Razorbacks, Gamecocks serve as a barometer for the SEC West and East.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas from the Southwest Conference and South Carolina as an independent in 1991 arrived together in the SEC mutually unprepared for their new league.
They grew into the league with some disastrous downs and some spectacular ups often with their annual SEC West vs. SEC East game as the barometer for each’s eventual seasonal outcome.
The annual Arkansas Razorbacks vs. South Carolina Gamecocks inter-division game lasted from 1991-2012 when newcomers of Missouri of the East became Arkansas’ annual crossover rival while Texas A&M of the West became the Gamecocks’ annual crossover rival with the other East vs. West annual games rotating opponents.
So now Arkansas, 2-2 overall and 0-1 in the SEC, and South Carolina, 3-2, 1-2, have rotated on a collision course for today’s 3 p.m. CDT SEC Network televised game at the Gamecocks’ Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C.
The Razorbacks and Gamecocks, most recently at a mutual peak for the 2010 and 2011 games that former Arkansas Coach Bobby Petrino’s Razorbacks won over former South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks, meet again a little unsure of themselves like their early meetings from 1992-94.
Both have excellent passing quarterbacks, Arkansas senior Austin Allen and South Carolina sophomore Jake Bentley, whose effectiveness has been compromised by young, reshuffled offensive lines and lack of a running game though the Razorbacks’ infantry has revived the last two games.
Arkansas running backs David Williams, ironically a 3-year Gamecocks letterman come to Arkansas as a graduate transfer with this 2017 season left for football eligibility, Devwah Whaley and Chase Hayden and the line’s run-blocking picked up the pace helping Arkansas rush for 226 net yards two Saturdays ago in the 50-43 overtime SEC loss to Texas A&M and 264 yards in last Saturday’s 42-24 victory over New Mexico State.
The improved running enhanced the play-action passing by Allen, last year’s SEC passing leader.
Allen got sacked six times by Texas A&M but capitalizing on starting lineman Johnny Gibson’s guard/tackle versatility enabled Arkansas coach Bret Bielema to platoon run-blocking guard Ty Clary with pass-blocking tackle Paul Ramirez, played sack free against New Mexico State while compiling his best game of 2017.
However, New Mexico State’s defense isn’t like South Carolina’s.
The Gamecocks, led by linebacker Skai Moore and limiting a Texas A&M team that scored 50 on Arkansas to just 24 in last Saturday’s 24-17 loss to the Aggies in College Station, Texas.
“They are a swarming defense. Anytime you play a SEC opponent the talent on defense goes up. And those guys they are big on the defensive line, fast on the linebackers, cover well in the secondary. They are a really good opponent.”
The Gamecocks have struggled to get opposing offenses field and have played more snaps than any SEC defense in 2017, but have been stingy on points. The 28 that North Carolina State tallied in a 35-28 loss to South Carolina marks the most scored on the Gamecocks.
“They don’t give up big plays,” Bielema said. “They just don’t give up those big, big hits. And explosive plays for us is a big part of our system.”
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp wishes aloud for his Gamecocks defensively to be better on third down but it’s their offense he bemoans.
“We’ve been pretty non-existent in the run game,” Muschamp said. “Jake has been outstanding but we’ve got to be able to develop some things in the run game to take some pressure off.”
Injuries on the offensive line have hurt big time and the Gamecocks lost one of the SEC’s premier receivers, Deebo Samuel, to a broken leg while Arkansas has lost its best returning receiver, Jared Cornelius, to Achilles tendon surgery.
Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst likely is the SEC’s best, and Bryan Edwards has arisen at receiver but opposing defenses have rendered the Gamecocks one-dimensional which Arkansas capitalized on against New Mexico State serving to yield 344 passing yards but stuffing the Aggies to 11 yards net rushing.
Motivation is huge for both teams. Other than No. 1 Alabama at Tuscaloosa, Ala. next week for Arkansas and SEC East leader Georgia on Nov. 4 at Columbia, S.C., there are no SEC games left for either team that oddsmakers would deem certain to lose.
But no sure winner for either. Therefore today’s loser digs a hole impeding its path towards a winning season.