I do not fear a 4-1 South Carolina playing a 3-3 Arkansas. I think the Razorbacks are still finding their way under first-year coach Bret Bielema, and I believe the Gamecocks have the better talent. What I fear is Fayetteville.
Not to Florida, not to Georgia, not to Tennessee – Coach Steve Spurrier has not lost three road games to any of those programs in his eight-plus seasons at USC, but the Head Ball Coach is 3-5 against the Hogs, and the Gamecocks have lost three in a row at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
That's not a knock on Coach Spurrier, since the two schools joined the Southeastern Conference in 1992, the state of Arkansas has been a tough place for South Carolina to play – the Gamecocks are 2-8 in 10 trips.
I say state because the 1997, '99, 2001, '03 games were played in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium, site of one of my all-time favorite road games.
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The '97 Gamecocks were in the next to the last season of Brad Scott's five-year tenure, a team that would struggle to a 5-6 record. But this October day in Little Rock both sides played nearly-perfect football.
The offense amassed 424 yards of total offense, and quarterback Anthony Wright had a very solid day passing – 15-of-21 for 188 yards and four touchdowns. Jermale Kelly caught two of those TD throws, and running backs Troy Hambrick (106 yards, 15 carries) and Boo Williams (85 yards, 18 carries) helped the Gamecocks control the clock.
The defense was equally outstanding. Arkansas had just nine first downs and only 121 yards of total offense. Led by junior free safety Arturo Freeman's eight total tackles, the defense allowed the Wildcats just three total yards over the last 30 minutes of the game as Carolina won 39-13.
The other lone victory in Arkansas came in 2005, the first under Coach Spurrier and might offer a blueprint of how Saturday's game could unfold. The Gamecocks held on for a 14-10 win, despite a 187-yard rushing performance by Hawg freshman running back Darren McFadden.
Quarterback Blake Mitchell threw touchdown passes to Sidney Rice and Kenny McKinley to account for Carolina's 14 points, but the key to the outcome was the defense. The Razorbacks attempted four fourth-down conversions and were denied each time, the last a fourth-and-one by McFadden at the USC 17, late in the fourth quarter. The Hawgs got the ball back with 2:26 left but never crossed midfield.
Coach Bielema's Wisconsin teams were power-running squads, and that's what he's trying to do at Arkansas. The Razorbacks have run the ball 253 plays and thrown 158, so clearly they prefer the running game. You have to wonder, though, given USC's struggles in the secondary, if their strategy will change.
The last three games haven't really been close – 48-36 in '07, 33-16 in '09, and 44-28 in '11.
Clearly the Gamecock offense is carrying the rest of the team on their backs, and Connor Shaw and company will need to put points on the board and keep the ball away from the Hawgs. But if the guys on defense and special teams don't step up their games, this losing streak in Arkansas could continue.
It's a great time to be a Gamecock!