Arkansas Surprises By Winning Easily

FAYETTEVILLE — Popular on election night and personally appropriate, it's time for a concession — I was wrong about this Arkansas football team.

Instead of following up with a politician's empty promises, I looked up the start time for the Southeastern Conference championship game in Atlanta on Dec. 2. It's 5 p.m. for those planning watch parties when Arkansas meets Florida. On record as saying the Razorbacks would be 7-5, maybe 8-4, I will ignore that bottom line and hedge with the best by quoting the preseason escape clause, "but a surprise or two is likely." The way Arkansas manhandled Tennessee 31-14 on Saturday night was at least No. 2 on the list of surprises, hard on the heels of the 27-10 domination of Auburn in October. I picked Auburn, South Carolina and Tennessee to beat Arkansas by a total of 13 points. Coincidentally, the Razorbacks lost four SEC games by that same total during the 4-7 season of 2005 that put coach Houston Nutt in the crosshairs of critics. Anybody who is handing out plaudits for 9-1 and at least a share of the Western Division title must include Nutt. To do otherwise would be hypocritical. Although Nutt has consistently given the seniors credit for keeping the team on track, the coach gets a share. If the Razorbacks had faltered against Tennessee, Nutt would have been blamed. With Mississippi State up next, Arkansas should be 10-1 — the first time the Razorbacks have won more than nine since Ken Hatfield's final team in 1989. Back in August, I thought the Razorbacks were bound for Shreveport or maybe Memphis in December and labeled that acceptable. Once the best they could do, Dallas is now about the worst. Good gosh, the Orange Bowl was represented Saturday night. One of five BCS games, the Orange needs an at-large team to play the Atlantic Coast Conference champion and Arkansas is hot with a marquee player in Darren McFadden. The mere mention of the BCS opens the door for talk of the national championship and it would be a serious affront if the Razorbacks were not included on the short list of one-loss teams that deserve consideration. With the elimination of Auburn and California on Saturday, Arkansas is in a select group with Florida, Notre Dame, West Virginia and a few others. Think about that for a moment, particularly in light of the bitching and moaning that accompanied Arkansas 20, Utah State 0; Arkansas 21, Vanderbilt 19, and Arkansas 24, Alabama 23 in September. Reviewing the revealing halftime stats, it was difficult to ignore Toby Keith in the background asking "How Do You Like Me Now?" After 30 minutes, Arkansas led 28-7. At that point, McFadden had 15 carries for 128 yards and Casey Dick had completed 5-of-8 for 74 yards. A sophomore, McFadden won't win the Heisman Trophy this year, but he will have a solid base for 2007 — the sort of support coveted by any potential candidate. As the quarterback in the shotgun, McFadden ran 17 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. In that same alignment later in the period, he faked to Michael Smith and threw 12 yards to a Marcus Monk who was so wide open it was laughable. When a defense has to worry about Smith or Felix Jones coming around and McFadden keeping, there are not a lot of people left to account for a wide receiver. Nutt might have considered using McFadden in that way last year, but snapping the ball to No. 5 only became part of the offense after Gus Malzahn arrived on the scene. Nutt said his brother Danny suggested McFadden as the trigger man. It is worth noting that Malzahn did the same thing with Damian Williams last year at Springdale. Called a "physical freak" by ESPN GameDay host Chris Fowler earlier Saturday, McFadden finished with 181 yards on 30 carries although still not 100 percent recovered from a shoulder-high tackle at South Carolina. He is human — he fumbled on the lip of the goal in the third quarter, about the only downer of the evening for Arkansas. Even those who want to accuse Arkansas of sitting on a lead will have to do some soul-searching. Opening the third quarter, Dick completed a 10-yard pass to Damian Williams, then pump-faked right and threw deep and left to Monk for 35 more. Late in the period, Dick completed a couple of more passes. With three minutes to play, he tried a bomb for London Crawford. Unlike many of the Election Day losers who skulk away, I can be wrong and still reap the benefits. There is a trip to Atlanta and a nice bowl game to follow. ---- Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media's Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is hking@arkansasnews.com.

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