Friday, September 18
A boy named Sooey: The Arkansas preview.
"Go on. Say something. Make a bacon joke. We dare your ass."
Hometown: Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Last season: Started 2008 in about as pathetic a fashion as possible, escaping at the last second from Western Illinois and UL-Monroe and getting blown off the map by a trio of ranked teams before notching a then-stunning upset of Auburn; lost four more games by a total of 19 points before upsetting LSU in the season finale. Finished 5-7, 2-6 in the SEC.
Hate index: Six, all six points thanks entirely to Bobby Petrino. Seriously, Hog fans, if you think for one hot second that this guy's gonna be anywhere near Fayetteville two years from now, you are living a very rich fantasy life.
Associated hottie: I know there is a temptation for us uppity Georgia folk to assume that every woman in Arkansas looks like the big-haired, two-pack-a-day smokers that Bill Clinton bagged while he was governor, but that is unfair. Here, for example, is Amber Elizabeth Bennett, Miss Arkansas 2006 and a proud U of A graduate.
What excites me: It took a little while to get going against South Carolina -- hell, it took a while to get on the field, period -- but our offense proved last week it can blow up in a big way when it wants to. After falling into a 17-7 hole against the Gamecocks, Georgia scored on five of their next six drives, and unlike the Gamecocks, they put the ball in the end zone more often than not. (OK, a couple times we put it in our own end zone, thanks to a safety and a pick-six, but we'll get to that in a minute.)
The bad news is, Arkansas returns 10 of 11 starters from last year's defense. The good news is, that defense finished 72d in the nation in total yards allowed (375.2 yards per game) and last in the SEC in every major defensive category except passing yards allowed (they were 10th). They made some progress down the stretch, but a lot of that had to do with easier competition (only one ranked opponent in the second half of the season versus four in the first half). They corralled the offenses of Ole Miss and LSU in the latter half of '08, but those performances bookended efforts in which they allowed South Carolina and Mississippi State to substantially exceed their season averages in total offenses, and lost to both. If it's November and your D is still allowing 445 yards and 31 points to Mississippi State, things clearly haven't gelled the way you hoped they would.
On the other side, Georgia's wheezing pass rush should get a boost with the return of defensive end Justin Houston from suspension. The Arkansas offensive line is big and reasonably well-seasoned -- all five have some degree of starting experience -- but they were dead last in the SEC and next-to-last in the nation in sacks allowed last year (46). This year they'll have to improve those numbers while protecting a QB who -- and I wish I could remember who said this so I could give them credit -- I heard described earlier this week as about as mobile as a log standing on its end. Ryan Mallett was originally recruited by Lloyd Carr; that should tell you everything you need to know about how fast he is.
Finally, Georgia's sudden explosion on special teams -- kickoffs going into the end zone! long punt returns! kickoff return for a TD! -- will be in stark contrast to their Hog counterparts, which placed a lowly 94th in Phil Steele's special-teams rankings last year. The thing is, for all the success he's had nearly everywhere he's been, Bobby Petrino has never fielded a particularly good ST unit. Last year, they were terrible at covering kickoffs, didn't return KOs or punts particularly well despite all the speed they had at their disposal, and returning kicker Alex Tejada didn't hit a single field goal over 40 yards; if the Dawgs can succeed in turning this into a field-position battle, they've got a good chance at running away with the thing.
Above: a very fast man.
What worries me: In my recap of the South Carolina game, I explained both why giving up 37 points to the Gamecocks wasn't quite as bad as it might've looked and why even our lack of a pass rush might not hurt us as badly against Arkansas as it might against other teams. All that said, though, allowing 37 points to anyone is not something that Bulldog Nation should feel completely comfortable with, particularly considering that top to bottom, Arkansas's talent at the skill positions is nearly on a par with Oklahoma State's (and way, way ahead of South Carolina's). Ryan Mallett may not be mobile, but he's got a cannon for an arm, and a very fast, relatively experienced group of receivers to throw to; they don't have a Dez Bryant, but they have way more depth than the Cowboys. Tailback Michael Smith, all 5'7", 176 pounds of him, was second only to Knowshon Moreno in the SEC last year in rushing yards per game and could easily have been #1 if he hadn't been hampered by injury the last few weeks of the season; this year he returns with a far stronger supporting cast in the backfield. If we allow these guys to get as lonesome in our zone coverage as some of South Carolina's receivers got last week, it's going to be a frustrating night.
Then there's the matter of turnovers. Georgia is currently on pace to finish the season with a -15 turnover margin, and I don't care who you are, nobody ever accomplished anything worthwhile in a season with a number like that. We can push around the Razorback defense all day and it won't matter if we keep coughing the ball back into their waiting hands; they only had one game all of last season (Tulsa) in which they finished with a positive TO margin, but then South Carolina only had three such games and still managed to finish +2 against us (all three of our giveaways being random, unforced, and ridiculous). We've got to do a better job of holding on to the ball, and while I'd like to think that this is the kind of thing that can be coached out of a player, there's no way I'm just going to sit and assume that that's going to happen.
Player who needs to have a big game: DE Justin Houston. Paul Westerdawg is right: If our pass rush is gonna reassert itself, it's got to start with Houston. Our defense has proven itself capable of clamping down on the run, but that won't matter if Ryan Mallett is given eons to sit back in the pocket and pick away at our young pass defense; as the South Carolina game demonstrated, we really need a pass rusher dominant enough to disrupt the opponent's passing game without having to throw seven or eight guys at the QB, thereby leaving the receivers in free space, on nearly every single play.
What does it all mean? You know what? Your guess is as good as mine. I don't know that I can think of a single time we've been three games into a season but had less of a bead on both the opponent and our own team: Georgia looked terrible on offense but pretty good on defense losing the opener, then looked great on offense but shaky at times on defense in the win against South Carolina; we corralled a superb offense in Stillwater and lost, then let a lousy offense run wild on us at home and eked out the win. Arkansas, meanwhile, has a single who-cares win over a lousy FCS team and that's it. After watching scoring records in the Georgia-South Carolina series get obliterated last week, I'm not sure I even dare speculate what kind of game this will be. The fact that so many people are assuming "shaky pass defense + Ryan Mallett = shootout" only means both teams will be tied at 10 going into the fourth quarter.
A former co-worker of mine asked me the other day what I thought the Dawgs were going to do this year, and I told her we have the talent to do a lot of things really well, we just can't seem to do them well all at once. If we combine the defensive effort against Oklahoma State with the offensive effort against South Carolina, we beat Arkansas by three touchdowns, and in theory there's no reason we can't do that. I'd like to think that the newfound authority Joe Cox and Richard Samuel displayed in their respective games against Carolina will become an ongoing feature, at least against a Razorback defense that has yet to prove itself against a quality opponent. But I'm still dubious as to whether our defense can all of a sudden conjure a pass rush out of thin air, even with Houston coming back. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't steeling myself for a replay of the Carolina game, in which we locked down pretty solidly on the run but let the opposing QB go wild and ended up sweating a ridiculously high score right down to the final seconds.
Just thought I'd throw this in here for inspiration.
But I've already pointed out one of the main factors in South Carolina's head-scratching advantages in yardage (and, at least early on, points): That brutal early stretch of the game where we coughed up the ball twice in prime territory and only held the ball at all for 30 seconds (half of that on Brandon Boykin's heroic KO return). We don't hand the Gamecocks two fumbles on their own individual silver platters, maybe that eye-gouging opening sequence doesn't happen at all and we beat the 'Cocks by double digits. So the key here, clearly, is turnovers. If we stay on top of the TO margin or at least break even, I think we win by at least a TD. If we're minus-one, I think we still win, but only by a field goal or so and we're sweating another one right down to the last few seconds. And if we're minus-two or more, we're in trouble. Yeah, we were behind by that many against the Gamecocks and still managed to win, but I'm not putting any money on that kind of lightning striking twice, particularly in a hostile (and distant) venue.
Basically, I can't think of any outcome in this game that would surprise me. All I can advise our team to do is keep busting heads on special teams, hold onto the motherf%$#ing ball, and play up to the level of your talent. Do all that (so simple, right?) and we'll be in good shape.
If you're trash-talking: Arkansas started off last season needing double-digit fourth-quarter comebacks to win their first two games -- against Western Illinois and UL-Monroe. Their coach bitched out on the Falcons before he'd coached so much as one full season. Their list of "distinguished alumni" contains all-world asshat Jerry Jones, who makes T. Boone Pickens look like a hands-off fan. And they will forever be known as the school that was too weird even for Houston Nutt. That enough to get you started?
PLEEEEASE somebody offer me a new job!
I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment wearing nothing but a Georgia flag wrapped about my nether regions if: Georgia wins, holds the Hogs to 21 or fewer points, and doesn't turn the ball over once. Tall order? Maybe, but I'm baring my whole ass out there; only reasonable to expect an equally whole-assed, as opposed to half-assed, effort on the Dawgs' part.