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Rutgers-Arkansas game preview

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The past week has held a few important developments for this game:

  • If John L. Smith wasn't already dealing with plenty of problems (he's deep into bankruptcy, and everyone in Arkansas wants him fired), his brother just passed away during the week as well. Condolences go out to Coach Smith, but he clearly has a lot on mind right now.
  • Star quarterback Tyler Wilson was cleared to play following his concussion against UL-Monroe. Who,by the way, had another close loss to Baylor last night. (They also almost knocked off Auburn.) Wilson drew a lot of media attention a week ago for calling out his team mates for quitting against Alabama.
  • The Hogs are getting a little healthier in the secondary, but are still fairly banged up.
There are a lot of things that would seemingly give Rutgers an edge, but a few main factors still lean towards Arkansas in this matchup. Clearly, the public agrees, with the Vegas line swinging heavily towards them during the week. For one thing, while Rutgers has played in big (60,000+ seats stadiums) in the recent past, and even had a trip to Nashville to play Vanderbilt in 2004, no one would confuse dispassionate UNC or Illinois fans, or even Arizona State in Tempe, with a dyed-in-the-wool SEC program's supporters. This is going to an intimidating, overwhelming environment, even with the stands in near-revolt and a lukewarm crowd.

Another worry is that it may well be the case that Arkansas's past two losses weren't quite as bad as initially thought. Alabama may not lose a game all year. UL Monroe has hung with BCS conference teams the past few weeks, and clearly is not your typical Sun Belt pushover. Even then, Arkansas wins that game if Tyler Wilson stays healthy, and would have at least put something on the board against the Tide had he played. John L. Smith cannot coach to save his life, and everyone forgets that they had a lot of offseason personnel losses, but Bobby Petrino left behind Wilson and plenty of other talented players before his spectacular implosion. There are still vestiges of 2011's top ten finish. Even with a strong view of Rutgers, that RU is a top thirty team knocking on the door of being ranked, that will be a considerable challenge.

Make no mistake about it; Rutgers has flaws (e.g., penalties up the wazoo, special teams miscues), and we don't want to overreact too much to one game, but this is a talented Scarlet Knight squad. They have a very good defense, a strong offensive line/running game, and are loaded at receiver. If Gary Nova comes to play at quarterback, they can hang with anyone. The prospect of Brandon Coleman, Tim Wright, Mark Harrison, et. al. going against a thin secondary is enticing. Don't forget their offensive line either. Tyler Wilson didn't get injured in a skateboarding accident. They couldn't protect him against UL-Monroe! Rutgers loves to blitz and gamble on single coverage on defense, and will test him and their OL early and often as a result.

We've only seen one "real" Rutgers game up to now, and while that is a very small sample size, it essentially confirmed what everyone expected going into the season. Relatively, people think they have a good feel for where this team is going. Arkansas is trickier, not having had Wilson for a game and a half now. Are they just an underachiever coming out of a rough patch, or is John L. Smith going to plunge this program off a cliff? That is the difficulty with projecting the final result, as no outcome would be surprising in the slightest. One small factor going in our favor is that this is not the opener, meaning that JLS's mismanagement has had a few weeks to set in and rot their program from its very core. North Carolina started to fade in October last year, and I remain convinced that Rutgers could have beaten them had they played even a month later than they did. If the teams were meeting in Legion Field in December, I'd be utterly convinced of a Rutgers blowout victory.

The big monkey on our backs remains that Rutgers has botched similar opportunities before (embattled interim coach, name opponent and such, like the afore-mentioned 2011 game against UNC), but here is the first chance for Kyle Flood to prove his mettle in this scenario. More importantly, it's a way for the team and the program to earn respect and legitimacy, even taking into account the circus in Fayetteville right now. This is a fantastic opportunity that Rutgers needs to finally take advantage of for once. If this is going to be the year, or even to move up as a program, these sorts of games aren't necessarily must-wins, but they sure would be nice. Ruminating and thinking it over repeatedly during the week, frankly, the underlying factors scream RU in this one, but until we actually see it happen, believing will be a challenge.

Prediction: Arkansas 27, Rutgers 23