There Should Be No Pressure On Hogs

FAYETTEVILLE - There's been a good bit of talk in these parts about the pressure on Arkansas this morning as it takes on South Carolina in front of 80,000 Gamecocks lunatics in Williams-Brice Stadium and loads more who tune into ABC, of all places.

Silly, really.

Pressure is No. 1 USC at Oregon State, No. 2 Oklahoma at No. 22 Texas A&M, No. 4 California vs. Oregon, No. 5 Wisconsin vs. Minnesota and No. 6 Texas vs. No. 19 Oklahoma State.

Those all have BCS implications.

This has, well, we'll pass on that.

Pressure is not a 3-4 (1-3 in the Southeastern Conference) Hogs team - that was expected to do nothing this season -trying to blitz crafty ol' Lou Holtz and company to stay in the running for a rinky-dink bowl bid.

Yep, with Ole Miss, at Mississippi State and vs. LSU in Little Rock remaining, this does, indeed, look like the make-or-breaker for Arkansas, which must win six games to go bowling. A win today leaves the Hogs two shy, and even with their roster full of youth and injuries, you have to at least sort of like their chances against Ole Miss and at MSU, although those two no more look like gimmes.

What's really at stake?

Most likely, another week in not-so-lovely Shreveport and a New Year's eve night game against a lower-echelon foe.

Sound familiar?

Same place the Hogs were last season, when unranked Arkansas beat unranked Missouri 27-14 in the Independence Bowl with surprising ease.

Nice win for seventh-year Arkansas coach Houston Nutt's program, but a shot at a repeat is not worth losing sleep (or a few dandy New Year's eve parties) over.

So sack the pressure angle. Arkansas, which returned just four starters (one, quarterback Matt Jones, on offense) was picked as a bottom feeder in the SEC's Western Division. Nutt, especially early, before the uncanny rash of injuries, had the Hogs playing better than anyone imagined (routs of New Mexico State, Louisiana-Monroe and Alabama sandwiching a 22-20 nailbiting loss against Texas) in their 3-1 start.

Yeah, but the Hogs haven't won in six weeks? In a moment of clarity, look at who they've played.

After being more than flirted with by Nebraska, Nutt was given a hefty raise and basically a guarantee of no big worries as he rebuilds his program hit so hard by NCAA troubles (not of his doing) and early NFL departures (ditto).

He fields the SEC's last-ranked defense on a team greener than the Philadelphia Eagles' uniforms, especially in crucial areas like the defensive backfield and offensive line.

All that said, the Hogs have a decent chance today, especially if they play loosey-goosey, which they should since they have nothing, really, to lose.

After three consecutive losses - at Florida, at Auburn, vs. Georgia - the Hogs had last weekend off, giving them ample time to prepare for whatever Holtz might throw at them.

And a fully-healthy Jones (he was hampered big-time the last two games by a groin muscle and hamstring pull) will be playing one of his last games in a Hogs uniform. Expect him to do it in lights-out fashion.

Also returning (from a back injury suffered in the Florida game) full-force is tough-guy freshman Peyton Hillis, Arkansas' best red-zone runner who had spot duty against Georgia two weeks back.

Six-foot-6 receiver Marcus Monk will make his third consecutive start, and it's hard to imagine a freshman receiver catching on faster.

Nutt is 5-1 against South Carolina (and 2-1 there). Oddsmakers figure this to be about a field-goal game (in South Carolina's favor), and that's probably not a bad call.

Wouldn't bet the farm, though.

At 5-3 (3-3 in the SEC), South Carolina's in about the same position as the Hogs. The Gamecocks are coming off a heart-breaking 43-29 home loss against then-No. 11 Tennessee last week.

After it, Holtz cried.

South Carolina got off to a fast start, even briefly cracking The Associated Press Top-25.

But reality has set in.

If this is the start of a mini Arkansas run to a small bowl setting, the Hogs will get something out of it. It would keep Nutt's perfect streak of postseason appearances intact, the sort of thing that helps open doors on recruiting trails. Jones would get one last shot before preparing for the 2005 NFL Draft.

And Arkansas' young guns would get more much-needed work heading into and playing in a bowl game. Bowl experience for the young guys also would be a plus.

But it wouldn't be such a horrible thing for the Hogs to sit out of Shreveport. That way they could heal up over the Christmas break before springing back to the practice fields when things heat back up.

Last time in Columbia, Arkansas tackled the Gamecocks for a 23-0 win two years back.

It was the last time the Hogs pitched a shutout.

This time?

Flip a coin.

And don't sweat how it lands.

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