Arkansas' dreams of playing for a national title vanished long ago. So has the consolation of a Top-25 ranking. At 4-5 overall (2-3 SEC), even a bowl game hangs in the balance. It's a dramatic fall for a onetime Top-10 team that has since been banished to the BCS wilderness.
But even a season gone awry can't scrub away the stat that scares Gamecocks fans the most: Arkansas has beaten Carolina soundly in each of the last three seasons. In each game, the Razorbacks have poured on at least 33 points and averaged 310 passing yards. Even during a golden age of football at Carolina, Arkansas has remained a stubborn thorn in the Gamecocks' side. It makes Saturday's showdown at Williams-Brice Stadium (12:00 p.m. EST, Gamecock IMG Sports Network) anything but predictable.
"Pre-snap reads" before the Gamecocks try to deliver a "Hog Reckoning" at Williams-Brice Stadium:
Tyler The Creator: Arkansas' "Pigs Fly" passing game attracts plenty of attention, and for good reason. Led by hard-throwing senior Tyler Wilson and the NCAA's fourth-leading receiver, Cobi Hamilton, the Razorbacks' 305.4 passing yards per game rank 22nd in the nation. Wilson has also shown a knack for the big play, with a nation's-best 8 passes of 50 or more yards.
Tyler Wilson (left) was Arkansas' first All-SEC quarterback in 2011.
In addition to his throwing chops, the 6'3," 220-pounder has earned praise -- and first-round NFL projections -- for his ability to hang tough in the pocket. Time and again in a 19-15 win over Tulsa, Wilson took a punishing hit, only to clamber up and keep throwing. The Gamecocks may have a loaded-gun pass rush, but don't expect Wilson to shy away from it.
Yet peeling back the numbers, Arkansas hasn't shown the same passing prowess in opposing airspace. In road games, the Razorbacks drop to 99th in the nation in completion percentage (53.5%). South Carolina's secondary -- which coordinator Lorenzo Ward said could be re-wired because of injuries -- will look for a better showing after Tennessee burned them for 381 passing yards. Can they take advantage of an Arkansas passing game that's not nearly as efficient away from the Natural State?
Salutatorian Not So Special: Arkansas' leading tackler, linebacker Ross Rasner, had six people in his high school graduating class.
Here's the Rundown: The return to health of tackles Byron Jerideau and Kelcy Quarles comes at a key time for the Gamecock defense. In addition to Wilson and Hamilton, Arkansas has an underrated running game led by 5'9," 213-pound wrecking ball Dennis Johnson. With preseason All-SEC running back Knile Davis bothered by injuries, the bulk of Arkansas' carries have fallen to Johnson, whose punishing, "hit-first" style that resembles Florida's Mike Gillislee. Johnson bulldozed for 109 yards and two touchdowns against Tulsa, and rushed for a career-high 161 yards in the Razorbacks' last SEC game against Ole Miss. His carries often leave piles of would-be tacklers in his wake.
Yet look at how Carolina has done against the other top rushers in the SEC:
SEC Rank Player (School) Season Avg. Yds. vs. USC
2. Todd Gurley (UGA) 95.2 39
4. Mike Gillislee (UF) 88.6 37
5. Zac Stacy (VU) 83.6 48
11. Kendial Lawrence (MU) 74.0 67
The Gamecocks held those backs to just 56% of their season rushing average. A passing game is sometimes only as good as its running game. Predictability hurts even the most prolific passing offenses. If the Gamecocks can contain Johnson like they've done other SEC running backs, they could hone in better on Arkansas' lethal passing game. Quarterback Tyler Wilson could be without his second and third-leading pass catchers in Brandon Mitchell (violation team rules) and tight end Chris Gragg (knee).
Arkansas running back Dennis Johnson is coming off a career-high 161 rushing yards in his last SEC game vs. Ole Miss.
A Time To Pounce? In its last 7 games, Arkansas has been outscored 84-27 in the second quarter.
No Giveaways, Please: What can't South Carolina do Saturday? Give Arkansas anything easy. The Razorback defense, while improving, has an undeniable youthfulness: two freshmen and a sophomore start in the secondary, and all three of their senior linebackers (Tenarius Wright and Alonzo Highsmith to injury, Terrell Williams to suspension) are out. Opponents have feasted on them for 292 passing yards per game, the worst average in the SEC behind Tennessee.
That could leave Connor Shaw licking his chops, given the junior's career-high passing game against Tennessee. But getting reckless could cost the Gamecocks: Arkansas has only forced 10 turnovers this year, 110th in the nation. The Razorbacks also have 0 special teams or defensive touchdowns, after accounting for 8 last year. Few teams are starving for a big non-offensive play more than Arkansas. To snap its three-game losing streak, Carolina can't offer up the first.
And Finally... Gamecock linebackers coach Kirk Botkin lettered at Arkansas from 1990-93, becoming the Razorbacks' first-ever All-SEC player as a tight end. On game days, Botkin paces the sidelines square-jawed and serious. But as this media guide photo shows, Botkin had some graceful moves back in his playing days:
Back in the day: Gamecock linebackers coach Kirk Botkin starred at tight end for Arkansas.
Now that we're prepared, we hope you are as well. Our pre-game coverage begins at 9 a.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. See you Saturday. -AD--