story by Chris Rushing
Follow me on Twitter: @rushicw
In late July, we took a quick examination of Arkansas football’s four non-conference opponents for the 2012 football season.
As kickoff is quickly approaching, we’ll take the next two weeks to get a quick study of the eight Southeastern Conference contests that fill the remaining slots on the schedule – games that will determine whether John L. Smith’s hire was great or the best possible solution in a tough situation.
The old adage folks like to hang onto here in the South is that the SEC is where the men are separated from the boys on the gridiron. For decades, southern men and women have prided themselves on the toughness and brutality of the (now) eight game gauntlet that all (now) 14 schools have to run every fall. It’s hard to argue with the saying since the SEC has been home to the last six (and counting) national championships.
As everyone knows, Arkansas resides in the especially brutal SEC West division. Just last season, the two teams that fought for the Bowl Championship Series crown resided in the SEC West, and there is little reason to doubt that either will be less potent in 2012 as they were in 2011.
As Tyler Wilson said it best at SEC Media Days: “We just have to beat them (Alabama and LSU).”
That is much easier said than done.
In the first seven weeks of the season, Arkansas’s championship hopes and bowl possibilities will most likely be shaped and determined with Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn and Kentucky all within a five-week span.
The first of those games, Alabama on Sept. 15, is the one everyone has circled. The Tide was definitely the main thorn in Bobby Petrino’s side as the Razorbacks were beat handily in three of four meetings with Petrino at the helm. Will Smith have better luck with the Tide’s revamped defense making its first true road trip of the season?
By the time Bama treks to Fayetteville, the Tide will have already faced Michigan in Dallas and will have been much more battle-tested than the Hogs for the meeting.
However, the first two non-conference foes for Arkansas means that the coaching staff won’t have to show much on film to give Nick Saban and Co. much to rely on for game-week preps.
CBS has already slotted this for its prime afternoon slot of a 2:30 p.m. kickoff, betting on an atmosphere similar to Alabama’s last trip to northwest Arkansas in 2010 – a narrow Tide victory.
One thing that is always going to be certain with Alabama under Saban is that the Tide will be talented, powerful and efficient on both offense and defense. Saban does not put up with failure, and his teams rarely make mental lapses. When they do, you have to pounce on them and make them pay. Arkansas’s abilities to take advantage of any mistakes by the visitors from Tuscaloosa, Ala., will determine its chances to win this one.
Two weeks later, the Smith’s squad will travel to College Station, Texas, to take on new SEC brethren A&M. The Aggies are going to be in a transition all around in 2012 as Kevin Sumlin prepares his program for the air raid he ran to near perfection at other stops such as Houston and Oklahoma as offensive coordinator. Texas A&M is talented enough to beat anyone, but the transition and growing pains necessary for such a radical change makes the Aggies susceptible to losing to any team on the schedule.
Arkansas’ mental state coming into this game is going to be the main gauge concerning the victory. Defeat Alabama and start barreling down the meat of the schedule with the utmost confidence that you can take down anyone. However, a loss to Bama could cause the Razorbacks to lose the mental edge they’re carrying throughout the offseason. If the mental edge is gone, it is definitely possible for the Hogs to drop a game in an extremely hostile road environment.
Speaking of hostile road environments, Arkansas will follow up a road trip to A&M with a journey to Auburn a week later. The Tigers are young again in 2012, but they are battle-tested from having to play the most true freshmen in the SEC in 2011. However, the mental edge could be gone from Gene Chizik’s squad by the time Arkansas visits on Oct. 6 due to its opening schedule.
Auburn opens up against top-15 foe Clemson in the Georgia Dome on Sept. 1 and travels to dangerous Mississippi State a week later. From all accounts out of the Plains, it will be a new starter at quarterback, former Shiloh Christian standout Kiehl Frazier, leading the offense so having his first two starts away from Jordan-Hare Stadium against two athletic and stout defenses can easily shake a newbie signal-caller’s confidence.
LSU visits the Plains two weeks prior to the game with Arkansas, so the game between the Tigers and Razorbacks could be to determine who can possibly stay in the race in the West and who will already be looking toward 2013 six weeks into the campaign.
This is the most intriguing game on both team’s schedules in my opinion.
While no SEC game is a gimme, by any stretch, the fourth league opponent on Arkansas’ docket will be a welcome site in Kentucky. Not only does it get easier from an opponent standpoint, but the Hogs will finally be back in front of the home crowd for this Oct. 13 showdown with the Wildcats. The UK squad will be replacing six starters on the defensive side of the ball – something that has to excite Wilson, Knile Davis and the rest of the potent Hog offense.
Barring a complete (and unforeseen) meltdown by Arkansas, I don’t see Joker Phillips bringing a team to Fayetteville capable of pulling off an upset.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the final four tilts making up the 2012 schedule.