1. First of all, all of our thoughts and prayers are with the Arkansas team and fans with what happened Sunday. With that in mind, have you been able to gauge the mood of the team and how they're dealing with the tragedy?
Arkansas canceled all media availability this week as the players and coaches mourned the loss of Garrett Uekman and tried to keep distractions to a minimum. It's hard to get a read on how they're handling the situation because our only in-person look at the team came during Monday's emotional candlelight vigil in Uekman's honor. One tiny glimpse of how the team is coping came from social media (hardly a foolproof gauge, I know). It was there you could see that the further into the week the Razorbacks got, the more their attention shifted to the routine. What had been posts almost solely about Uekman early in the week became more and more about the LSU game or day-to-day life. So from that very small window into their lives we can see some of the focus beginning to shift and players trying to get back to "normal." Of course that's just one small example.
2. What has made the transition from Ryan Mallett to Tyler Wilson so seamless with this offense? How are the Razorbacks maybe even a little better with Wilson?
Wilson has been able to make the transition from Mallett look easy for a few reasons. He's a tough kid, who can take a hit and throw on the run. Mallett wasn't quite the statue that he gets criticized for being, but he wasn't as accurate as Wilson is when pressured. It helps that Wilson has a lot of experienced playmakers around him, particularly at wide receiver with Joe Adams (46 catches, 595 yards, 3 TDs) and Jarius Wright (61 catches, 1,002 yards, 10 TDs). And while Wilson is just 11 games into his career as a starter he has been around the system since 2008. Wilson even got some playing time as a freshman before a bout with mono led to him redshirting. So while he's new as a starter, he's not new to Petrino's system.
3. How big a key has Dennis Johnson's ability to step in for Knile Davis been to Arkansas' offensive success?
Arkansas gets a lot out of Johnson in the passing game and on the ground. He's fifth on the team in receptions (20) and has a couple touchdown catches in addition to leading the team with 606 yards and three touchdowns. Johnson — like Davis last year — started slow, but he's been an active part of the offense since rushing for 160 yards against Ole Miss. He doesn't have to top 100 yards to be effective and has actually done that once this year. But the Razorbacks are at their best this season when Johnson is able to take pressure off the passing game.
4. Watching the Hogs' receivers as closely as you have, how good are they and what challenges do they pose to a very good LSU secondary?
I haven't seen every receiving corps in the country, but it's hard to imagine anybody has more weapons. Arkansas is able to mix in its running backs and tight ends along with the wide receivers, so it makes it really difficult for teams to defend. If we're talking about specific receivers, particularly the "Big 4" the thing I like is that each brings his own strengths to the offense. Jarius Wright is a really precise and crafty route runner with good hands. Joe Adams is the go-to for turning a 5-yard dump off into a 65-yard touchdown where he breaks three tackles and outruns everybody on the field. Greg Childs, though he's been quiet this year, and Cobi Hamilton have a nice blend of size and speed that make them nightmares one-on-one. Tight end Chris Gragg is becoming a matchup nightmare for folks. Now, they haven't faced a defense like the one they'll see this week since Alabama (or maybe at all). It's hard to fathom LSU hasn't given up a passing touchdown in seven weeks. That's part of what makes this game so intriguing.
5. What are some things that Arkansas' defense has done or will have to do against the Tigers' power-based grind-it-out offensive style?
All throughout the preseason we heard that this could be the best and deepest Arkansas defense in decades. Until three weeks ago this looked a lot like the defenses that cost the Razorbacks games in three previous seasons under Petrino and defensive coordinator Willy Robinson. Injuries took their toll and at one point four guys penciled in as starters were out at once. Now that they're healthy, this defense is going a better job of putting pressure on opposing QBs and forcing turnovers. Over the last three weeks Arkansas has forced six turnovers with nine sacks, not far off the numbers they put up in the previous eight weeks. This is a group that will give up the occasional big play, but their red-zone defense has been good and actually ranks second in the SEC to the Crimson Tide.
6. How do you think this game will play out?
Arkansas is playing well enough right now in all three phases that I honestly think the Razorbacks can compete with anybody in the country. That wealth of offensive talent and the fact the Razorbacks are finally protecting Tyler Wilson and getting a running game going, plus getting big plays on special teams and defense have be leaning their direction. It should be a close game and if it is, I like Bobby Petrino's chances against Les Miles. Remember, Petrino is a missed field goal away from being 3-0 in this series. So even knowing how good LSU has been this season and how good the Tigers are at home, I'm (at the risk of looking like a loon) picking Arkansas, 28-24.
SIX-PACK: With Chris Bahn
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