For the fourth straight SEC game, Arkansas will be a heavy underdog when it faces No. 9 South Carolina in a televised matchup Saturday in Little Rock. Game time is at 2:30 p.m. for CBS-TV's cameras.
And, there is good reason to believe the Gamecocks will triumph. They have been sound in every area throughout a 5-0 start, and have beaten solid teams on the road.
But, Arkansas has a shot at an upset. For that to happen, several things must transpire in the game.
First, South Carolina must help the Hogs just a little, and the Hogs must play an almost perfect game. They have not come close to that in an 0-3 SEC start, but it can happen.
Here are some of the keys to the game, as I see them. Feel free to offer your keys to the game on the Insiders message board, and I'll offer my replies.
The biggest key for Arkansas is to avoid turnovers. The Hogs must be turnover free against South Carolina. They have not managed that this year, and this would be a good time to come up with an antiseptic performance. South Carolina has an opportunistic team. If you give the Gamecocks a turnover, they will capitalize in a hurry. They are experienced on offense, and know what to do with a short field.
And, on the other side of the ball, the Hogs must force some turnovers. That is easier said than done when you are facing the Gamecocks. They lead the SEC in turnover ratio, and will protect the football, as Lou Holtz teams do. But, the Hogs will try to force turnovers with an aggressive plan on defense. If the Hogs can force a turnover or two, and eliminate them when they have the balls, they do have a solid shot an upset. By far, this is the biggest key in the game.
Another big key will be for the Hogs to eliminate penalties. They have had motion penalties on offense and offsides penalties on defense in almost every game. These must stop. After five games, they should not be regular happenings, as they have been this season. The Hogs have concentrated on eliminating these penalties this week with game officials brought in for every practice. Houston Nutt thinks the concentration has improved in practice this week, but only game action shows that is a certainty.
Can the Hogs block South Carolina's multiple defensive front? That is another key. Arkansas' blocking has improved of late, but this will be the best defensive front the Hogs will have faced. It is sound, and it is also multiple in the way the front changes. South Carolina's defense has been tough on the run, something the Hogs have struggled to maintain anyway. If the Hogs can't manage some sort of a running game, then it will be a long day in Little Rock.
The passing game is another huge key. Arkansas' offense has struggled in some ways because it does not offer the threat of the pass. It must make South Carolina play honest on defense. The best way to accomplish that goal is for the Hogs to hit some big passes early in the game. The Hogs have scored only one touchdown via the pass this season, and none against SEC foes. If the threat of the pass is not present, South Carolina will load the line of scrimmage and it will be a long day for Arkansas' blockers. If the Hogs hit a couple of home runs in the passing game, that will change, perhaps for the rest of the season. The threat of the pass must be there for Arkansas to run the ball.
Can the Hogs stop South Carolina's running game? Arkansas has been soft in the middle at points during all three SEC losses. They must shore up the inside of their defense if it is to stop the Gamecocks. Derek Watson and Ryan Brewer are super tailbacks. And, fullback Andre Pinnock might be the best blocking fullback the Hogs have seen. Arkansas must slow South Carolina's running game to win the battle of field position. That will be a big step towards an upset if the Hogs can hold the Gamecocks under 100 yards rushing.
The kicking game must be perfect. The Hogs have improved in several areas of the kicking game, but to score an upset, they need a great performance on special teams. They cannot afford breakdowns in any area. The coverage on kickoffs must improve, and the Hogs must be smart about kickoff returns. If high kickoffs put the return man in the end zone, the ball must be downed. That was a point of emphasis for the last two weeks in practice. The Hogs cannot afford to start drives from their own 15-yard line because of poor choices on returns, both in punts and kickoffs.
Houston Nutt hopes for wet weather on Saturday. He may get his wish. And, that is another key. But, with wet weather comes risks ... for both teams. It will be risky for Arkansas because of the gimpy nature of its tailbacks. Can Fred Talley's sore knee and Cedric Cobbs' sore hamstring hold up on a slippery surface? It's not for sure that they will hold up. Trying to accelerate on a gimpy leg on a slippery surface can aggravate injuries. So, a big key will be how well Arkansas' backs hold up if the conditions become slippery.
The crowd can be a big key, too. It should be a lively crowd in War Memorial Stadium. A good crowd will boost the Hogs. Of course, the Hogs must give them something to cheer about, and the Hogs can add to the atmosphere with some early heroics. So, another key will be what kind of start the Hogs can produce. Will they be hot in the first quarter? If the Hogs do start smartly, it would get the crowd into the game and help the atmosphere for an upset.
Another huge key will be how the Hogs young players perform. Can Matt Jones add to his fourth quarter magic against Weber State? Certainly, he'll see a different level of speed against South Carolina. Can he make some plays against the Gamecocks? If Jones and the rest of the Hogs freshman can make a few plays, an upset is possible.
If you've got some keys to victory, list them on the Insiders message board.