Much Has Changed Since Hogs' Last Time on ESP

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas is back on ESPN, though things have dramatically changed since the last time the Razorbacks played on primetime TV.

The team has a new quarterback, a new attitude, and most noticeably, a new outlook on the season.

Only two months ago, Arkansas opened the season on ESPN against then-No. 6 Southern California. At the time, junior Robert Johnson was the starting quarterback, freshman Mitch Mustain was his backup and coach Houston Nutt was undeniably on the hot seat.

The TV appearance didn't go so well for the Razorbacks.

Arkansas committed five turnovers, including a pair of lost fumbles in the first half by running back Felix Jones, and fell 50-14 in front of a record crowd of 76,564 in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Plenty has changed since then, and with tonight's 6:45 p.m. game at South Carolina, the No. 12-ranked Razorbacks will get a chance to show on a national stage how far they've come since their lone loss on Sept. 2.

"I think everybody who watches the game will see that we're a little bit different team than what we were at the start of the season," free safety Michael Grant said.

Actually, Arkansas (7-1, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) is a much different team now than the one that was embarrassed in front of a national TV audience.

"We've come a long way, and we've still got a long way to go," offensive guard Stephen Parker said. "That's the scary thing about us, is that we're not even close to our potential and we're 7-1 right now."

Mustain was named the starting quarterback the day after the 36-point loss to the Trojans, and that move triggered the team's current seven-game winning streak.

In that span, Arkansas manhandled then-No. 2 Auburn, went from unranked to No. 12 in the polls and claimed sole possession of first place in the SEC West.

But despite Arkansas being the only SEC team still undefeated in conference play, some players feel like they're still being overlooked by college football analysts who insist Auburn will win the SEC West.

Coincidentally, some of those critics are on ESPN. And certain Razorbacks feel that today's game is a chance for them to show on national TV that they're legitimate contenders.

"Too many people don't respect us. They think we're just playing as a team," cornerback Chris Houston said. "We want to prove something to everybody every game we play.

"As long as they don't keep respecting us, then we're going to keep playing hard."

Arkansas has gotten the chance to prove itself on national TV. In games televised on CBS, the Razorbacks survived a double-overtime win against Alabama and convincingly handed No. 6 Auburn its only loss of the season.

But a win today over South Carolina would have more significance than to simply silence some of the critics. It would keep Arkansas ahead of Auburn (8-1, 5-1) in the SEC West race with three games remaining.

Of course, the national exposure wouldn't hurt, either.

"First, we want to win the game because it's a big shot for us in the SEC," Mustain said. "But to have the opportunity to play on ESPN ... I think it's a big opportunity for us to show what we can do.

"We want to come out and give them our best."

At the start of the season, Arkansas' coaches and players hoped to earn a trip to play in a bowl game after back-to-back losing seasons. But the team's goals have changed dramatically with the team's success.

It's now about winning the SEC West, and today marks the beginning of a grueling November schedule that will determine if that's possible.

"Now the spotlight is definitely on us. You definitely want to perform now that everybody knows about us," Parker said. "I think we already got our name out there when we beat Auburn, and now we've got to keep getting better.

"We can't be satisfied with that. We've got to show people that we're leading the SEC West -- not Auburn -- and we're a force to be reckoned with."

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