Why did some think this Arkansas team could compete in the SEC before this football season began? I went back to my thoughts of spring football, the first glimpse of Brandon Allen running Jim Chaney's offense. I saw D'Arthur Cowan, Keon Hatcher, Javontee Herndon and Jonathan Williams making plays.
What I didn't see was talent at linebacker, but I thought there might be just enough for new assistant coach Randy Shannon to mix and match and bring that group along as the season progressed. He did it at TCU with walk-on linebackers. Why couldn't he do it at Arkansas?
I didn't see a finished product at offensive line, but it was much improved over the previous season. The pad levels were down. There was a new mentality to what was happening in the trenches at Arkansas.
But what I saw more than anything was clean football. Penalties went away. There was the 17 of 18 performance by Allen in the Red-White scrimmage. His passing was good and the receivers were better. That is what seems so odd now. The receivers have not had a performance like that this season.
Why? It may be as simple as practice makes perfect. Those receivers were together with their quarterback in the spring. It's been hard to find days over the last three months where Allen, Cowan and Hatcher were together on the practice field. That has to frustrate Chaney, the quarterback coach and playcaller. It has to disrupt the timing. And if there is anything the Hogs have been missing in this five-game losing streak, it's timing in the pass game.
That's the obvious key to staying with Auburn on Saturday. And, if the Hogs can stay with the Tigers, perhaps there is something good waiting in the fourth quarter. There has not been much hope of late when the fourth quarter arrives. If it's still a game in the fourth quarter, the underdog has a chance.
This is a strange game as far the outside looking in. There are more thoughts filtering out among some national onlookers that give Arkansas a chance. Phil Steele, generally on target, likes the Razorback chances today more than in several weeks. I keep thinking, what is he seeing that I didn't early in the week when I made my picks and went with Auburn?
The open date is part of it. Allen getting well is another strong item for consideration. Cowan's emergence after battling back from foot surgery in August after sustaining a broken bone has to be another item. Cowan should be a stronger force in the passing game and is likely to return punts, too.
But that can't be it? The Hogs have to play much more consistent football in all other areas. But it probably does start with Allen and Cowan, along with the rest of the receivers, counting tight end Hunter Henry is a big man in the passing game, too.
There are interesting matchups everywhere you look. Who is going to take Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coats, a likely one-on-one matchup? Likely, it will be Tevin Mitchel, who has had an off year after leading the way in preseason camp. Ever since giving up two big passes down the stretch in the Auburn game, the Hogs have had trouble with the big play in the secondary. There had been none for the first three and a half games.
The tough thing for Mitchel, he's not going to get much help. The safeties will be involved stopping Auburn's running game. It's really the old wishbone situation. Safeties must play run, leaving man-to-man for the corners. It's as much wishbone principals on defense as anything you'll see without an offense called "the wishbone."
The good news for Arkansas is that running backs Alex Collins and Williams are fresh. Both were banged around pretty good the last five weeks when the competition intensified. Williams played with a sore knee the last two weeks after taking a shot late in the Florida game. He's full go now.
Center Travis Swanson is full go, too. His knee is healed. He also was hurt against Florida and was just a shell of his self the last two weeks. He should be back to the Swanson we saw early when he'd lead Collins and Williams on sweeps as a pulling center.
The Arkansas offensive line has to carry the load Saturday. It has to give Allen confidence by blocking some plays for those backs. That group has to dominate an average Auburn defense and put some points on the board. If it can, that's going to provide a lift to the defense that has to have felt like it was playing alone the last two weeks when things got out of hand.
The thing that I keep going back to this week that provides hope, is the way Arkansas played on senior day last year against LSU. Everyone played their best game, except perhaps John L. Smith, turning down a chance to go for it from the 1-yard line late in the game. The Hogs deserved that one after a great effort by the 40 or so players who battled that day.
Arkansas has to play its best game. I can remember a prayer by a senior captain years ago before an underdog played a top 10 team. He concluded, "And dear Lord, don't let the best team win." The prayer was answered. It can happen again.
But the Hogs have to play their best game. They must win the turnover battle, improve in the kicking game and find a passing game against an Auburn defense that gives up 297 yards per game through the air.
They have to get the game into the fourth quarter when a senior kicker can become a big factor. That's Zach Hocker, one of the nation's best who has been left on the sideline too much this season because of offensive struggles.
The Arkansas defensive front, led by an Alabama native in Darius Philon, has to have it's best game. They have to be what Chris Smith called "the erasers." That's the goal each week for the front four. The goal is to whip blocks and be in the Auburn backfield.
Auburn has averaged 315 yards per game on the ground, but the Tigers made just 202 against Mississippi State, 213 against LSU. The Hogs have to shoot for those kinds of numbers on Saturday.
The Hogs can win if they hit a peak. They haven't come close to the mountaintop against a top SEC team since Texas A&M this year and LSU last year. Perhaps they have an effort like that in store for the Tigers on Saturday.
And, they need a hero. They need a playmaker. They need someone to step up. Could it be Allen, Cowan, Henry, Collins or Williams, one of the young guns? Or, maybe it's a salty old Kiero Small, the senior slugger who has taken his old boxing skills to the field in a fine season that has been obscured by the losses?
I remember the end of the first year under Frank Broyles. The Hogs lost six straight, then flipped the switch to win the last four. They didn't lose in November for five seasons. I don't have to have that right now. I'll start with one.
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