Not Another Swamp Stomp

FAYETTEVILLE - Don't expect a replay today. Not by a long shot.

Back in 1997, we tripped on "Ally McBeal" and the Utah Jazz was knocked down by the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.

The mercenaries of the Florida Marlins beat Cleveland's Indians in the seventh game of the World Series.

Appropriately for Arkansas fans, "Titanic" was the big box-office draw and Brett Favre tossed his Green Bay Packers past those upstart New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI.

The top song in October of that year was from Boyz II Men: "Four Seasons of Loneliness."

When Arkansas entered Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Oct. 4, 1997, conservative, old-timer Razorbacks coach Danny Ford had somehow endured four seasons of just that, compiling a 22-23-1 record that included a current 1-2 mark with home losses against SMU and Alabama and a crazily-close 38-21 win here against Northeastern Louisiana.

Not exactly the stuff of pure harmony, but the sourest of notes were yet to come against Steve Spurrier's pass-happy, defending national champion Gators, who were again top-ranked in the country for lots of good reasons.

With Heisman Trophy holder Danny Wuerffel tossing all over and around them, the Hogs (led by shaky sophomore quarterback Clint Stoerner) were mired in The Swamp. They seemed frozen in their tracks during the 56-7 humiliation in front of a sold-out stadium and an ESPN2 audience that probably didn't make it past the first quarter.

Even before Florida returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, most everyone knew the Hogs had no chance. Arkansas was in its seventh season of Southeastern Conference play, but the Hogs were nowhere close to being in Florida's league. That 88,548-seat stadium must've looked massive to the Hogs, who, at least for big games, played in front of just 51,000 in Razorback Stadium.

Times have changed.

Ford's sputtering five-year tenure stalled out after that '97 season.

Razorback Stadium now seats 72,000 and Arkansas coach Houston Nutt -who, unlike Ford, is a supreme motivator -has taken the Hogs to a bowl game in each of his previous six seasons. Enthusiasm for his program came as fast as the 8-0 start in his initial season of 1998 and still is rising.

Surprising Arkansas (3-1, 1-0 in the SEC) has stomped New Mexico State and Louisiana-Monroe and played toe-to-toe with No. 5 Texas in a 22-20 loss during which the Hogs outplayed the Longhorns in Game 2. Last week the Hogs opened SEC play by knocking off powerful Alabama 27-10.

After lunch on Friday, they landed in Gainesville with lots of momentum.

The Hogs will strut into The Swamp today. Eight seasons ago, they shuffled into it as though they were on their way to the gallows.

Things are much different down in Gainesville, too. Spurrier and that aerial barrage of his are long gone, replaced by Ron Zook's balance in 2002 and an 18-11 record since. Nutt is 18-9 in that span.

Today, Arkansas returns to the site of that 1997 massacre for the first time since, and just the second time ever.

There are only four similarities between the '97 matchup and today's: 1) No. 16 Florida (2-1, 1-1) is the only ranked of the two teams, 2) the Gators still have a dandy quarterback (sophomore Chris Leak), 3) Florida is favored (by a touchdown or more, depending on when you look) and, 4) this, too, will be televised nationally, this time on CBS.

These days, it is the Razorbacks who sport the SEC's top scoring offense (39.8 points per game; Florida is fifth at 32.3). With an average of 477.5 total yards per game, second in the SEC, Arkansas also is ahead of Florida (451.0, third) in that category.

Florida still leads the SEC in passing (265.7 ypg), but Arkansas is a close second with a 253.5 average. There's not an eyelash of difference in the passing of Leak and Arkansas' Matt Jones, but Jones is better than Leak on the run. By leaps and bounds.

The Hogs also are more effective in the red zone (inside the opponent's 20-yard line), scoring 16 touchdowns and 2 field goals in 20 trips (90 percent, second in the SEC). The Gators -who have notched not-so-impressive home wins against Eastern Michigan and Kentucky to go with the 30-28 controversial loss at No. 10 Tennessee -have managed just four TDs in 17 red-zone trips and score only 70.6 percent of the time they get there (10th in the SEC).

As you might expect, Arkansas (224.0-yard average, third in the SEC) has the stronger rushing game (at 185.3, UF is sixth).

As you might not, Florida's defense (which has an SEC-low two sacks) is a notch above (302.0 ypg for sixth in the SEC) that of Arkansas' (337.2, seventh). And Florida junior Ciatrick Fason is second in SEC rushing (132.0 ypg), while DeCori Birmingham leads Arkansas with a 62.0-yard average.

What does all that add up to?

A close call.

So close that turnovers, execution, surprise attacks and motivation will make the difference.

Nutt will have his Hogs bursting onto the Florida Field turf. They've been behind closed fences all week, supposedly practicing out of the sight of reporters for concentration and communication purposes.

But we figure Nutt has something else up his Nike sleeves.

Think lots of option, although Florida's gourd-green secondary is ripe for a good bit of harvesting.

Perhaps the biggest difference in '97 and now is the Hogs, who, as usual, were picked next-to-last in the SEC West because they returned just four starters, really believe in themselves and their coaches.

And Florida, which also is young with just eight returning starters, is not so electrifying or intimidating anymore as Arkansas showed in last season's 33-28 loss in which the surging Hogs just flat ran out of time.

This one will be tight. Lots of tit-for-tat, scoring and emotion. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 35-31.

Toss a coin.

Either way, I wouldn't bet against the Hogs - even in The Swamp -this time around.

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