I got together with our SB Nation colleagues Arkansas Expats to preview this weekend's game. Here's what they had to say. (My answers to their questions are here.)
1. Bobby Petrino's tenure at Arkansas started off badly in 2008 and then pulled it together a bit late in that year, leading to speculation that 2009 would be a breakout year for the Hogs. However, while Arkansas has played well at times this year--particularly in the victory over Auburn and the close loss to Florida--it has also struggled and doesn't seem very far ahead of where it was late in 2008. Is this an accurate assessment, and how do Arkansas fans feel about Petrino's performance at this point?
Well, in one way the Hogs are very much ahead of where they were last year, and that's on offense. Last year, the Hogs averaged 21.9 points per game, which ranked seventh in the SEC, and 373.1 total yards of offense per game, the fourth-highest average in the conference. This year, they're averaging 35.9 points and 438 total yards of total offense per game, both of which rank second in the SEC. Ryan Mallett is a huge upgrade over Casey Dick, and the Hogs receiving corps - led by Greg Childs, Jarius Wright and Joe Adams - is as electric a group as we've ever seen in Fayetteville.
However, those gaudy statistics at least partially obscure the fact that the offense is fairly one-dimensional - the running game has struggled to get going this year, and tight-end D.J. Williams, a true star last year, has yet to develop a good chemistry with Mallett. Our special teams unit continues to struggle at times, and the defense too often has been downright woeful.
Add it all up, and we think the Hogs are noticeably better than last year (the 2008 team could never have taken a Florida squad down to the wire in Gainesville) but perhaps not as improved as many Hog fans were hoping. There were lots of predictions of an 8-4 regular-season record this summer, and obviously that mark is going to be very tough to attain now.
Despite the team's various struggles this season, Hog fans are still very supportive of Petrino (although there was some grumbling after Ole Miss and Houston Nutt whipped Arkansas in Oxford). Razorback fans can be as unrealistic as any fans in the country, but the large majority of us seem to realize that Bobby inherited a program that will require more than two seasons to rebuild.
2. Ryan Mallett has had an impressive season so far. However, outside of the Georgia and Auburn games, his big numbers haven't always translated into lots of points or wins in big games. What has Mallett done well this year, and what does he need to continue to work on to take his game to the next level?
Mallett has an absolute cannon of an arm, and this season the Hogs are serious threats to score quickly and often via the deep pass. But too often it seems, the deep pass has been the Razorbacks' only way of scoring. As mentioned above, Mallett and D.J. Williams have yet to click, and Arkansas' short passing game could use some improvement.
Ryan has struggled with his accuracy at times, and his mobility is an issue against aggressive defenses. He's only a sophomore, so it stands to reason that he should improve in most of the above-mentioned areas. Except for the mobility issue, that is. Not sure there's much he can do about that.
3. Despite having more experience than a year ago, Arkansas continues to have a shaky defense, especially against the pass. What has gone wrong this year, and is there light at the end of the tunnel for this particular group?
Well, the Hogs' defense may be more experienced than last year, but it's not much more talented. Although it’s quite possible that Petrino’s first pick for the D.C. job (Ellis Johnson – a guy you might be familiar with) would be having more success with this group than Willy Robinson had he stayed in Fayetteville, there’s only so much that can be done with a group that’s thin in so many key areas. The Hogs’ staff is making defense the recruiting priority, but of course that won’t help us stop whatever Spurrier has planned for Saturday.
Having said that, the Hogs' defense actually has had a few bright spots this year. We seem to do well against spread teams, having held both Auburn and Florida far below their usual outputs, and the defensive line, led by Malcolm Sheppard, is actually pretty strong. Last time we checked, Arkansas was towards the top of the country in making tackles for a loss...the only problem is that those tackles are often followed by a defensive breakdown that gives up a big play.
As far as a light at the end of the tunnel goes, we'd like to believe that a few more good recruits and a more consistent across-the-board effort from the whole team will solve a lot of the basic woes. But, until that happens we're going to have to rely on Mallett's arm to win games for us.
4. Because you're our Western Division opponent and the series has been back and forth and has had some really great games, a lot of Gamecocks see this series as a budding rivalry of sorts. Where would you put the Gamecocks on your list of SEC rivals?
That's a great question. Rivalries in the SEC are a funny thing - by the time the Hogs and Gamecocks joined the party, most of the other guys had been playing (and hating on) each other for about 100 years. Plus, both of us haven't really beaten the key teams consistently enough since joining to engender too much significant ill-will ... we're more in the "pesky nuisance" category.
So, there are a few teams Razorback fans particularly look forward to playing (and, ideally, beating), but we'm not sure if you could consider those rivalries in the true sense of the word. LSU is definitely one, and Ole Miss is becoming another (for reasons that are probably obvious). As far as South Carolina goes, there's certainly potential there for it to become a solid rivalry - we play every year and both fanbases are sort of looking for that mutual hate we described earlier - but from the Arkansas side we don't think we're quite there yet. We think most Hog fans tend to focus on the Western Division teams first and foremost, but we'd be all for getting something going!
5. Prediction. Who will win and how will it go down?
Well, for starters we should put in a plug for your readers to visit our site tomorrow when we unveil the official prognostication from our staff soothsayer, Rasputin. We lack his predictive powers, but the homers in us have to say Arkansas in a close, probably fairly high-scoring game.
Obviously, both teams really need this one in terms of setting up a strong finish to the season, and we expect it to be pretty intense (or as intense as a game played at the crack of dawn can be). Your offense will probably break off at least a couple of really big plays (it's apparently written into the SEC by-laws that each opponent will have a 70+ yard scoring play against us this year), and your defense (especially Eric Norwood) concerns us, but hopefully a well-rested Michael Smith and a newly healthy Joe Adams will give us the offensive spark needed to put us over the top.
Thanks to Arkansas Expats for participating in this Q & A.