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State of the Hogs:
The last four days have been spent at a pair of concurrent conventions with publishers of similar magazines to Hawgs Illustrated from around the country. Most of the other schools in the Southeastern Conference were represented. Much of the time was spent solving like problems from delivery to content ideas.
Unlike Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, I don't compete with the other schools in the SEC. In this setting, guys like Bama Magazine publisher Kirk McNair, Inside the Auburn Tiger's Mark Murphy, Gator Bait's Marty Cohen, Darrell Bird from Kentucky or Gene Swindoll from Mississippi State are my friends. We can share ideas.
All of that is great, but the real fun comes at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Invariably, at those breaks, talk turns to football. Spring drills are done around the SEC and there's plenty to discuss. It's also great to walk the strip for exercise, visiting about what is expected at the different schools this fall.
In almost every one of these settings, I'm asked about Matt Jones, Arkansas' dual sport star. He fascinates every publisher and editor in the SEC.
"Arkansas isn't the only school in the SEC which promises football recruits they can play other sports as a recruiting tool, but to me that is not real goal," said Cohen, the editor of the Florida fan publication. "Florida's coaches tell recruits they can do more than one and there are some football players who do manage to double in track. But it just doesn't ever work out. They end up being 50 percent players in both sports.
"Everyone likes to talk about what Charlie Ward did at Florida State. That is the exception, not the rule. So from my vantage point, Matt Jones is a freak and does prove all that wrong. Because he plays both, I'm guessing he spurs criticism."
Yes, all of that is true. Cohen watched Jones nearly wreck Florida's season with that fourth-quarter explosion last season in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
"One of the most fun things for me is to see the great players on the opposing teams," Cohen said. "Guys like Herschel Walker. He was the greatest I ever saw in person. Seeing Matt Jones, to me, is like seeing Walker. They just take your breath away. There's nothing better than watching someone like Jones, or a Michael Clayton at LSU.
"You just know that Matt Jones is so dangerous on any given play. I very much appreciate his ability after seeing that fourth quarter."
McNair, the veteran publisher of the highly successful Alabama fan magazine, remembers Jones' heroics in the fourth quarter and in overtime at Tuscaloosa. He knows every defensive coordinator in the league fears Jones and so do opposing fans.
"Matt has to be one of the most dangerous players in the league," McNair said of Jones. "You watch him and so many things flash through your mind on every play on both sides of the field. If you are on the other sideline, you are just scared to death of him when he tucks that ball and takes off. You know he can score on any given play and it does actually take your breath away.
"I'm guessing if you are an Arkansas fan, you have the same feeling, but also that thought that you want him to be careful because it could also be the play that he takes a shot or tackle and is hurt. You just want him to get up off the ground each time and that can take your breath away, too."
The long, overtime game at Kentucky is still fresh in the mind of Bird, editor at Cats Pause, the UK fan magazine.
"His toughness and competitiveness stand out," Bird said. "I marveled at the end. I couldn't believe he kept making those plays. So many times, I thought Kentucky had him and he'd escape and make an unbelievable play. You felt for Kentucky because it was a game it had to win, but you also gained an unbelievable amount of respect for Jones.
"So many times, I thought Kentucky was just about to crush him, and it didn't happen. I thought he would give out, but he never did."
The Auburn publisher, in rating the SEC race, threw in a disclaimer with his SEC West thoughts. Murphy wouldn't rule out Arkansas as a contender because of Jones.
"If Arkansas can play defense and somehow just stay in games until the fourth quarter, Matt Jones might find a way to win every game," said Murphy. "He's so good and so dangerous.
"In the SEC West, I see LSU with the best overall talent and the obvious pick for first. Auburn is going to be very good on offense and still solid on defense, and they are the clear second pick.
"The rest is harder to see, but I've been picking Arkansas next just on the Matt Jones factor. Arkansas might be the surprise team in the league, in my mind. I think the talent at Arkansas is a little better than most people realize. They've been playing the same guys the last couple of years, but they've continued to recruit and get players ready.
"Jones is obviously one of the very best athletes in our league. I just still can't figure where he'll play at the next level. Could it be tight end, maybe tight end, maybe as a huge wideout or maybe a strong safety? He's just so incredible. I don't know where he'll play at the next level, but he'll play some where."
Murphy thinks Ole Miss and Alabama will still be down, and although Mississippi State may improve under new coach Sylvester Croom, he still goes with the general thought that the Bulldogs are sill behind in talent and depth.
"State is just starting over," Murphy said. "It's going to be tough for a little while for Croom." McNair lists LSU first in the West, but thinks 'Bama will improve this year. After LSU, he thinks the order of finish will be Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
Swindoll is an internet publisher with the top MSU site. His thoughts on the Bulldogs differ. He thinks Croom still lacks overall talent and depth, but predicts the Bulldogs will be much improved.
"There are two clear front runners in the two divisions in Georgia and LSU," Swindoll said. "I pick Georgia as the overall winner since LSU plays at Athens. In the West, behind LSU, second will be Auburn, then Alabama, then Ole Miss, State and Arkansas last. I based all of it on returning starters and schedule and that's why I have Arkansas at the bottom. They lost so much and play a brutal schedule. I will also offer that Arkansas always surprises me and it may again.
"State will be different than most think. Croom changed the discipline. For example, our offensive line has been too big with a lot of guys in the 375 range over the past few years." Croom mandated all O-linemen drop huge amounts of weight, and they did.
"They are all below 320 now, and most in the 300 to 315 range," Swindoll said. "In the past few years, so many of the O-linemen have battled injuries. It was Croom's opinion that the weight issue was the reason. There were no injuries among those guys this spring. I just think the offensive line is going to turn into a strength this coming year.
"I just think that the discipline that Croom has brought to the team will show up in so many areas. No, the depth is still going to be a problem, but I see this team being a surprise with the changes the staff has made in attitude and discipline."