Someone asked me to do a little prognosticating for this weekend's Homecoming date with Ole Miss. In other words, they asked, how do you think the Razorbacks will do against the Rebels?
This is a week that it is almost impossible to predict how the Hogs will play. I've never really seen anything close to what has happened to this team in the 30 years I've been following college athletics.
First, the Hogs should have been in a good mindset to play well this week after bouncing back from a disappointing performance last week at home against Kentucky. I would think that the Hogs would want to prove something after making so many mistakes against the Wildcats.
Then, there was the Jermaine Brooks drug bust. Brooks was one of the team captains, per a vote by his teammates. He was probably THE leader, the player that was most likely to step up in a team meeting and tell the younger players what was expected of them in any given situation. Many looked at him as a father figure, and most considered him the brother they may never have had at home.
Wednesday was a day that not much happened on the practice field. The mood was somber and downcast. Many were depressed. The general mood in the Broyles Center was that of a funeral. It was as if a loved one had been lost, and that's what actually happened, I guess.
Then came Thursday, and the mood brightened considerably. The team had an oustanding, upbeat practice. It was a long workout for a Thursday since coaches felt they needed to make up lost time from Wednesday in order to get the entire Ole Miss game plan polished.
So, when I talk about the keys to victory, I'll look back on the week's rollercoaster of emotions and point to mental stability as the most important key. Can the Hogs remain focused in a tough, hardfought game after going through so many emotional minutes during the week, and even dating back to last week's loss to Kentucky? How much emotion can be left in their tanks?
Another key will be how the Hogs hold up physically, especially in the defensive line where Brooks must be replaced. The Hogs are likely to give Jason Peters a few more snaps than he's been getting on defense, and less than he's been getting at tight end. Some are suggesting that Peters will play more at nose tackle, but it appears from what I've seen of practice that he'll be used primarily at defensive end. But, since Raymond House has seen more snaps in practice at end than inside, perhaps Peters will play inside.
The Hogs will need solid performances in the line from Arrion Dixon, gimpy with a bad ankle early in the week, and from Pervis Osborne. The Hogs must get some kind of a pass rush against Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning. Manning is too good at reading blitzes and finding outlets for the Hogs to expect a heavy diet of blitzes to produce that pressure. They must get some pressure with a four and five man rush without committing too many linebackers to the rush.
The Hogs must eliminate mistakes in the kicking game. That's been a heavy focus this week. After giving up two big punt returns against Kentucky, the Hogs hope to have corrected their coverage units with extra preparation in practice.
Offensively, it appears that Matt Jones will get most every snap this week. Coaches suggested that the decision to give Tarvaris Jackson the third series of each half has been put on the back burner for now. Jackson could play if needed, but it may be that Jones gets all of the snaps.
The Hogs must avoid costly turnovers deep in their own territory. They had one in each of the last two games, and the Matt Jones interception to open the second half is exactly what they must avoid in their fragile mental state this week.
Another key will be the response of the Razorback fans after such an emotionally depressing week. I'd expect the fans to be supportive, but there were enough boo birds last week to suggest that they might be quick to jump ship if this team falters. With what has happened off the field, it may be that fans will be tougher on this team and its coaches. Personally, I'd doubt that would happen, but after what I've heard on talk radio shows and read on internet message boards, I guess anything is possible as far as crowd reaction.
In summary, I'd say it appears that the coaches have done a good job of salvaging practices at the end of the week, and have the team ready to play. In talking to severeal players after practice Thursday, they seem to think the squad will give a solid effort and that they are as prepared as they have been in most weeks. But, confidence can't be terribly high. Too many bad things have happened over the last few weeks, so a good start is almost a requirement this week.