold Everything
This is really a two-fold situation. These wide receivers are so good on both sides of the ball, about the only way to slow them down is to grab a little cloth. Both sides are going to play some press coverage. SEC refs allow it, too, to a point. Can the Hogs beat press coverage with youngsters like Julian Horton? Will Cobi Hamilton fight through the holds that are surely coming? The offensive lines are pretty good, too. Both are going to do a little holding. Can they get by with it? Neither team can afford too many holds ... in the line or at corner. Will the SEC refs let it go, or are they going to call it tight. Usually, in big games late in the year, it's no holds barred. Players have to figure this one out pretty quickly and then adjust. If you don't, one side has a huge advantage.

5) The Replay Man
You have to put this one in the top half of the list, just on the basis of the last Arkansas road trip. The replay man usually knows where he sits. We mean, he knows who is home and who is on the road. Hopefully, that doesn't happen this week. The game is too big. Both coaches are pretty good at working the referees, but they can't get to the replay man. He's high above the field, locked in an ivory tower. I'll check in pregame to make sure he isn't wearing garnet, officially Carolina red.

6) The Fourth Quarter
Both teams trail in the fourth quarter in season stats. The Hogs fell into the abyss in the fourth quarter both against Alabama and Auburn. They need to win the fourth quarter this time. They were pretty good in the fourth quarter in their last two outings, relying on a solid effort from the offensive line in both cases. If the offensive line steps up, Ryan Mallett will have a fun fourth quarter. The Hogs have to avoid key penalties in the fourth quarter. They've made several mental mistakes to put themselves behind the eight ball in the fourth quarter.

7) Van Stumon
This is probably a surprise mention. Not many would have predicted at the start of the season the senior fullback would make any Top 10 list. Actually, Stumon was suspended to start the season. He didn't play much early, but he's been gaining steam of late and has been a standout blocker in the Arkansas running game. He can also catch passes. We are waiting on the time someone gives him the ball in a running play. It might happen once the entire season. But when it does, it'll be worth watching. If all you get when you watch Stumon is to see some huge collisions, it's fun. He hits someone on every play. Over the last couple of games, he's been the hammer and one of the reason Knile Davis is cruising into the end zone.

8) Cornerback Play
This hasn't been a strength of late for the Hogs. Isaac Madison spent a few games out of the starting lineup, but he seems to be making a comeback. It'll be interesting to watch if Madison flips sides this week. He's the taller of the two UA corners. Usually, the Arkansas defense puts Madison to the field side, Ramon Broadway to the boundary. But Broadway is tiny. He might not have the height to contend with Jeffery. Will the Hogs matchup their corners. Probably not. It's not the Petrino way, but it's something to check early in the game. While your at it, make sure to find the UA safeties. Are they cheating outside the hash marks to give bracket help on Jeffery? If they do, they might not be able to provide the needed run support against Lattimore.

9) Turnovers
The Arkansas-South Carolina game has hinged on a key turnover in the second half the last few years. It will again. Garcia and Mallett have made some mistakes. They have benefited from decent protection, but both defensive coordinators are going to bring some unique pressures that neither have seen this season. They'll have to protect the ball when they get hit. They will get hit. Carolina will run some read option with Garcia. That can lead to turnovers if the Hogs hit him when he's making a decision. Carolina will make Mallett slide in the pocket and are one of the best sack teams in the nation with 30. It's an important game. Both sides know it. Does it get to either one? Does the mental wear and tear of a big game lead to a turnover?

10) Special Teams
It's always a mistake to wait this deep in a Top 10 to list special teams. It's too important each week. Jarius Wright might be the punt return specialist this week if Joe Adams isn't 100 percent after missing last week with an ankle injury. Adams took some turns returning punts and was getting near full speed by travel time. Can the Hogs cover kickoffs? It's supposed to be a cold night, so the ball likely want soar on kickoffs, meaning no matter if there is wind or not, the kicks are probably going to be returned. The Hogs don't want to give away field position with big returns. Both teams are probably going to score some touchdowns, so how they cover kickoffs might be a big key to prevent wild momentum swings.

Oh, and there's more. The Hogs have to stay out of double digits in penalties. I kind of covered that in the holding category, but false starts have to be eliminated. It's going to be loud in Brice-Williams Stadium. But if the Hogs can get off to a good start, the Carolina home crowd tends to go quiet. That's important this week. You could just list the two head coaches as something to watch. Spurrier and Petrino handle the playcalling. They are invovled to the hilt in everything. Spurrier is a little more fun to watch because of the way body language gives him away. But you can learn a lot by training your eyes on Petrino, too. You can also watch to see if the Hawgs Illustrated pickers are right. It was near unanimous for Carolina this week. I was the only one to pick Arkansas, 28-27.

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