You Can See A Huge Difference

FAYETTEVILLE - There's a different look in seventh-year Arkansas football coach Houston Nutt's eyes these days.

The red streaks in them and crows' feet under them usually seen at this time of year are long gone, replaced by a twinkle.

After Arkansas' counter offer kept Nutt from heading to Nebraska in January, he feels more comfortable and secure around here. No coups planned against his athletic director. The NCAA no longer hovers. He has kept his players out of trouble since the start of preseason workouts, which has been a huge - and largely overlooked -bonus.

The much-expanded playbook is a byproduct of all that as is the surprising performance of his young 2-1 team that creamed New Mexico State and Louisiana-Monroe and went cleat-to-cleat with No. 7 Texas in the 22-20 loss in Week 2.

How far has Arkansas come? From being picked fifth in the six-team Southeastern Conference Western Division to playing this stretch of three of four games on national TV.

Fans who have long grumbled about his mostly conservative offensive nature now are seeing what Nutt the gambler can do with plenty of chips and some wild cards in his hand.

Although he's a Little Rock native and played football and basketball for the Hogs, Nutt only now feels just-right at home.

But don't expect him to rest on his laurels. There still is pressure. Only now, Nutt is shoving most of it toward opponents.

In his massive, plush office this week, Nutt took a seat near the coffee table, hiked up his pants legs, then sat back with his hands clasped behind his head.

In an instant, he leaned forward - it almost was a spring - before an interview began.

Just briefly, the twinkle evaporated while Nutt's eyes narrowed as he said something not even uttered before the Texas game.

"Got to have this one," said Nutt, almost in a whisper.

This week, the focus has been there, squarely on today's opponent, Alabama. It's the Hogs' SEC opener and Razorback Stadium should again be filled to the brim with almost 76,000 rabid folks for the second time in history (the Texas game was the first).

Last week, the Hogs shuffled through workouts and the first half of the 49-20 win against ULM, trudging past the Indians and the disappointment of fumbling away the Longhorns in the Texas red zone late in the game the weekend prior.

Not the case this week. The difference?

"Night and day," Nutt said.

This one - which will be played out in front of a national CBS audience -is huge. With mighty LSU struggling, Ole Miss and Mississippi State at rock bottom, Alabama playing here and only Auburn (a team Arkansas generally drives nuts) living up to its billing, Arkansas can actually make a serious run at the West.

"Critical," said Nutt of today's game. "They're all critical, but this is probably the most at this time. It's just a very big game. Got to always protect home."

Forget the upcoming three-game gauntlet of at No. 16 Florida, at No. 9 Auburn and against No. 3 Georgia. The SEC West race starts here, and if the Hogs pick up momentum, winning any or all of those matchups actually seems possible - at least a heck of a lot more than we figured a month ago.

This Alabama game will determine lots about where Arkansas is heading this season.

"Yeah, I think it will," Nutt said.

Alabama will attack with former Arkansas defensive coordinator Joe Kines (1991-94) and his SEC-best group today. Now 3-0 and apparently beginning a rise in Mike Shula's second season after NCAA hits and the Mike Price fiasco, the Crimson Tide will go right at the young Hogs with the SEC's top-rated rushing attack.

As most of you know, veteran Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle (second in the SEC in passing efficiency) went down with a season-ending knee injury last week. In his place will be Miami transfer Marc Guillon, a brash (he said the Tide has a plan for anything the Hogs toss at him) sophomore gunslinger who many are saying is better than Croyle on the shouter routes. Seems like a bit of hooey to this corner since Croyle directed a controlled passing game.

Nutt figures Guillon (who has thrown just seven passes this season) and company will go deep lots to try and keep Arkansas' greenish secondary off-balance. Expect coordinator Dave Wommack and company to blitz them mercilessly.

Arkansas counters with the SEC's most dangerous quarterback and the conference's top-rated scoring (44 points per game), passing (297.3 yards per game) and total (525.7 ypg) offense.

The moves of senior quarterback Matt Jones cannot be simulated in practice and he has some dandy targets, including 6-foot-6 superstar-in-the-making freshman receiver Marcus Monk. With DeCori Birmingham, De'Arrius Howard, Peyton Hillis and Dedrick Poole, the Hogs have a solid, if not flashy, stable of running backs.

This Arkansas team is different, as different as listing the Hogs' running game last when discussing the offense, something almost sacrilegious the past few seasons.

By kickoff, Nutt will have his team in a frenzy and the most un-Westlike team in the division will pass the Alabama test, somewhere in the neighborhood of 31-24.

The eyes have it.

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