There are nine games left in the college football regular season, but this Saturday at Rutgers could be the most important for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Next week the grueling stretch of Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama kick-starts the SEC schedule. All four teams are ranked in the top 20.
Ever since Bret Bielema took over last December, the goal among the fan base has been to get to six wins and make a bowl game. A win at Rutgers, and the Hogs will be just two victories away. Even with a daunting SEC schedule, that doesn’t seem too far fetched.
Both teams enter this game with several question marks. It is not likely Bret Bielema will reveal any more about Brandon Allen’s bruised shoulder until game time. A.J. Derby is taking first string reps at quarterback, and Allen has yet to practice this week. The team is preparing as if Derby will be the starter Saturday.
Rutgers has its own questions at quarterback. Starter Gary Nova sustained a concussion in the win over Eastern Michigan last weekend. Head coach Kyle Flood said today Nova is getting better and is becoming more optimistic on him starting. Nova has not yet been cleared to play, however.
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, this game will be all about physical dominance along the offensive and defensive lines.
Rutgers running back Paul James leads the country in rushing. Alex Collins is fourth, Jonathan Williams seventh. Both defenses have been stout against the run. Rutgers is fifth in rushing defense, giving up 59 yards a game. Arkansas is 20th, giving up 105 yards a game.
Now they each face a legitimate BCS offense for the first time.
The good news for Hogs fans is everybody on defense is getting healthy. Otha Peters is back at linebacker and will play a factor Saturday. Safety Rohan Gaines is also back, and is expected to play.
Which ever front seven on defense can impose its will the most will have a distinct advantage, especially with back up quarterbacks under center.
Bowl game implications aside, Saturday will be the first real test for the Razorbacks in 2013.
Bret Bielema’s team has shown vast improvements in fundamentals and discipline from a year ago. Now is the time we see just how much they have improved. Wins over Louisiana, Samford and Southern Miss. are a good start to build confidence, but those teams are a combined 3-6 so far.
It’s also the first road game for the Hogs and the first time they travel to the Northeast since 1940. How will this team handle adversity in a hostile environment?
For the Hogs, it’ll be all about composure. That’s what defensive coordinator Chris Ash said he’s looking to see early in the game.
If Arkansas can keep its composure, stick to the game plan of a physical running style and not let adversity rattle them, they have an excellent chance to win their first real test of the year.
If not, 2013 may be rocky.