Hogs Have Georgia On Their Minds

FAYETTEVILLE — Southerners are known for being warm and courteous hosts. That might be true, but Arkansas hasn't enjoyed either of its last two trips to Atlanta.

The No. 8 Razorbacks can only hope their stay this week goes much smoother than the previous ones. The first time Arkansas went to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, in 1995, things got off to a bad start and only got worse. Star running back Madre Hill tore his anterior cruciate ligament on one of the game's first plays, and without him, the Razorbacks had no way of countering Florida's "Fun ‘n Gun" offense. The Gators cruised to a 34-3 win, which remains the most lopsided victory in SEC Championship Game history. "We were on such a high going into the game, and as soon as I got hurt, the atmosphere just changed," Hill said Thursday. "I had people tell me they turned the game off after I got hurt." It didn't get much better when Arkansas returned to Atlanta for the 2002 SEC Championship Game. Georgia scored 17 points in the first quarter, breaking the previous title game record of 14 points put up by Florida in the first quarter against Arkansas and against Auburn in 2000. The Bulldogs, playing in front of what amounted to a home crowd, scored on their first five possessions en route to a 30-3 win. For Arkansas, that made two blowout losses in two trips to Atlanta. Maybe the third time is a charm. The Razorbacks (10-2, 7-1) will face No. 4 Florida (11-1, 7-1) at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Georgia Dome. "The last time we went to Atlanta, we felt like we went through the backdoor and we were happy and everybody is feeling good. We got to Atlanta," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "This year, we came through the front door now. We won (the SEC West) outright, and that was with one loss. We feel good about that, and you feel like you've got a chance, a legitimate chance to win the ball game even with all the injuries and the things that we've had." Unlike in the previous two appearances, Arkansas enters Saturday's SEC Championship Game with much more confidence that it can win and bring the school its first SEC title. In 1995, the Razorbacks were 24.5-point underdogs against the Gators, and simply making it to Atlanta was more than many Arkansas players had thought was possible. "It was totally unexpected. Back in ‘95, the success of the (Arkansas) program wasn't what it is today," Hill said. "... I think everything came totally as unexpected as it could be." In 2002, Arkansas needed the "Miracle on Markham" — a 31-yard touchdown catch by DeCori Birmingham with nine seconds left — to beat LSU 21-20 in the final game of the regular season and earn a trip to Atlanta. Arkansas, Auburn and LSU each finished with two conference losses that year, but the Razorbacks had beaten the other two teams to win the tiebreaker and represent the western division in the SEC Championship Game. But going through the "backdoor," as Nutt refers to it, didn't give Arkansas' players the sense that they belonged in Atlanta — let alone the confidence to beat a national championship contender like Georgia. That's not the case this year. "You still feel like you have a chance to win the ball game (this time around)," Nutt said. "We didn't feel that way the first time we went (in 2002)." The Razorbacks are only 3-point underdogs against the Gators this time, and Arkansas didn't need any last-second touchdown passes or tiebreakers to win the SEC West. The Hogs won their first seven conference games to clinch the SEC West a week before the regular-season finale, and they had a 10-game winning streak going until last Friday's 31-26 loss to No. 5 LSU in War Memorial Stadium. "We're the outright champions of the (SEC) West, so we're not splitting with anybody, we're not sharing with anybody," said linebacker Sam Olajubutu, who was a freshman when Arkansas went to the SEC Championship Game in 2002. "So we're very confident going into this game."

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