By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — The product hasn’t been pretty, but Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said it’s certainly better than the alternative.
Two days after his team escaped with a 31-28 win at Vanderbilt, Petrino didn’t apologize for his team’s 7-1 record or No. 7 ranking in the Bowl Championship Series standings.
"I don’t feel like we’re playing as well as I want to play," Petrino said. "But I’ve had years where you play really well in a game and all of a sudden you look up and you lost the game.
"So, although we haven’t played as well as we want to the last two weeks, we have found a way to win. There is a lot to be said for that."
Arkansas, despite its erratic play, went 4-0 in October to remain in contention with Alabama and LSU for the Southeastern Conference Western title and a spot in another BCS game.
It was an impressive, albeit improbable, feat with the Razorbacks surviving three double-digit deficits. And there’s a reward for the achievement: a matchup between BCS top-10 teams when the Razorbacks (7-1, 3-1) play No. 9 South Carolina (7-1, 5-1) on Saturday night.
"I’m really excited about it, happy about it," Petrino said of the next step. "Look forward to the game this weekend — top 10 matchup, that’s one of the things as a coach, as a player, you know, you want to be in games like this."
Arkansas will host a game between top 10 teams in Razorback Stadium for the second straight season, following Alabama’s 24-20 win last September. Arkansas also is looking for its first win in a top 10 matchup since 1979.
The meeting is the undercard to the NCAA’s biggest game of the day — No. 1 LSU at No. 2 Alabama — but the stakes are high for both.
"It’s homecoming. It’s a top-10 team," Arkansas kicker Zach Hocker said. "We’re going to come out and definitely give it our best shot. Even though we’ve been starting out kind of slow, we’re going to come out this week with our eyes open and hopefully get a win."
South Carolina is similar to Arkansas, too, improving to 7-1 despite plenty of adversity.
The 2011 season hasn’t been exactly what coach Steve Spurrier and his team envisioned after returning several key members of its 2010 SEC East title team. The Gamecocks dismissed veteran quarterback Stephen Garcia last month and lost star running back Marcus Lattimore for the season because of a knee injury on Oct. 16.
But South Carolina ran its win streak to three games with a 14-3 victory at Tennessee last Saturday. The Gamecocks, who also have won six straight on the road, remain locked in a first-place tie with Georgia in the SEC East.
"It’s really sort of fun that there’s no room for error," Spurrier said, according the Charleston Post and Courier.
Said Petrino: "They’re a lot like us. Just battling and staying in there."
Arkansas knows it must play better against South Carolina or its win streak could end.
Slow starts are the biggest problem. The offense has struggled to get going in the first half, failing to move the chains. The defense has given up big chunks of yards, allowing opponents to eat clock and score early points.
The Razorbacks spent much of last week talking about their early-game struggles. Petrino indicated a change in philosophy this week, calling for "silence" on the topic. Linebacker Jerry Franklin agreed, saying Arkansas remains proud of the end result through eight games.
"We’re 7-1," Franklin said. "I feel like we’re doing a pretty decent job getting the job done."
Arkansas’ start is its best under Petrino, topping last season’s 6-2 record. It’s also just the third time the Razorbacks have been 7-1 since entering the SEC (1998 and 2006).
Both of those seasons ended with some November disappointments, something Arkansas hopes to avoid beginning with Saturday’s top 10 game. But Petrino said he likes what his team has accomplished so far, shrugging off some sloppy play and adversity to remain in contention.
"When we looked at our schedule and what we had going on in October, the goal was to get back here 7-1," Petrino said. "We accomplished that."