Back in the spring when I looked at the SEC West race, it was clear that the top three would be LSU, Alabama and Arkansas. They looked to be a cut above the rest. But I had one other clear thought: Mississippi State was an easy choice for fourth and might impact the West race.
So far it hasn't worked that way. Auburn beat Mississippi State and stands to finish fourth by virtue of its strong road victory at South Carolina. The Bulldogs have yet to make a wave in the SEC West.
That does not make them less dangerous as they travel to Little Rock on Saturday to face the No. 6 Razorbacks. Obviously, CBS thinks the Bulldogs are capable of an upset or it would not have picked the game for its national broadcast at 2:30 p.m.
There is no one on the Arkansas team overlooking State. They have a hit-you-in-the-face style that holds your attention from year to year. The Hogs were playing great when they went to Starkville at this time of year in 2010 and needed two overtimes to dispose of the Bulldogs. They might not have done it except for a fumble that Jerico Nelson caused at the goal line when the hosts were driving for the potential game winner in regulation. The ball bounced through the end zone for a touchback.
The trimmings for this game are huge. The Hogs still have a shot at the SEC West title if things fall right. Obviously, they need some help in the BCS picture as well with LSU and Alabama above them. Only two SEC teams can play in a BCS bowl. There are still a lot of scenarios, too many to list here.
What we do know for sure is that Mississippi State has had tough luck this year on offense. The Bulldogs have scored only four offensive touchdowns in their five SEC losses. They've tried three quarterbacks, mostly runner Chris Relf and passer Tyler Russell. Relf played two snaps last week before leaving with a concussion.
Russell is more of a pure thrower. He competed 55 percent of his throws last week against Alabama. But even when he's in the game, State will try it's inside option stuff and power running with a few counters. It's an offense that requires discipline and poise in the defensive front.
"They make you play your gaps and be sound," Arkansas defensive tackle coach Bobby Allen said this week. "They run those options to take you out of your stunts and then they run the power and counter stuff to get angles. You have to play your technique and get off blocks.
"It's going to be very physical. They are good at what they do. We've played it a number of times. It's the stuff Dan Mullen was running at Florida and we've seen it the last two seasons at Mississippi State. They are very good at it. Very disciplined. Their players have bought in and play their technique well."
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino knows the Hogs will see Relf and Russell, but the play calling stays the same.
"I think what you say is that one has more of a flavor to the way he plays," Petrino said. "You know that Russell throws it better. But they are going to run the options either way. They stick with their offense. You prepare for the scheme with both and then try to understand how the flavor changes by quarterback."
Defensively, the Bulldogs are experienced and hard nosed. They've been playing the same set of cornerbacks for three seasons. So the veteran Arkansas wideouts have a familiar matchup they respect.
We'll get into the top 10 list with an eye towards more specific keys. No one will be surprised with where this one starts.
You have to give credit where credit is due. State has been known for physical line play. That was the case during the Sylvester Croom days and when Dan Mullen took over, that didn't change. If anything, the Bulldogs are tougher in the trenches. The one problem the Bulldogs have had this season is injuries in the offensive line. The Bulldogs have lost some players there and that has hurt experience and depth. State has had a hard time putting together consistent play up front. There wasn't much running last week against Alabama, but not many have been able to gain any ground yards against the Tide. Arkansas coaches and players have maintained all week that the game would be won up front. The team with the more physical linemen will dominate the game. This is where I'd train my eyes early in the game. Can the Hogs win the line of scrimmage on a consistent basis? Can they stop State's running and can the guys in red make positive yards on first down with Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo?
Arkansas is favored by two touchdowns. The biggest threat to the Hogs would be their own mistakes. They've done a decent job of avoiding turnovers over the last month and it's the biggest reason for the nice winning streak. The Hogs are getting turnovers and avoiding them. State will play the passing lanes with a gambling secondary. Tyler Wilson has to be aware of changing coverages and the disguises that State will use in the secondary. It may be the key to the game.
3. Pass protection
State has a few sacks, but that hasn't been a strength. The Hogs have done better in that category of late, both in protections and in getting sacks. If that trend continues, it bodes well for the home team. Given time, Tyler Wilson is deadly. Of the two State quarterbacks, Relf would probably rather run than pass, even in passing situations. Russell is going to throw more times than not. That should give Arkansas ends Tenarius Wright and Jake Bequette some opportunities to go after the quarterback.
4. Tyler Wilson
The Arkansas quarterback is among the league's best. But he's going to see an unorthodox defensive secondary with inverted cornerbacks that force the throws to the outside. They don't give up the slant very much, but there are some chances on the outside and on the sideline because of that technique. Wilson has been good at finding the underneath routes and has gotten a few more chances over the top because of the increased pressure put on safeties by the running game with Dennis Johnson. Wilson might like the play-action opportunties in the deep game this week because State will have to play run against the Hogs and Johnson. That might give Wilson a chance at a big game.
5. Jerry Franklin
The Hogs have been getting good play of late from their middle linebacker. Franklin will have a tough assignment this week because of the variation in the running game the Bulldogs will provide in the middle of the field. State is outstanding at mixing up the looks so that there is a balance between option, power and counter. That's the toughest thing for a middle linebacker. He has to know which side to fit the run gaps. State will get some angles to confuse him. Franklin will have to be sure in his steps to keep things in order with the run fits across the front. His ability to communicate with the other linebackers when motion and formation change to keep the Hogs in the right gaps with enough numbers might be the key to the Arkansas defense.
Free safety Tramain Thomas has been solid of late, but he struggled early this season against big backs. He was not able to bring down Trent Richardson or the two talented Texas A&M backs. Vick Ballard might be the best runner the Hogs have faced since then. Ballard should be hungry after Alabama stopped him in his tracks last week. Ballard runs low to the ground and can be a load. Thomas and strong safety Eric Bennett will get several chances to tackle Ballard in the open field. If they can, the Hogs should keep State's point total low. If not, it could be a long game with too many big plays for the Bulldogs.
7. Special teams
This has been a great source of big plays for the Hogs this year. They've scored on punt returns and kickoff returns all season. No one in the SEC has done as well. They've also been solid in net punting and kickoffs. Zach Hocker leads the SEC with 29 touchbacks in kickoffs. That's well ahead of the second best in the league. The Hogs have come to expect big days from special teams. It could be a big key in the game.
8. Balance on first down
Bobby Petrino strives to be balanced on first down. He said what happens on first down controls the rest of the game. He wants to be close to 50-50 on first down. Can they run the ball on first down against State. That's been an improving area of play for the Hogs, especially since Dennis Johnson has returned to full speed. Watch early in the game as to whether the Hogs are successful running and passing on first down and if there are any tendencies there. If the balance is there, it might be a tough day for State's defense.
The Hogs have had it the last two weeks in the Ozarks. Do they carry it to Little Rock. Bobby Petrino said Thursday that the theme was to keep these seniors perfect in Little Rock. The Hogs haven't lost there in the last four seasons. The emotion was obvious throughout the last two Fayetteville games against Carolina and Tennessee. Can the Hogs carry that through for another week?
There's been a lot of talk about next week's game with LSU. It's dominated all conversations with fans. Are the fans ready for this week, too? The atmosphere in Little Rock is usually outstanding. Bobby Petrino has asked for fans to continue to be the extra man on the field with their noise level. He said it's always "loud" in Little Rock. He reminded that the Fayetteville crowd has been outstanding, especially when the other team is trying to convert a third down. He's hoping it's like that in Little Rock, too.
State of the Hogs: Top 10 List (State)
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