Wednesday, August 22, 2007

GAMECOCKS 2007: at ARKANSAS


By the way, you know they still play football at Arkansas, right?

You could be forgiven for forgetting after an offseason that included:

--The departure of the offensive coordinator under mysterious circumstances.
--The departure of the uber-recruit quarterback after the departure of the offensive coordinator, and all but certainly as a result of the OC leaving.
--Freedom of Information requests and assorted lawsuits.
--Continuing fallout from a bizarre and murky chain of e-mails, with the details filled in by conspiracy theorists.
--The revelation that (married) head coach Houston Nutt set a land-speed record for sending text messages to a notably female local television anchor.

And to top it all off, star WR Marcus Monk -- the only returning wideout on a team that wasn't exactly a passing juggernaut in 2006 -- will likely miss the first few games of the season.

So how do you feel, Houston?


We're ready for glory.

All of this chaos surrounding a program that, hang with me in the memory department again, is the defending SEC West champion. The controversy has also increased the pressure on the Razorbacks to win in order for Nutt to survive, though some believe that he is out the door even if school administrators don't dismiss him.

OFFENSE

O-line. The offensive front loses three starters, though all are replaced by juniors or seniors. Even with the older replacements, though, it seems unlikely that the line will be able to match last year's performance, which included allowing only nine sacks. At this point in the season, both teams' lines should have come together, but there's no way to tell. ADVANTAGE: PUSH

Quarterback. Starting five games and playing in 10 as the Hogs adopted the always successful QB carousel, Casey Dick's performance was abysmal. Sorry, there's no other way to put. He completed 49.2 percent of his passes for 991 yards. In his quasi-defense, his TD-to-INT ratio got all the way back to mediocre, with 9 TDs against 6 INTs. Could he improve? Sure. And he has to for the 'Backs to have a good year. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Wide receivers. Monk should have returned by now, though whether he will regain his stride is always a tricky question for a WR. The only other returning players to have a number of receptions in the double digits? Runnings backs and tight ends, all. Fortunately for the Razorbacks, at least in this game, they'll be competing with a team that will also begin the year with a relatively green receiving corps. But C&F wonders if there won't be an experience gap in this game given the likelihood that Houston Nutt's playbook has 867 running plays and four pass plays -- one of them the Hail Mary. ADVANTAGE: PUSH

Running backs. Scary scary scary good. If Darren McFadden wasn't in Arkansas and getting Heisman buzz, it's not inconceivable that Felix Jones would be. Both rushed for much more than 1,000 yards, with McFadden scoring 14 times and Jones putting up 6 TDs. Both also had more than 100 receiving yards and scored a combined 4 TDs. Oh, and did I mention that McFadden was 7-for-9 with 3 TDs and an INT as a quarterback? Boyd and Davis can't even come close. No two human beings can.

Now, it's fair to question whether McFadden will be able to have that kind of success when every team in creation will be putting seven or eight men in the box -- nine or even ten isn't entirely out of the question, particularly when Monk's gone -- until the Hogs prove they can throw. But consider this: Arkansas failed in 2006 to pass for 100 yards in four games, those against Alabama, Auburn, Louisiana-Monroe(!) and LSU. McFadden's yardage totals in those games, respectively: 112, 145, 129 and 182 yards (that last figure against the vaunted LSU defense). He totaled 5 TDs in those games. And Jones also carried for 141 yards and a score against La-Monroe, who must have wondered why the Razorbacks were allowed to actually use the Pepsi machine as a running back.


Did somebody get the tag number for that semi?

ADVANTAGE: ARKANSAS

DEFENSE

Defensive line. The Hogs lose terror Jamaal Anderson, who had 65 tackles, 19.5 of those for loss, 13.5 of them sacks. That said, they keep Antwain Robinson, who had 68 tackles, 14.5 for loss, 8.5 of them sacks, and an interception. Ernest Mitchell is also no slouch, with 9 TFL and a sack. Other likely starters don't leap off the page, but this unit should be fine. ADVANTAGE: PUSH

Linebackers. Again, a star departs, this time in the form of Sam Olajubutu, who led the team with 115 tackles, among them 10 TFL and 2.5 sacks. The returning Weston Dacus, overshadowed because of the obvious relish for announcers in calling the name "Olajubutu," had 95 tackles in his own right, including 8 TFL and 3.5 sacks. But again, other potential starters are untested. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Secondary. Chris Houston had 3 INTs and 13 passes broken up in 2006. Guess what? He's gone, as well. FS Michael Grant, the only returning starter, also had 3 INTs, but little else to recommend him. There's some talent here, but not a ton of experience. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

SPECIAL TEAMS

The kickoff unit was solid, but the Hogs will have to improve on an awful FG performance. Punting will be handed to Jeremy Davis, responsible for much of the 3-point woes last year. Jones averaged 24.1 yards per kick return; Peyton Hillis, tapped for the sole responsibility in punt returns this year, averaged 11.5 yards on eight attempts last season. ADVANTAGE: PUSH

COACHING

Houston Nutt has yet to win an SEC title, despite having his chances. And he's crazy. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

RESULT

This is a frightening game for South Carolina. It basically comes down to this: can the Gamecocks stifle Darren McFadden? Nothing in their history suggests they will -- though a late-game comeback at the WB last year almost led to a victory, and these teams often go back and forth. But the game is at Arkansas. PROBABLE LOSS

WHERE SOUTH CAROLINA WOULD BE

A loss would make the Gamecocks either 8-2 or 7-3, pending the Georgia outcome. Suddenly, the game against Florida might not be that decisive after all, depending on what the Gators have done. A good travel reputation, though, keeps the hope of a New Year's Day bowl alive. South Carolina will need to split the last two (at least) to make that a certainty.

THE REST OF THEIR SEASON

This team is a wild card. They could tank -- which would switch this game over to a probable win for South Carolina -- given the losses on defense and the scandal. But Darren McFadden is one of those rare players who just might be able to carry a team on his own, particularly with a supporting cast that includes Jones and a healthy Monk. Granting that they are as good as they should be, the Hogs will begin the season on a roll, probably winning at least four of five games off the bat (Troy, at Alabama, Kentucky, North Texas, UT-Chattanooga). Three other likely wins lurk on the schedule in the form of a road game at Ole Miss and home tilts with Florida International and Mississippi State. But LSU on the road and Auburn are likely losses, while a trip to Tennessee is treacherous. The best chance is for 7-5 or 8-4. Anything less would be a disappointment, but it's hard to count up nine wins on this schedule. But if an early-season loss ot Alabama or Kentucky gets things going downhill, that record could fall to 5-7 or even 4-8.

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