Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
ARKANSAS VS. SOUTH CAROLINA:
Razorbacks must win 2 out of 3 to extend bowl streak to 4 years
Arkansas wide receiver Julian Horton (2) tries to get around Tulsa defensive back Marco Nelson (20) during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in Fayetteville, Ark., Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/April L. Brown)
FAYETTEVILLE Razorthin losses to Louisiana-Monroe and Ole Miss have pushed Arkansas’ postseason hopes into a corner.
Now the Razorbacks must win two of their last three games to become bowl eligible, and their finishing stretch is anything but easy.
Arkansas (4-5) plays two of its final three games on the road, beginning Saturday at South Carolina, which is No. 8 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings. Each of Arkansas’ final three opponents is 7-2, with two of the losses coming in the past two weeks against BCS No. 1 Alabama.
South Carolina and LSU (BCS No. 7) have been ranked all season, while Mississippi State (BCS No. 21) got off to a 7-0 start and peaked at No. 11 before falling to Alabama and Texas A&M over the past two weeks.
Simply qualifying for a bowl berth ranked well down Arkansas’ list of goals at the beginning of what was billed as a promising season. But given the team’s coaching change and bad run of injuries, it’s about all that is left to salvage.
“This progam has been one of the top programs in the country for the last three or four years and we’ve had a lot of adversity, so we just have to keep going at it,” Arkansas receiver Cobi Hamilton said. “We still want to win. We still have that competing edge to us.”
Arkansas coaches are still focused on day-to-day improvements, but a bowl berth is clearly on their to-do list.
“Obviously our pride was wounded back in September, and that would be a good way to dig out of it and show that we’re resilient and tough and we’re fighters, too,” receivers coach Kris Cinkovich said.
“I think that’s big, but I don’t think you look at that yet,” offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “We’ve won three out of our last four and should have won four of our last four, so let’s go win this next one.”
Arkansas is trying to extend its streak of bowl appearances to four years, which would tie for the fourth-longest bowl stretch in school history.
“I’m not worried about the bowl game right now,” sophomore cornerback Tevin Mitchel said last week. “We have to focus on ... one game at a time. We continue to do that, then maybe we get to a bowl game.”
The path to a bowl berth appears daunting for Arkansas, whose victories before last week had come against either downtrodden opponents, Auburn and Kentucky, or a Football Championship Subdivision school, Jacksonville State. The combined record of the teams Arkansas has beaten is 15-22 (.405) after beating 7-1 Tulsa last week, while the record of the teams that have beaten Arkansas is 34-10 (.773).
There is a silver lining for Arkansas. The Razorbacks have an 11-4 record against South Carolina, Mississippi State and LSU — all annual opponents — over the past five years, including 4-1 marks against the Gamecocks and Bulldogs.
The series with South Carolina has been lopsided since the second year of the Bobby Petrino regime in 2009. Arkansas has won the past three against the Gamecocks by an average score of 39-21. That streak includes a 41-20 rout at Williams-Brice Stadium in 2010 in which Arkansas led 41-10 until the final minutes.
“Every year I’ve been playing we really get after them, and we plan on doing it this year, too,” guard Alvin Bailey said.
“I think they understand what’s happened the last few times that we’ve played them,” Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said. “Same players, they’ve been there. We went to South Carolina last time and got a big win. We were here last year and got a big win.”
Arkansas has averaged 428 total yards per game in the past three games against South Carolina, and the Razorbacks have held the Gamecocks to 79 rushing yards per game during that span.
“They’ve always played extremely well when they play us, I know that,” South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier said. “So they’ve got our respect.
“Two out of three of them were out there, and then in 2010 they clobbered us here, too.”
Arkansas also has worked over Mississippi State in recent seasons, winning the past three games by an average margin of 41-23. The Razorbacks hold a 15-6-1 all-time series lead over the Bulldogs and have won 12 of the past 13.
Sports, Pages 27 on 11/07/2012