September 14, 2006

Arkansas game preview & roundtable predictions

PREVIEW
The third game of the season for Vanderbilt and Arkansas will undoubtedly be turning points for both football programs.

For Vanderbilt, the Commodores are still looking to log their first win of the season. Despite playing better than many expected in close losses at Michigan and Alabama, a loss is still a loss. If VU is to have any shot at a winning season in 2006, they almost certainly must win tomorrow.

Arkansas actually finds themselves in what most Hog fans believe is a more dire situation. Despite having logged their first win last week, the fact of the matter is the Razorbacks have looked inept, sloppy and uninspiring in both their 20-0 victory over hapless Utah State and their season-opening 50-14 drubbing by Southern Cal.

The line for tomorrow's game opened at a surprising seven points, but quickly began to creep downward, and now stands at just three. That comes as no surprise to Arkansas fans, who are increasingly feeling that their nine-year head coach Houston Nutt is in over his head in Fayetteville.

Arkansas has endured two consecutive losing seasons, and coupled with the struggles of the basketball program, Arkansas fans' patience is wearing thin. Should Vandy defeat Arkansas tomorrow, it well could signal the beginning of the end for Nutt.

GAME NOTES

• VU and Arkansas have only faced each other six times, the fewest of any SEC member. Arkansas holds a 4-2 advantage. The first matchup came in 1949, which resulted in a 7-6 Arkansas victory. Ironincally, both of Vandy's wins came on the road in Fayetteville.

• Last season, Jay Cutler led the Commodores to a come-from-behind 25-24 win in Fayetteville. Vanderbilt scored 15 fourth quarter points, in a contest that saw Erik Davis catch seven passes for a game-high 110 yards. Cutler completed 23 of 45 passes in the game for 278 yards, and then redshirt freshman linebacker Jonathan Goff recorded 14 tackles. Cassen Jackson-Garrison rushed seven times for 82 yards, and Jeff Jennings had 47 yards on 15 carries.

• Three Commodore players have roots in the state of Arkansas. DE Steven Stone, OL Drew Gardner and LB Nate Campbell all prepped in the state, and all three should see action tomorrow.

• Stone and Vandy wideout Alex Washington will face former teammates on Saturday. Stone and UA fullback Peyton Hillis took Conway High School to the 5A state semifinals in 2003. Washington and UA safety Michawl Grant played together at Stephenson High in Stone Mountain, GA.

• Saturday will be Vanderbilt's home opener. By virtue of the late decision to play in Ann Arbor, MI to open the 2006 season, VU is the only SEC football team that has not yet played a home game.

• Vanderbilt head basketball coach Kevin Stallings will host what many believe are his two most wanted recruits Saturday. Expected to attend the Arkansas tailgate festivities and watch the game from the student section are Alabama point guard Keegan Bell and Minnesota two guard Blake Hoffarber.

• Football coach Bobby Johnson will likewise host his own group of recruits. The visitors, which could number close to 100 in total, will include a collection of prospects who have been offered a scholarship by VU, as well as a much larger group of local prospects who are checking out the Commodore program. Check the War Room, as we learn who will be there -- for sure, three of VU's biggest football commitments will be on hand. Look for recruits in the south end zone prior to kickoff.

• Arkansas is expected to start true freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain over junior Robert Johnson. Mustain, a Rivals.com 5-Star prospect out of Springdale (AR) High School, first committed, then decommitted -- and then recommitted to Arkansas four days after Nutt announced his decision to hire Mustain's high school coach as his offensive coordinator. Amidst cheers from the home folk, Mustain drove the team to a touchdown in the fourth quarter of their loss to Southern Cal. However, Mustain's performance against Utah State left many UA fans concerned, and now he and Johnson are said to be barely speaking to each other. It now appears UA has a full blown quarterback controversy.

OUR PREDICTIONS

Jake Lowrey, VandySports.com contributing writer
Commodore and Razorback fans alike will look ahead with hope towards Saturday's SEC showdown, but one squad is beset with uncertainty: a new starting QB and a tailback hoping to fully heal for this pivotal game. With all this uncertainty, one group of fans in the stadium this weekend will still be wondering whether this season will be another "near miss" or the first season of a bright future.

Oh wait. That pretty much describes both teams, doesn't it? The similarities are interesting, but the differences are what will decide this game. So let's set aside the discussions about new quarterbacks and experience on the OL and the WR corps. The key to a Vanderbilt win will be leveraging some of their advantages, and there are many to choose from.

This is a home game for Vanderbilt. Chris Nickson has faced two world-class defenses in Michigan and Alabama, while Mustain has performed well against lesser competition in Utah State. Arkansas does not have a playmaker of Jonathon Goff or Reshard Langford's caliber on their defense, nor does their kicking game stack up to Bryant Hahnfeldt and Brett Upson's standards. Bobby Johnson is a better coach than Houston Nutt, and he has the support of his administration.

Vanderbilt wins this game if they can combine these strengths into a "perfect storm" of sorts. Imagine a Vanderbilt team proud to play in front of a friendly crowd for the first time since beating UT last season. The home crowd makes things a little hard on Mustain and Arkansas' new no-huddle offense. One miscommunication or misthrown ball allows Vanderbilt's playmakers to create a turnover or a couple of big sacks. Working on a short field allows the Commodore offense to find a groove early, and by the time that a shaken Houston Nutt retreats to a one-dimensional running game, Vanderbilt has a two-score lead that it will not surrender. Make no mistake - Arkansas will eventually retreat to the running game, and if Vandy cannot stop it like they stopped Hart and Darby already this season, the Razorbacks will ride it to a close, low-scoring Arkansas win.

My guess is that the "perfect storm" gets the Commodore offense on track early, and Vanderbilt's defensive playmakers will force Nutt to play a close-to-the-vest running game with some short passes mixed in. Time runs out on Arkansas even if they close in on Vandy's early lead, just like time will run out on Houston Nutt even if Mustain eventually become's Arkansas' ticket to the big time.

My Prediction: Vanderbilt 20, Arkansas 14

Mike Rapp, VandySports.com Publisher
Arkansas has more to prove than does Vandy tomorrow. The Hogs fell to Vanderbilt last year at home, got drilled (again) by Southern Cal, and then stumbled through a lackluster, mistake-filled win over hapless Utah State. Now, UA is in a do-or-die game in their first road game of the year.

Eventually, Mustain may prove to be the better thrower than Nickson, but at present Nutt will likely be content keep the ball on the ground, where the Hogs have McFadden to grind out the yards. However, VU had their best defensive performance against the run in years last weekend against an Alabama RB who could end up as the school's all-time leading rusher. It took Michigan's eventual NFLer Michael Hart over 30 carries to break 100 yards.

VU's running game, however, has been stuck in the mud. And that is speaking kindly. Jackson-Garrison hasn't looked anything like he promised after last season, and there's no indication that will change Saturday.

That said, Nickson dramatically improved his passing game since Michigan's sack-fest, and another step forward could see VU's deep receiving corps finally prove what we've been saying during preseason practices. Look for Coach Cain to allow Nickson more leeway to look for out and deep cross patterns, hopefully pushing back UA's stellar safeties for Nickson and Jacksin-Garrison's fleet feet.

Special teams goes heavily in Vanderbilt's column, in part because of how good Upson and Hahnfeldt have been -- but also because of how hapless Arkansas' kickers have performed. If VU can continue to excel in kickoffs, punts and coverage, and Horrocks, Goff and Langford can continue to stop the run, VU quickly becomes the favorite by almost any analysis.

This game looms big for VU, as it puts their first two games in entirely different perspectives. Should Vandy win, fans and media can then certainly claim that clear progress is being made. A loss, though, would put VU at 0-3, and fans would again start counting the days before baseball season is to start.

That said, some may see this as a trap game for Vanderbilt. I don't. Maybe it would be if Vandy had played a home game already, but with this being their home opener, the Commodores should see this as their first best chance to make their mark on this season.

This will be a low-scoring affair, with a fair number of turnovers, but VU's advantage on the kicking tee will be the difference (for a change).

My Prediction: Vanderbilt 16, Arkansas 14

Bonus points: Both Keegan Bell and Brett Hoffarber become Commodores before the weekend is over.


Chris Lee, VandySports.com Publisher

OK, I'll admit it: I've been thinking that Arkansas will win this game all week. The Razorbacks' talented tandem of tailbacks should scare any defensive coordinator this side of the NFL, and Arkansas is loaded with returning starters everywhere.

But what really scares me is the rush of the Razorback fans to count out their own team, and the swarm of local media to pick Vandy based on the near-miss at Alabama last week. There's some sense of counter-intuitiveness that makes the whole scenario too-good-to-be-true, and I suspect that--along with the fact that Houston Nutt may be fighting for his job--could mean the Razorbacks leave Nashville with a win and feeling pretty good.

Then I think about seeing the Commodores last week at Tuscaloosa. What happened down there wasn't a fluke. They belonged. There was no sense of panic, or intimidation, or of just being lucky to be in the game. Vandy's talent is legit, and it will come together as soon as things click for quarterback Chris Nickson.

Maybe it's over-optimism, maybe it's my wanting to have this game both ways (after all, if the Commodores lose, I can always say, "See, I should have gone with my first instinct!"). Whatever it is, I am picking this as the week that we look at as the turning point in Nickson's career; consequently

My prediction: Vanderbilt 23, Arkansas 21


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