It's an interesting time to go to Oxford if you are an Arkansas fan. This time, you don't have to take a trip through the Grove, one of the top tailgate spots in college football. No, you have plenty to see at the football game. You can study the Rebel fans as they taunt their coach, Houston Nutt.
It is deja vu all over again for Arkansas fans. There have been ads in the newspapers asking for Ole Miss brass to change direction in the athletic department. They are going after the coach and the AD these days.
So as we write our Top 10 List of what will be interesting to watch, it has to start with Nutt. How can you not look for him when the Rebels emerge from their locker room. Is it the last time Razorback fans will get that option? You have to wonder after Ole Miss has lost nine straight SEC games.
Arkansas players don't spend a lot of time talking about Nutt. Most were not around when the Little Rock Central grad coached at Arkansas. They say it's about playing the Rebels, about player matchups. That's generally what it's always about.
The Hogs sound like their current coach, the business-only Bobby Petrino. He talks about self improvement as the key to this week's game. He preaches sticking to the plan. If you improve every day, every practice, every game, things are going to go well. That's a good place to start as we go through our Top 10 List of things to watch for this week's trip to Oxford, Miss. Game time is 11:21 a.m. Saturday.
We'll make sure to remind that quarterback play is often the determining factor in college football (or high school, or NFL) and it's a mistake not to start with Tyler Wilson, the solid UA quarterback, in any Top 10 List. But we've included him in the first item.
1. Get Better
The Hogs are favored by two touchdowns. Ole Miss has been hammered a lot lately. So how do you prevent an upset? Bobby Petrino said the key is to get better every day. He thinks he has a mature team that knows to challenge itself each day to get better. His teams usually get better after a bye week. That will be the first thing to watch for Saturday. Are the Hogs better than they were two weeks ago against Auburn? Part of that get better thought would start with Tyler Wilson. He said he didn't like all aspects of his play against Auburn and wants to improve his passing this week. He also wants to do better at getting the Hogs in the right run checks. He's one of the strengths of this Arkansas team. If he keeps getting better (and he has so far), the Hogs will not lose many games the rest of the way.
2. Get Healthy
The Hogs have had an open date to heal some injuries. That is something that helps Jake Bequette, senior defensive end. Bequette played two weeks ago against Auburn, his first action since a hamstring injury in the second game. The Hogs also should be healthier in the defensive line this week with Robert Thomas back. The big sophomore defensive tackle missed one game with a knee injury. He flashed his explosiveness in practice this week. The open week helped the Hogs. They are healthier at cornerback where Isaac Madison and Darius Winston are back. You should notice a faster, quicker bunch of Razorbacks this week.
Good teams don't turn the ball over. They avoid fumbles and interceptions. The Hogs have had only one turnover the last two games. Tyler Wilson lost a fumble when he tried to scramble in the pocket against Auburn. Conversely, the Hogs are starting to come up with fumbles and interceptions. They've won the turnover game against Texas A&M and Auburn. Auburn coach Gene Chizik moaned that you can't beat good teams with turnovers. If the Hogs stay clean this week and force a few from the Rebels, it's unlikely there will be an upset.
The Hogs tackled better in the second half against A&M and for most of the game against Auburn. Will they tackle well in Oxford? That may be the key to the game. Ole Miss is going to try to establish the run. The Rebels don't have much of a passing threat. If the Hogs can tackle well, they may force the Rebels into bad situations that put Tramain Thomas into position for a few interceptions.
5. Coach Watching
I can't help but mention this. Perhaps it should be at the top of the list. Arkansas fans are going to put their binonculars on the Ole Miss coach. There will be other familiar faces on the Ole Miss sideline, like former Arkansas players and assistants Keith Burns and James Shibest. And there are old Arkansas assistants working for Nutt, too, like Mike Markuson and David Lee. Who knows what you'll see. It's worth finding them during any brief lulls.
6. Matt Hall
This is kind of like watching Nutt. Matt Hall was a UA player for a few months. He transferred after one season and is the massive guard for the Rebels. He told writers in Oxford that this is a huge game for him. I'm guessing there are Arkansas players opposite him that look forward to playing against Hall. They are all old friends. Watching that battle against the 6-9, 340-pound Hall should prove interesting.
7. Start Fast
This has been the Arkansas mantra the last two weeks since the Auburn game. Remember, the Hogs were down 35-17 at halftime against A&M. They trailed Auburn, 14-7, in the first quarter. The Hogs dominated the rest of those games. But they don't want a repeat. Petrino said Thursday that they've talked about "starting fast" in all phases of the game the past two weeks.
8. Play Fast
With the week off and some fresh legs, the Hogs want to play faster. They say they looked fast in practice this week. Taking the weekend off away from the game had to help. Now they want to take that to the field this week against the Rebels.
9. Running Game
It's always a key in football. The team that can run effectively generally has the easiest time scripting an effective script of plays. Everything goes better when the other team has to play run first. Can the Hogs stop the Ole Miss option game? Can the Hogs win the edge like they did against Auburn on both sides of the ball? Petrino said the Hogs have worked to lower their pad level in the offensive line during the week off. Does that show up Saturday? Can the Hogs get the running game going like they did last year when Knile Davis rolled up big numbers against the Rebels?
10. Hitting Game
Which team wins the hitting game? Does the pile move in one direction consistently? That's one of the big keys in football. The Hogs have won the hitting game the last six quarters. There was a mis-alignment early in the Auburn game that cut Michael Dyer loose on a TD run. Can the Hogs stop that from happening again by outhitting the Rebels in the offensive line. Mike Markuson, the old UA line coach, will be urging his side to do just that this week. If you put your eyes on the offensive line, you may know who is winning the game before it shows up on the scoreboard. Along those lines, do Tramain Thomas and Jerico Nelson come to hit (and tackle). Those are senior stalwarts on the Arkansas defense. They've had their share of missed tackles this year. Both have had to go to the bench in spells because of lackluster play. How do they perform this week against Ole Miss running back Brandon Bolden, a solid SEC bulldozer? Can they wrap him up in the open field?
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