State of the Hogs: Ole Miss

Arkansas plays Ole Miss in an important SEC West battle. Here's the take of Clay Henry, publisher at HI.com. This is a commentary.

It's my favorite time of year and it's even better with Arkansas squarely in the middle of the race in the SEC West.

I love it when the weather cools, the days shorten and the leaves change colors. Driving down Interstate 540 to Fort Smith earlier this week, it was easy to see that the Ozarks are going to be in all of their glory this autumn. The hardwoods are turning vivid colors.

I'm just hoping that this Arkansas football season isn't about to turn, too. I got a funny feeling when I checked into the betting line for Saturday's conference matchup with Ole Miss. It was scary, real scary.

I'm not a betting man. I don't like to part with even a bit of loose change on the golf course. I'm like my father in that respect. He used to play C. W. Keopple at Paradise Valley for a quarter on six-hole bets. They paid up on the spot as the winning putt was holed on the the sixth, 12th and 18th greens.

One of the things my father taught me (along with keeping your golf bets low) is never pay too much attention to the betting line for Razorback games.

But I'm a sucker this week. I looked to see what oddsmakers thought of Arkansas as the clear leader in the SEC West with a 2-5 Ole Miss team coming to town. I winced when I saw the line was at 15 earlier this week. That's out of whack, I told myself. The Hogs will have their hands full with a Rebel team that took Alabama to overtime last weekend in Tuscaloosa.

Well, if that wasn't crazy enough, there came the report late Thursday afternoon that the line was now Arkansas, minus 21. That's crazy. Arkansas isn't good enough to be favored by 21 against any SEC foe.

What gives? Do the Rebels have some key injuries? Seems they do, but no one is saying much other than they are severely banged up. I don't buy it. Well, I won't bet it.

I don't know if that says more about where I think the Hogs stand or where I think the Rebels stand.

I guess I'm not thoroughly convinced that a team with a true freshman at quarterback — even the nation's best prep player from a year ago — is so dominant as to be a three touchdown favorite over a team which lost to Alabama last week in overtime.

The injuries are said to be at running back. That's been an Ole Miss strength of late this season. The Rebels have simplified things for quarterback Brent Schaeffer, turning things over to a tough offensive line and solid backs. If there's something iffy about the runners, that could bode well for the Hogs.

But I'll have to see all of that to believe it. This is not an Arkansas team that can just roll over anyone in the SEC on form. No, the Hogs have to get great effort and play error-free football just like they did the last two weeks against Auburn and Southeast Missouri.

The thing I like is that the Hogs are healthy in the offensive and defensive lines and are getting better and better play at linebacker. The other key is leadership. This is an Arkansas team with solid character at linebacker, but it's still not one of the SEC's best units. Afterall, strongside linebacker Matt Hewitt was a backup free safety just a month ago.

That may be one of the keys to watch for Saturday. Can the Arkansas linebackers keep a scrambling quarterback in check? Schaeffer can make plays running out of the shotgun, much like Vandy's Chris Nickson did against the Hogs. Outside backers Hewitt and Sam Olajubutu, the Hogs' most trustworthy player on defense, will have their hands full with Schaeffer.

However, if the Hogs don't make any turnovers and keep penalties to a minimum, they should beat Ole Miss. But I suspect Schaeffer will make enough plays to keep things interesting.

The other key will be what the Hogs do on offense to neutralize Ole Miss inside linebacker Patrick Willis, one of the league's best players. Last year, Willis and the Rebels did about the best job of anyone on Darren McFadden and the UA running game. However, Casey Dick, completing 12 straight passes, destroyed the Ole Miss underneath coverage with the linebackers occupied stopping the run.

The Hogs made just 84 yards on 40 rushes against Ole Miss last year. McFadden had only 22 yards on 13 carries. The previous two weeks he made 190 and 187 on Auburn and Georgia, then followed the Ole Miss game with 165 against Mississippi State.

That Houston Nutt mentioned McFadden and the Heisman Trophy in the same sentence on Sunday probably doesn't make the tailback's bull's-eye any bigger. The Rebels were going to be after McFadden anyway. I figured all week this would be another tough game for the Hogs and McFadden.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope the Vegas oddsmakers are on target. I hope it is an easy game and McFadden can unsnap his shoulder pads early.

Don't bet on it.

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CLAY HENRY IS THE PUBLISHER OF HAWGS ILLUSTRATED, A STEPHENS MEDIA GROUP PUBLICATION. HIS COLUMN APPEARS EACH FRIDAY. E-MAIL: CLAY@NWAONLINE.NET




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