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Wisdom from the Other Side: at Arkansas

It's amazing, really: Those Arkansas people do all their communication, apparently, by text message. And so I got a text message from Fayetteville ... oh, wait a minute, that was when Houston Nutt mistook my number for that of a comely television anchor.

Actually, we used the Interwebnets to communicate with Stephen, one of the Razorback Expats, to find out about this year's Arkansas team or whether Houston Nutt is -- well -- nuts. (Gratuitous plug: How crazy are the SEC coaches? I'll put up my rankings some time later Friday.)

Gotta ask it: Is Houston Nutt really as crazy as all of us out here in the SEC think he is? Or is he ... misunderstood?

He definitely does his best to come across as crazy, what with all of the gesticulating on the sidelines, the compulsive nail chewing, the wild facial expressions and the rapid-fire speech patterns. And he often doesn't seem like the most likable guy in the world, such as when he whines about calls after games or sometimes deflects a bit of blame to his players.

However, I'm not convinced that, all things considered, he's any stranger or more unlikable than your average major college football coach. These are intense and compulsive personalities we're talking about; Houston's quirks may just be more out in the open. I long ago lost the notion that any one of these guys is someone you'd want to take a cross-country drive with.

Crazy is as crazy does. Or maybe not

Related question: Who did most fans side with last year during the whole Nutt/Malzahn/Mustain fracas? Is there a sense that this team would have been better off if Mustain and/or Malzahn were still there?

I would definitely say Malzahn and Mustain. To be honest, I didn't pay attention to all of the saga's twists and turns. People's hysteria and obsession with it was off-putting. I suppose it's possible that, at the time all of this happened, Houston had a very silent majority supporting him and that his detractors were merely more vocal. But I really doubt that was the case. And his support is almost non-existent now, after the year we've had.

To your second question, who knows if the Hogs would be better if Mustain were still around. They wouldn't be any worse, and he would at least another QB option. The Razorbacks certainly miss Malzahn. The Hogs were every bit as reliant on the run last year, but the offense was noticeably more creative. His replacement, David Lee, has been very blah so far.

Last related question: How hot is Houston Nutt's seat right now? Are successors' names already being bantied about, or can he save this thing?

Houston's seat has probably caused him third-degree burns. The fans are thoroughly fed up with him. Their venom is often over the top (the cell phone records, the anti-Nutt airplane banners, etc.), but, overall, I think the frustrations are justified. The team had two straight losing seasons before 2006 and has really struggled this year. It'd be a real surprise if he's back. I suppose he could stick around if he runs the table, but that seems like a long shot.

As for replacements, I haven't heard a lot of names being bandied about. Lots of Razorback fans would like to see Butch Davis, who played at Arkansas, return to Fayetteville, and he has already issued a non-denial denial of interest in a potential opening. Many Hog fans will undoubtedly hope for a big name (and get all huffy and bent out of shape in the extremely likely case that we fail to land one), but the program will probably have to turn to a mid-major coach.

Darren McFadden has rushed for 124.1 yards a game this year. Felix Jones has rushed for 107.9 yards a game this year. But the Hogs are 5-3 overall, 1-3 in conference. Is the passing game that bad, or is something else wrong?

It pains me to say that the passing game has indeed been that bad. It hasn't helped that Monk has been injured most of the year and that Ben Cleveland and Crosby Tuck are out with season-ending injuries. Monk is back, so maybe there is cause for hope. But, he's still only one guy, and he's obviously out there at less than full strength. And -- we still have Casey Dick trying to deliver him the ball.

The lack of a passing attack has taken some well-deserved heat for the team's struggles, but in the early part of the season, the secondary was getting scorched. They appear to have turned things around over the last three games, two of which were against admittedly so-so competition. We'll see if that holds up.

Not strong enough to do it on his own.

Most fans aren't aware of this, but we're supposed to be rivals or some such thing, at least according to the SEC. The Gamecocks and the Razorbacks play each year under the same rule that makes sure that Tennessee and Alabama or Auburn and Georgia can have their annual tilts. Obviously this match-up isn't on that level, but does it feel like a rivalry game to you?

Not at all, to be honest. In fact, I've always kind of liked South Carolina. I guess I feel some kinship with the program and its fans since the Hogs and the Gamecocks entered the conference together. I still think of us as the new kids on the block, even though it's been more than 15 years since we joined the league. Can I get a hug?

(Disclaimer: I reserve the right to thoroughly despise you guys come late Saturday night, depending on what happens in the game.)

I've got to ask you the same question about Lou Holtz: How is he regarded at Arkansas? If I remember the tale correctly, his departure from the program is surrounded by some sort of controversy.

I think the Holtz's time at Arkansas is fondly remembered by Hog fans. He was in a tough spot, replacing the legendary Frank Broyles, and he led the program to some huge victories, most notably a 31-6 thumping of No. 2 Oklahoma in the 1978 Orange Bowl. (Top-ranked Texas had lost earlier in the day, and the Sooners were primed for a shot at the national championship; Arkansas was a huge underdog, in part because Holtz had suspended the team’s top two running backs.) Even though the Hogs (and not Alabama, dammit!) won the national championship in 1964, there's a good argument to be made that the victory over Oklahoma is the biggest win in the history of the program. On top of all that, he was pretty funny.

My mind may be drawing a blank, but I don't recall any real controversy surrounding his departure (if proven wrong, my excuse is that I was in the fifth grade when it happened). He was coming off a 6-5 season and his relationship with AD Broyles had turned sour (working
relationships with Frank always seem to end badly -- you won't find a "World's Best Boss" coffee mug in Broyles' office, unless he bought it, which, come to think of it, is actually a pretty strong possibility). I think both men had simply had enough of each other.

What are your feelings about Arkansas being in the SEC?

Actually, they're kind of mixed. I'm sure the accounting books would emphatically validate the move to the SEC. Still, there's something about being in the conference that leaves me a little cold. We've been in the SEC for 15 years, and you can't really point to any program as Arkansas' true rival. I miss how fired up I used to get for games against Texas and Texas A&M. Part of me thinks the Razorbacks would be a better fit in the Big 12, where several of their former SWC foes now reside. But that's emotion talking. Whether that would be as good financially for Arkansas, I have not the slightest idea.

Assume that most South Carolina fans know McFadden, Jones, Casey Dick and Marcus Monk. Name a player we're not familiar with who will have a big impact, for better or worse, on Saturday's game.

Fullback Peyton Hillis. On football savant Mel Kiper recently remarked that "whether it's running with the football, catching it, blocking or even returning punts, Hillis qualifies as one of the most impressive jack-of-all-trade players in college football." Kiper goes on to list Hillis' season-to-date stats, which stand at 5 yards a carry, 32 receptions with an 11.7-yard per-catch average, and three receiving touchdowns. His season-ending injury last year coincided with the Hogs' season-ending three-game losing streak. The two were not completely unrelated.

What are three things Arkansas must do to win Saturday?

1] The defense must maintain its recent performance. If it suffers a relapse to its early season form, it could be a long night in Fayetteville.
2] The Hogs, at least in the early part of the season, were way, way too prone to boneheaded late-game penalties and other mental lapses. I have a feeling Saturday's game will be a close one. Arkansas must exhibit more fourth-quarter poise than they have shown at times.
3] This is the biggest "no duh" in the history of "no duhs," but Arkansas has to get their usual heroic performances from McFadden and Jones. The one-dimensional-ness of this team almost has to be seen to be believed; without those two turning in their typical work, the Hogs will get nowhere quickly.

And, of course, your prediction for the game.

I think the Hogs will win a close one, say 23-20. If this game were in Columbia, I'd side with you guys. But McFadden, Jones and a hometown crowd will be enough for the last big win of the Nutt era.