FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson and the rest of the Razorbacks understand the challenge they’re facing at South Carolina.
Arkansas is a double-digit underdog, after all, playing a road game against the nation’s 12th-ranked team. A stout defense and a veteran quarterback, who is dangerous with his arm and legs, lead South Carolina. While the Gamecocks have stumbled in close losses at Florida and LSU, they have been impressive enough to still manage a No. 8 spot in this week’s Bowl Championship Series rankings.
But Arkansas isn’t intimidated by the problems the Gamecocks pose. That’s because the Razorbacks carry something pretty important into Williams-Bryce Stadium in Columbia, S.C., today: a successful history against coach Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks.
"They know that we’re going to come in and battle," Wilson said. "We’re not laying down against these guys. They know what to expect from us."
Arkansas (4-5, 2-3 in Southeastern Conference) has endured a disappointing season to date, stumbling several times under coach John L. Smith. But the Razorbacks still believe they can put together what would be regarded as its most impressive performance to date when they play the Gamecocks (7-2, 5-2) at 11 a.m.
The Razorbacks have dominated the recent series against Spurrier’s teams, winning three straight and five out of the last six. Arkansas hasn’t just won, either. They’ve grabbed convincingly lately, grabbing the last three by 16, 21, and 17 points.
Arkansas coach John L. Smith said Monday he understands one season doesn’t guarantee success the next. But he is convinced his team’s recent performances can have a bearing on today’s meeting in one sense. Smith said his team should be confident it could knock off the Gamecocks again because of the past.
"It’s a tradition and we want to go back and we want to look at some of the things we have done in the past," Smith said. "We want our players to know that we play good against these guys and we match up pretty good against these guys.
"So we want to emphasize those things. Still, it’s going to come down to having to go and play of course. But we want our guys to understand that traditionally, it comes back to tradition, traditionally we play hard and play well against these guys."
Arkansas, in all likelihood, will have to put together its most complete effort of the season to accomplish it again today. South Carolina has taken another step under Spurrier and, while eliminated from the SEC East championship picture because of consecutive road losses at LSU and Florida, is fighting for another 10-win season.
Defense is the calling card of this Spurrier-led group. First-year defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, who was at Arkansas in 2008, has a group that ranks 12th in the nation in total defense (303.2 yards) and 20th in scoring (18.3 points).
Can they finally get over the Arkansas hurdle with Bobby Petrino no longer on the Arkansas sideline? Spurrier hopes the struggles will end today.
"They’ve been pretty good," said Spurrier, who made a plea to South Carolina fans to make a difference today. "Two out of three of them were out there. In 2010 they clobbered us here too. Defensively, we haven’t played very well against them and offensively, not too well either. We’ll see if we can’t go a lot better."
South Carolina enters the game with some uncertainty, too, after running back Marcus Lattimore’s season-ending knee injury in the Tennessee win on Oct. 27.
The Gamecocks had their bye week last Saturday, using the time to prepare for life without the team’s leading rusher (662 yards, 11 touchdowns) and receiver (26 receptions). It isn’t new for the Arkansas game. Lattimore was injured when the teams met last season. He also left the 2010 game early with an injury.
Arkansas is hoping it can get similar results, although safety Ross Rasner said the Razorbacks remain cautious entering today’s game.
"That’s always in the back of your head when you’ve had success against a particular team," Rasner said. "But it’s nothing really that you can take into the game. It’s not going to make any plays for you or win the game. So you have to prepare like it’s anybody else. But it’s definitely good to know we’ve had success against them."
Arkansas could use a win. Today’s game is the start of a three-game stretch that will determine the course of the season. The Razorbacks must go 2-1 against South Carolina, Mississippi State and LSU to reach the six-win mark and bowl eligibility.
A loss today would mean Arkansas must beat Mississippi State and LSU or else the season will end on Nov. 23. The Razorbacks, despite their struggles this season, are still convinced they’re a team worthy of playing in a bowl game this winter.
"Our record or whatever doesn’t define this team," Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said. "We have had our ups and downs and everything like that but we can still go in and play. When we play together it’s hard to beat us, too, when we play together as Razorback football. We are going to try and go in there and play hard."
The formula has worked well against the Gamecocks the past few years.
It’s one the Razorbacks are confident they can repeat on the road today.
"We’re becoming as mature a team as we can be now," Wilson said. "So things are kind of putting into place and we’re going to get an opportunity against those big guys that are ranked highly. So I think we’re pretty big too.
"We’ve got a shot and we’re going to give it our best go."