It's no wonder that Arkansas is favored by 6.5 points in Saturday's matchup in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks have certainly had South Carolina's number since Bobby Petrino took over for Houston Nutt, and Tyler Wilson has filled in capably for the departed Ryan Mallett, engineering a high-powered passing attack that has helped Arkansas amass 452.9 yards per game through the first 8 games of the 2011 season. Even before South Carolina lost its starting quarterback, Heisman candidate running back, and senior left tackle, I fully expected to enter this game thinking the Gamecocks had but an outside chance to spoil homecoming weekend for the Razorbacks. But after examining the statistics, I think the matchups favor South Carolina to the point where I feel confident in predicting an upset.
Arkansas has outgained its opponents by just 0.9 yards per play while South Carolina has outgained theirs by a healthy 1.5 yards per play. What makes this game interesting is how differently the two teams have gotten to where they are. The Gamecocks give up 1.6 yards per play fewer on defense (4 to the Razorbacks' 5.6), but Arkansas outgains South Carolina by a full yard per play on offense (6.5 to the Gamecocks' 5.5).
Arkansas boasts a merely average rushing attack, gaining 4.99 per carry. The passing game is where they make their hay, gaining 7.57 yards per attempt. On the other side of the ball, the Gamecocks have done a slightly above average job stopping the run (4.12 ypc) but have been absolutely ridiculous against the pass (3.92 ypp).
So for all the buzz about Bobby Petrino's high-flying spread offense, the stingy play of Ellis Johnson's defense has actually made South Carolina the more efficient team so far in 2011.
Furthering the theme of juxtapositions, Arkansas' offense has been among the most explosive in the SEC (21 plays of 30+ yards), while South Carolina's has been pretty mediocre (13). Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, their defense is equally prone to big plays, giving up 16 plays of 30 or more yards, good for 11th in the SEC. The Gamecocks, on the other hand, have only given up six such plays (T-2nd).
Not only has South Carolina's defense prevented explosive plays, but they've created some of their own as well: forcing 17 fumbles, 16 interceptions, and making 45 tackles for loss. Arkansas has forced just 8 fumbles and 8 interceptions while tackling the opponent for a loss on 46 occasions.
Peaking at the right time?
The success of the defense over the past several weeks has been well-chronicled. The other trend of note is that the offense has traded some explosiveness for risk-averse efficiency. The dip in big plays has in part been caused by the loss of LT Kyle Nunn and the offensive line's subsequent difficulties with pass blocking, and both have likely been caused by the benching and dismissal of the erratic, inaccurate, but intermittently spectacular Stephen Garcia. Since the beginning of the Connor Shaw era, SC's interceptions per pass attempt have dropped from 6.8% to 3.2%.
If you read anything into Bill Connelly's newly developed momentum rankings, the Gamecocks appear to be peaking at the right time while the Razorbacks appear to be regressing a bit after consecutive near-upsets at Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
The Gamecocks have run the ball better than anyone in the SEC not named Alabama (5.27 ypc). If Spurrier comes out of the gate with a "run first" mentality against the Razorbacks, I think South Carolina will come away with the win. The 20-play, 98-yard touchdown drive in Knoxville that ate up the vast majority of the third quarter should serve as the offense's blueprint. If we scuffle through a quarter or two of trying to get a deep passing game going before reverting to the run, I don't think we can generate enough explosive plays on offense to come back from a multi-score deficit against Arkansas.