LITTLE ROCK — Outmanned week after week, Arkansas’ chances of recording its first SEC victory of 2013 are improved today because the outcome might swing on the mental state of all involved.
On that front, the Razorbacks’ week off to refresh and recharge is preferred over the drain on Mississippi State of three consecutive Saturdays banging heads with South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Alabama — teams with a combined 26-4 record. Add to that the Razorbacks are smack between an all-out effort against the No. 1 team in the country and a true rivalry game with Ole Miss in the “Egg Bowl.”
Admittedly, the emphasis on enthusiasm for the moment may be a reach in an attempt to justify picking Arkansas after going against the Razorbacks six weeks in a row, but neither winning to stay in the hunt for a bowl game in Birmingham nor prevailing for pride strikes me as providing a huge edge in motivation.
Although Mississippi State’s only SEC victory was over hapless Kentucky, the Bulldogs are a difficult read. The only times I watched MSU, Auburn went 88 yards in the final two minutes to beat the Bulldogs and Alabama did not look like the same team that throttled LSU a week earlier. Following a 20-7 victory, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said, “We couldn’t control the line of scrimmage,” a scary declaration in light of the way Alabama manhandled Arkansas in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama helped MSU with four turnovers, including two on three snaps in the fourth quarter, and a decision to shut down the offense midway through the final period.
Getting a handle on today’s game is also clouded by the up-in-the-air status of Mississippi State’s quarterback and Arkansas’ chances of winning fluctuate depending on who is taking the snaps. Even though senior Tyler Russell is a better passer than Dak Prescott and Arkansas has been consistently inept against the pass, the Razorbacks have a better chance against Russell. The explanation is that Prescott, who has started six games vs. four for Russell, can also run, netting more than 100 yards rushing against Auburn, LSU, A&M, and Bowling Green.
Take the Bulldogs’ quarterback situation one step farther and Arkansas is a solid choice if neither Prescott nor Russell can go and MSU turns to freshman Damian Williams.
On Arkansas’ side, the pass defense will be improved every down that cornerback Will Hines is on the field. The Razorbacks’ best player in the secondary until he suffered a broken wrist against Florida on Oct. 5, Hines has progressed to the point that he is likely to play a lot, but won’t start. At the other corner, freshman Jared Collins will make his first start. Changes in the secondary are welcome.
Sans the game-by-game details, SEC opponents have thrown 16 touchdown passes and two interceptions against Arkansas while totaling more than 1,500 yards in six games. If the Bulldogs throw for 250 today and Prescott runs for 90 or more, they win.
Offensively, nothing has changed for Arkansas — to win, the Razorbacks must run for a minimum of 190 yards. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams will do their part; they need help from the offensive line at the point of attack and from wide receivers blocking downfield. A first-down throwback pass against Ole Miss was second-guessed unmercifully, but the running game would benefit from a couple of first-down completions today.
The game looks ready-made for something weird. With that in mind, how about something off the wall and poetic — Arkansas comes from behind in the fourth quarter to win 30-28 on a late field goal by the leading scorer in Razorback history, in-state senior Zach Hocker, who only received an offer from Fayetteville after Shreveport, La., kicker William Russ turned his back on Arkansas when given the opportunity to be a Texas Longhorn.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.