Even though neither Arkansas (2-2, 0-1 SEC) nor South Carolina (3-2, 1-2) have hit the halfway mark of their 2017 season yet, their SEC cross-division showdown in Columbia on Saturday could swing the momentum between a good or bad season for both teams. While the contest may not ring out as a must-see event for college football fans nationally, this game is of utmost importance to Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema and Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp with a more than curious look from their SEC counterparts.
Arkansas enters the game after cruising to a 42-24 home win over Sun Belt member New Mexico State. The Hogs came out with a balanced attack, as Devwah Whaley (119 yards, TD) paced a running game that churned out 230 yards while senior quarterback Austin Allen threw for 264 yards and three scores. Arkansas held the Aggies to just 11 yards on the round, but coughed up a season-worst 344 yards through the air.
Last week, South Carolina led Texas A&M 17-10 in the fourth quarter in College Station, but could not close the deal as the Aggies scored twice to steal a 24-17 win. Once again the Gamecocks’ offense came down to whether quarterback Jake Bentley was making plays or not. South Carolina’s defense also wore down late as A&M running back Keith Ford took over in the fourth scoring the tying and go-ahead touchdowns.
Arkansas at South Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 7 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Arkansas -2
1. Can South Carolina stop Arkansas’ run game?
As the season wears on, the Gamecocks’ defense is showing susceptibility to the run. South Carolina is allowing a respectable 154 rushing yards per game, but against SEC teams that numbers jumps to 200. The Razorbacks may not be punishing teams on the ground like in years past, but they are generating 205 yards per game on the ground. Earlier this season Arkansas ran for 226 yards against Texas A&M. The Aggies finished with 237 rushing yards last week in their win over the Gamecocks.
The Hogs have a three-headed RB rotation between sophomore Devwah Whaley, true freshman Chase Hayden, and South Carolina graduate transfer David Williams. All three backs have already accumulated more than 200 rushing yards and Hayden and Williams share the team lead with four touchdowns on the ground.
2. Can the Hogs pressure Jake Bentley?
Texas A&M gave a blueprint for Arkansas to follow, mainly do not let Bentley get comfortable in the pocket. Bentley had a solid game against A&M completing 17-of-30 passes for 256 yards with two touchdowns, but he took drive-stalling sacks in the fourth quarter. All told, a banged-up South Carolina offensive line yielded seven sacks against the Aggies. Arkansas’ defense has generated seven sacks through four games, led by Dwayne Eugene’s two.
The Gamecocks were largely one-dimensional on offense last week as running back Ty’Son Williams led the way with 74 rushing yards on 14 carries. The Razorbacks have done a decent job against the run thus far, but can they get to the quarterback?
South Carolina and Arkansas are even in several categories, including third down conversion rate, turnover margin, as well as an inability to connect on field goals. Both teams also are neck and neck in penalties per game, averaging around four. Field position figures to be key in this game, which is an area the Gamecocks may have a slight advantage. South Carolina is averaging 24 yards on kickoff returns and eight on punts, compared to the Razorbacks’ 19 and two. A breakdown in special teams, on kick coverage or one critical turnover could be all that’s needed to decide the outcome of this game.
Neither team will be caught looking ahead, even though Arkansas travels to Alabama next week while South Carolina heads to Tennessee. The Razorbacks and Gamecocks both understand how big a win would be for either team, so expect a good ol' fashion SEC gridiron fight to the finish.
Arkansas has a better ground game that can control the clock, especially if the Hogs can establish an early lead. South Carolina has dual-threat quarterback Jake Bentley to lead the way on offense, but needs more support from the skill position players around him. Both defenses have shown vulnerability to the others’ strengths. Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen has not put up big numbers, but he’s gotten the job done, especially when he has time to throw. Allen’s arm will be enough to overcome Bentley and the Gamecocks as the Razorbacks pick up a big conference win in a hostile environment.
Prediction: Arkansas 28, South Carolina 21
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.