So where are these 2001 Razorback footballers headed? Is it going to be a continued rise all the way to a fourth straight bowl trip? Or, was that 10-7 victory over South Carolina just a nice break in what will be a glooming season? Here's our take on those questions, and more, as the Hogs hit an open date weekend at the midpoint of the season.
First, let's summarize that it does look like the Hogs are on an upturn of sorts. They have improved in small steps every week and appeared to hit their stride against South Carolina, especially on defense and in the kicking game. It would be my guess that the offensive line is finding some chemistry and will continue to improve, just as it did down the stretch last season.
One of the big questions in my mind around what improvement we can expect the rest of the way might deal with Matt Jones. The 6-6 freshman quarterback/wide receiver made a huge impact on the South Carolina game. It would be nice to expect continued help from Jones, but we will have to wait to see what adjustments are made by defenses with Jones in the game and how the freshman reacts to those adjustments.
Can Jones continue to hurt defenses with draws and scrambles ... without the fear of the pass? It is unlikely. If Jones can add the dimension of a few completed passes, he should be able to inflict more and more damage to SEC defenses and gain more and more playing time. Certainly, Jones now has some confidence that he can make plays. Can he make plays without losing turnovers with the way he carries the ball away from his body? That will surely be something to watch in the next few games. You can bet SEC defenses are going to be swatting at the ball after the way he carried it at arm's length against South Carolina.
One more development to watch over the next few games will be how the Hogs decide to play on defense. Obviously, they were in an attack mode against the Gamecocks. They brought more pressure from the outside than at any time this season, and played much more man-to-man coverage in the secondary. Will they continue to play in such an aggressive manner? Perhaps they will. Houston Nutt certainly applauded the pressure the Hogs applied to Phil Petty.
Carlos Hall played his best game as a Razorback against the Gamecocks. Can he continue to improve on that aggressive performance? If he can, the Hogs have a chance to be solid in every game. Hall has always been the Hogs' best athlete not to make plays, and if he is finding his rhythm and the ability to play hard on every down, this defense will have some fun the rest of the way. His pressure despite double team attention was a big plus against South Carolina. He forced several incomplete passes with bull rushes and inside stunts. And, the attention he took away from the outside blockers gave blitzers Tony Bua, Ken Hamlin and Caleb Miller some unobstructed shots at the quarterbacks.
If the Hogs are to continue to improve, they must continue to add to the running game that seemed to emerge last week against South Carolina. That will mean help from Cedric Cobbs and Decori Birmingham. Cobbs had some brilliant flashes in practice Monday and might be close to providing some much needed help at tailback. Fred Talley carried 33 times against USC, and that is too many for his surgically repaired knee. He needs some rest. He'll get it during the open date and will be quicker and stronger against South Carolina.
It appears the offensive line right to left combination of Shawn Andrews, Mark Bokermann, Kenny Sandlin, La'Zerius White and Shannon Money is gaining steam. They were more successful at opening holes in South Carolina's tough defense than any team this season. It helped that the Gamecocks at least respected the Hogs' passing game and didn't pack eight men in the box as much as the three previous SEC defenses had done this season.
The key will be for the Hogs to continue to complete some passes so that defenses don't load up against the run. When the Hogs get an honest defense, they have proven the last three games that it can make some holes for their backs. But, if the Hogs can't continue to improve in the passing game ... and that goes for Matt Jones as well as Zak Clark ... then they will again see eight defenders in the box and running room will be tough to find.
One of the developments in the South Carolina game that gives this writer hope for more offensive improvement was the way the Hogs took advantage of the Gamecocks' slants to the right side of the UA offensive line. It is obvious that the Gamecocks thought the dominant side of the line was where Shawn Andrews lines up on the right side. They slanted to Andrews, and the Hogs punished them with zone plays to the left side behind Shannon Money and La'Zerius White. That's the first time the Hogs have been able to exploit such slants, and is a great sign for continued improvement in the running game. The Hogs' tendencies to run mainly to the right fell by the wayside against South Carolina, and that bodes well for the future.
To conclude, it is this writer's view that the Hogs will continue to improve. I think Houston Nutt's message that his team's worst enemy is itself is starting to find its mark. The Hogs have self destructed more than they've been whipped of late. If they eliminate turnovers, penalties and missed assignments, they do have the personnel to move the ball in the SEC. They need to continue to add to its antiseptic play against the Gamecocks, and they will continue to pile up yards, and more victories.
So, what will be the Hogs' final record. They are 3-3 with games left against Auburn, at Ole Miss, Central Florida, Mississippi State and at LSU. They should be favored to defeat Central Florida and Mississippi State. They will be underdogs against Auburn and LSU, with the Ole Miss game probably a tossup at this point since it will be played at home. Can they win three of these five games and post a 6-5 record? Perhaps. Can they win four of five to finish 7-4? That is unlikely, but, not out of the question.
The best news for the Hogs is that they think their best football is in front of them, and they are somewhat healthy, especially in comparison to this time last season. After the South Carolina game last year, they were looking at the intramural field for help at quarterback. Not only are they in decent physical shape, they have an open date to improve in that area.
And, they have some confidence. This team now believes that it can win against any SEC opponent. Granted, the ninth-ranked Gamecocks aren't the most talented team in the SEC, but they are among the soundest. If the Hogs can play simple and sound and beat a South Carolina team at its own game, they can do it against about anyone else in the SEC, too ... if they continue to improve.
At the season's outset, I predicted the Hogs would go 7-4. That probably isn't going to happen, but it is still within reach. I'll amend that prediction to 6-5, and know that I'm making a realistic prediction after what I've seen the last six games.
Now that you've seen my thoughts on the "State of the Hogs," go to the Insiders Board to offer your thoughts.