story by Chris Rushing
Follow me on Twitter: @rushicw
It’s just a week away – that moment we have all been waiting for since mid-January when Alabama was crowned the 2011 national champions.
In a short week, the toe will meet the pigskin in Nashville and the 2012 college football campaign will be off and running the same way the 2011 one ended: with two Southeastern Conference foes going at it on the gridiron in front of a nationally televised ESPN audience.
While Arkansas fans will be sure to watch this South Carolina-Vanderbilt contest with great curiosity (the Hogs face the Gamecocks in November), we still need to discuss three other SEC opponents in addition to USC before kickoff arrives next Thursday.
So without further adieu, let’s get to that.
After a rigorous opening stretch of tilts that line the first half of the SEC docket, the final four opponents will allow Arkansas football to either distance itself from the bottom half of the SEC West or climb its way back into respectable standings for the bowl selection committees. A final record of 3-1 or 4-0 is certainly not out of the realms of expectations with the last four league games.
The first of these is Ole Miss (Oct. 27). The Razorbacks and Rebels will battle it out in Little Rock following UA’s lone bye week of the 2012 season. It is Ole Miss’s first visit to Little Rock since 1998. The Rebels are under the leadership of first-year head coach Hugh Freeze, a former Memphis area high school coach that has seen a meteoric rise through the college coaching ranks thanks to a high-octane offense that he loves to run.
Freeze inherits a program left in shambles by former Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt. Nutt managed to sign over 100 players in a two-year stretch yet left behind a roster well below the 85-man scholarship limit. Couple that with a schedule that ranks amongst the hardest for a first-year head coach ever and you’ll understand why expectations aren’t exactly superb in Oxford this year.
One thing Ole Miss fans are looking for is an identity with their football program. Whether that is good or bad, it was missed badly under Nutt’s guidance the past two seasons. Freeze has implemented higher levels of accountability in his new program, and his success at Arkansas State last year should give UM supporters little doubt that he’ll start to turn things in the right direction.
Still, Arkansas should win this game handily – especially with an extra week to rest up and prepare.
South Carolina opens a difficult three-game stretch to end the season on Nov. 10. The tussle with the Gamecocks is the first of back-to-back league road games for the Hogs.
Steve Spurrier’s resurrection job in Columbia has been tremendous as expectations have risen each year he has been guiding the Cockaboose ship. USC should be in the hunt for the Eastern Division crown annually for the foreseeable future thanks to the work Spurrier and Co. have put in the last six years.
Connor Shaw will be back to lead the offense – giving Spurrier a reliable and seasoned signal caller for the first time in his USC tenure. Also back from injury is future top-five NFL draft pick Marcus Lattimore. The defense lost solid coordinator Ellis Johnson, but Lorenzo Ward seems to be doing a great job from all accounts out of fall camp in Johnson’s stead.
This will be a tough road trip for the Razorbacks, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Spurrier gets the Arkansas monkey off his back the last year these two will square off as permanent cross-division opponents. I think Arkansas’ chances mostly hinge on how the rest of the season has panned out, but I still think that Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis will light up the scoreboard one last time on the Ol’ Ball Coach in Columbia.
The next week, Nov. 17, Arkansas travels to Starkville to take on the cowbells and Bulldogs of Mississippi State. Dan Mullen is in his fourth year at MSU and has yet to beat an SEC West opponent besides Ole Miss (against whom he is 3-0, for the record).
Mullen’s upstart 2010 squad almost ruined a Sugar Bowl bid for Arkansas by falling just short against the Hogs in overtime at Davis Wade Stadium.
If you have only been to Starkville once or twice and have not gone in the past six years, you’d be surprised at how improved the gameday experience and atmosphere has become at MSU. Third-year athletic director Scott Stricklin has built on and improved the vision his predecessor, Greg Byrne, had for the agricultural school in east Mississippi.
Could Arkansas lose this one? Definitely because it will be strength vs. strength (Arkansas offense vs. Mississippi State defense). However, until Mullen claims a win over someone in the West besides Ole Miss, it’s hard to pick against anyone else in the division when facing MSU.
Which brings us to LSU in the regular season finale. The Bayou Bengals will trek to Fayetteville instead of the normal destination in Little Rock. This will mark the 11th and last of the 11 league opponents that were part of the SEC when Arkansas joined in 1992 to play in Fayetteville. Arkansas carries a two-game home winning streak in the series into this year’s contest.
LSU is still as talented and impressive on paper as it was as the BCS runner-up and SEC Champion a year ago. If anything, the Tigers should be better with as much youth that littered the 2011 roster that has returned in starting roles for 2012. Les Miles has a funny way of making things interesting, though.
The Honey Badger is gone as is Jordan Jefferson. Mo Claiborne will also roam NFL gridirons this fall instead of the SEC venues.
However, John Chavis has the LSU defense working as well as I’ve ever seen it and has more talent assembled in Baton Rouge than he ever had at Tennessee in 17 years there. So, once again, this will be a contest of strength vs. strength.
Arkansas could push its home win streak to three, but it will be a tall order. If Miles resembles the Miles from 2005-2010, it’s a much more likely outcome. However, if Miles learned how to truly manage the talent on his roster and not get in his own way on the sideline, LSU will win this one and rather easily.
With all this being said, it’s time to finally turn to the season and the games. Next week, we’ll start our weekly previews complete with my predictions for every SEC contest.