Strange as it may sound, this Arkansas team has switched roles Saturday. The Razorbacks have gone from the hunter to the hunted. With that role reversal comes added pressure, and that leads us to the first big key.
Can the Hogs handle pressure? They surely must feel some after winning their last four games to jump in the bowl picture ... and quite possibly, into the SEC Western Division race. Yes, the Hogs are still two games back of the leaders, but there are now scenarios in place that could make it a down-to-the-wire race.
Arkansas has been the underdog the last three games, but has managed to beat South Carolina, Auburn and Ole Miss. The Hogs had to play almost perfect football to win these games. They did not make a turnover in the first two, and had two out of over 100 plays against Ole Miss. The Hogs were perfect in the seven overtimes.
Central Florida is not as good as the last three foes the Hogs have beaten, but the Knights aren't far behind in talent. They get little respect because they are an independent that is forced to play their big games on the road with this week being a perfect example.
The Hogs must play antiseptic football again this week. They must avoid turnovers, and limit the penalties. And, they must do it with a rebuilt offensive line.
It appears Mark Bokermann won't play at right guard. Scott Davenport will play in his stead this week. Also, Kenny Sandlin at center is only probable. Josh Melton will step in at center if Sandlin can't go. That means the Hogs' rotating quarterbacks, Matt Jones and Zak Clark, will get a different delivery as far as the snap. That further complicates the execution. And, the Hogs must make these adjustments and remain clean.
The Hogs will also be without punt returner Marvin Jackson. The cat-quick Jackson is out with a hamstring pull. George Wilson, also sure handed, will step in on punt returns. This is another new element, and it's something the Hogs must continue to excel in to win against UCF.
Defensively, the Hogs must force some third-and-longs by stopping the draws, screens and traps that are the focus of the UCF running game. Some assume the Knights can't run the ball, but that is a false assumption. The Knights have a poor rushing game average only because they have given up so many sacks. They've run the ball against good teams.
Of course, the UCF passing game is superb. The Knights have great wide receivers. They may be forced to go without one of their best. Doug Gabriel is gimpy and may not play. He's been the wild card for the UCF offense. When Gabriel has had big games, the Knights win. In fact, every game in which Gabriel has caught three or more passes have been victories. The others have been losses. Maybe the Hogs have the ace in the hole even before the kickoff, if Gabriel is not to play.
The Hogs must pressure the UCF quarterback. The Knights have a good and massive offensive line. Can the Hogs pressure the quarterback without blitzing? That's doubtful. So, the key for the defense will be pressure without giving up big plays when the Hogs blitz.
Emotion and passion may be missing from the Hog gas tank today. It would be hard to expect them to play with the same effort they've displayed in the four-game winning streak because of the way the last three games have gone. However, they have practiced hard and well this week. Maybe they can bring some passion to the Reynolds Razorback Stadium turf this Saturday. That may be the biggest key of all.